Monday, October 28, 2013

A One of a Kind General Dies in a Military Disaster -- Richard Butler (1791)

One of the Five Butler Brothers - four of whom served as officers in the American Revolution, and three of the surviving four then serving together in the St. Clair Expedition of 1791, Richard Butler (1743-1791) was born in Ireland, and settled near Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1760. He began his military career during Pontiac’s War, serving as an ensign in the Bouquet Expedition of 1764 and then led a militia company against Pittsburgh,in the Dunmore’s War of 1774. During the Revolution, he fought with distinction at Bound Brook, Stony Point, Saratoga and Yorktown, and was described by Washington biographer Douglas Southall Freeman as “one of the best colonels in the Continental service.” Butler’s “Journal of the Siege of Yorktown” is cited by historians as a masterful inside account of that great victory.
Little Turtle

Following the war, Butler was appointed by the Articles of Confederation Congress as an Indian Commissioner and he played a major role in the harsh negotiations of the mid 1780’s with many of the tribes of the Ohio River valley. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1791, he was named Major General of U.S. Levies. Levies were short-term volunteers, organized and controlled by the federal government for a specific emergency and for a specified period of time – in this case, six months. After 1791, no such force was raised again until the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Arthur St. Clair
Butler commanded the right wing of General Arthur St. Clair’s disastrous expedition against the Miami tribes. On November 4, 1791, the Native-Americans attacked the levies’ camp and Butler was wounded in the leg and taken to his tent. Very soon afterward the battle turned into a rout, and his brother Edward, serving as a Captain, arrived to find both Richard and his other brother, Major Thomas Butler, severely wounded. He could carry only one, and Richard insisted that he carry out Thomas. Edward did so, later writing to his fourth brother, Percival, “We left the worthiest of brothers in the hands of the savages nearly dead.” The Native-Americans, who hated Butler for his part in the earlier humiliating, one-sided boundary negotiations, tomahawked and scalped him. They cut out his heart and offered the pieces to all of the tribes that fought in the battle.
Richard Butler was the first general to fall in battle against Native-Americans and the only U.S. General of Levies ever to die in battle. Arthur St. Clair, Commanding General of the Army, was disgraced and dismissed. A rare moment in American history. His defeat was the worst disaster of American arms in all the centuries-long skirmishes, battles and wars against the Native-Americans. More than 600 soldiers were killed and 300 wounded, out of a total force of 1,400, a staggering 64% casualty rate and matched only by the losses of the 1st Minnesota Regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg and more than twice the dead in Custer’s 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn.


  1. "Worst" seems to depend on the eye of the beholder.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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