America has such a long history of military readiness (some would say dominance) that it’s hard to conceive of a time when the country had no standing army at all and little public or political will to create one. That’s the period William Hogeland examines in this account of two crucial battles between American and American Indian forces, both of which took place in what is now the state of Ohio. The first was the 1791 massacre of American troops, commonly known as St. Clair’s Defeat, by a confederacy of American Indians; the second was the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, during which a trained army under General “Mad” Anthony Wayne so soundly routed the Indians that it effectively opened up the Northwest Territory to untrammeled settlement.
Resistance to the idea of building a standing army under presidential control came from members of Congress who feared concentrating that much power at the top would sow the seeds of a new form of tyranny. Better, they argued, to divide that power among the individual state militias. Wayne’s victory essentially put an end to that argument.
The story bristles with larger-than-life characters, chief among them George Washington, not just as a general and politician but as a self-interested land speculator who needed his investments protected; the relentless American Indian military leaders Little Turtle and Blue Jacket; a scheming and power-hungry Alexander Hamilton; and Mad Anthony, who finally succeeded at war after having failed at virtually everything else.
Hogeland correctly points out that St. Clair’s Defeat had far more impact on America’s development—and three times more casualties—than Sitting Bull’s victory over General Custer at the Little Big Horn. History, it appears, belongs to the best publicist.