Review of The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army, by Colin Calloway

15 Mar

When asked, most people would state the Battle of Little Big Horn as the worst defeat suffered by U.S. forces against Native Americans. They would be wrong. Ironically enough, the worst defeat ever does not even have a proper name, only going by St. Clair’s Defeat or sometimes the Battle of the Wabash. Renown historian Colin Calloway provides detail on this encounter and explains reasons why it is so little known in The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army.

Calloway, author of a number of books including The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America, The Indian World of George Washington, and Pen and Ink Witchcraft: Treaties and Treaty Making in American Indian History, presents a fast-paced narrative of the crucial events surrounding American expansion into Ohio country in the early 1790s, resulting in one of the largest military defeats ever suffered by the United States.Conflicting claims of land ownership south of the Great Lakes between the U.S. and Natives led to increasing hostilities.Many Native American tribes, under the leadership of Chiefs Blue Jacket and Little Turtle, managed to put aside their own differences to unite and put a force strong enough in the field to halt a U.S army aimed at destroying Indian villages in the area.

The U.S. force led by Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory and an aged veteran of the Revolution, led a poorly equipped and trained force of 1,400 men who thought they could easily push aside any “savage” contingent placed before them. In the battle on November 4, 1791, the Indians routed St. Clair’s men, inflicting nearly 1,000 casualties in killed, wounded and missing. Investigations began immediately that placed most of the blame on War Department officials for failing to adequately equip and supply the expedition. Shortly afterward, new militia acts were passed by Congress that greatly strengthened the army and in 1794, a larger, stronger and better trained army won the decisive Battle at Fallen Timbers that decimated Native American power in the northwest.

The original Native American victory soon disappeared from history. This nation’s narrative of manifest destiny had no space in its story for a defeat by Native Americans. The fact that it never gained a clear name is indicative of the racism towards the Natives as the title of “St. Clair’s defeat” emphasized the American commander and gave no credit to Native Americans. In this book, Calloway sought to change this narrative and spotlight this Native American achievement. Unlike many previous works, Calloway made extra effort to include as much Native American perspective as the sources allowed.

The Victory with No Name provides an excellent account of this Native American victory that unfortunately for the indigenous, only temporarily halted the onslaught of U.S. westward expansion. The audio version of the book, lasting seven hours, provided an entertaining narrative that highlighted U.S. overconfidence, a huge, but fleeting Native American victory, and reasons why the event has been lost to history. Kudos to the author for showing that westward expansion was not a foregone conclusion and that Natives at times successfully resisted.

CPW

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