Fundamental Frontier Partisan tactical doctrine: Don’t chase the decoy. There’s something about the sight of a fleeing, vulnerable enemy that overrides caution, that kicks the pursuit instinct into overdrive — and, all too often, leads to disaster. Ask the ghost of Captain Fetterman…
On October 4, 1779, British Indian Department operators Simon and George Girty and a party of about 120 Shawnee and Wyandot warriors laid a near-perfect riverine ambush that took the lives of about 40 American soldiers and reaped a tremendous score of munitions and supplies.
It happened on the last leg of an epic upstream keelboat haul conducted by Col. David Rogers. The American officer had been tasked with journeying down the Mississippi to negotiate purchase of powder and lead and supplies for forces holding Fort Pitt at the Forks of the Ohio. In the heat of the American Revolution, the Continental Army east of the Allegheny Mountains couldn’t spare vital military supplies, so to a long trek tap the Spanish was a military necessity.
The trip downriver wasn’t bad, but in the days before steam power, the upstream haul was brutally arduous. Rogers commanded a pair of keelboats on the journey back up the Mississippi and thence up the Ohio River toward Fort Pitt. When wind was favorable, a keelboat crew could unfurl a single sail, but, mostly, working upstream involved rowing, gangs of men towing with a cable on shore, and/or men sinking long poles to the river bottom, nesting them in an armpit and walking back along the boat to propel the craft forward.
It was hard, hard work, agonizingly slow — and it necessitated hugging the shoreline.
Col. Rogers made it without incident to Col. George Rogers Clark’s outpost at the Falls of the Ohio at what is now Louisville, Kentucky, where another boat with a party of armed soldiers and some civilians headed to Fort Pitt joined the flotilla. Three keelboats wended their way up the Ohio, through a war zone.
The boats caught the attention of scouts from a heavily-manned war party the Girty brothers had led into Kentucky. Among them was a 12- or 13-year-old lad under the tutelage of his older brother. His name was Tecumseh.
The slow craft were a tempting target of opportunity, and the Girtys and their allies quickly devised a trap near the Licking River, across the Ohio from what is now Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The keelboats, all in a line, worked their way against the current — and a lookout spotted a canoe out in the river. It was overloaded with Indians and riding low in the water. Starved for some excitement to relieve the drudgery of their long upstream slog, the American soldiers began firing on the canoe.
The Indians, apparently panicked, dug in and paddled furiously for the Kentucky shore. Rogers followed them and beached the keelboats on a protruding sandbar. Detailing a guard for the boats, the Colonel and his men scrambled up the brushy river bank in pursuit of the handful of fleeing Indians.
They ran into a withering fusillade. Many of Rogers’ men went down at the first fire. Some tried to break back toward the keelboats, but the boats were under attack by another contingent of warriors. A few soldiers made it to the river, and the boat guard managed to get one of the keelboats off the sandbar and out into the current.
Rogers and his men were pinned down in heavy brush, taking intense fire. Rogers himself was gutshot. Sergeant John Knox dragged him into a ravine, where they hid as the war party rubbed out their comrades.
As the fire died off, the warriors gathered at the shore to loot the boats. They had lost two men killed and five wounded and had killed at least 40 Long Knives and captured five, including an old frontier and, Col. John Campbell, who had embarked at Fort Nelson.
The boats carried forty 50-pound barrels of gunpowder and two tons of lead bars for running ball. There were bales of clothing, a crate of rifles, a chest of silver Spanish dollars and several kegs of rum — which the war party immediately broached. Any pirate crew would have been satisfied with the plunder.
Knowing they were exposed on the southern shore and fearing that the heavy gunfire would bring Long Knives to investigate, the war party cut their celebration short and exfilled back across the Ohio, where they dispersed, the Shawnee to their towns, the Wyandot to Upper Sandusky. Simon Girty, who had known Campbell in earlier years, took him under his protection and turned him over to British authorities in Detroit.
Back in the kill zone, Rogers was dying a slow, painful death. Sergeant Knox, knowing he was beyond help and fearful that his moans of agony would bring warriors down on them, covered the dying officer with brush and skedaddled. He made it back to the settlements along the Monongahela River.
Robert Benham and Basil Brown survived the firefight, but both were in a bad way. Benham was shot in the hip and couldn’t walk; Brown had been shot through both arms. Working together, they managed to survive for nearly three weeks, with the ambulatory Brown flushing game under the sights of Benham’s rifle and kicking together downed wood that Benham could build into a cooking and warming fire. Brown had gotten a rope around Benham and dragged him down to the mouth of the Licking River, and they were eventually picked up by a boat heading down river to Louisville. Both men would survive and regain function.
The loss of so many men and a load of vital supplies was a heavy blow to the American war effort in the western theater. The moccasin telegraph soon spread word of who was responsible for the attack. Simon Girty had defected to the British a little over a year before, and American hatred for the renegade already ran hot. As he scored victory after victory, that hatred would only deepen — and the British and their Indian allies would come to consider him a most effective operator — one of the most deadly and capable of the Frontier Partisans.
Editor’s note: There a number of accounts of this incident, which vary a bit in their details. My account draws most heavily from Phillip W. Hoffman’s excellent biography, Simon Girty: Turncoat Hero.