Saturday, 26 May 2012

Osprey's Wabash 1971 St. Clair's Defeat

I recently bought Wabash 1791, part of the Osprey Campaign series. I must confess I'm not really sure why: it's not as if I haven't got enough on my plate with my Napoleonics without getting seduced by another period, or at the very least another theatre of war! Sadly, it may be too late as this book is a real gem.

Following the war of independence the federal government's army was too small to undertake a major campaign against the Indian tribes that raided it's frontiers. However, if the new nation was to have any secure future it needed to take control of present day Ohio.

With this in mind the government summoned Arthur St. Clair to raise and lead a force of about 2000 troops ranging from skilled frontiersmen and regular soldiers to unprepared levies and militia. This badly trained and ill equipped force then marched through the forests of Ohio until they met an Indian force at the Wabash river. The result was one of the worst defeats of an American army by a Native Americans, overshadowing even Custer's defeat at Little Bighorn.

What I really liked about the book was not only the clear description of the battle and the aftermath, but the detailed look at both the strategic and logistical problems that faced both armies. So, for example, the American troops had to carve their way slowly through the trackless wilderness, often stopping to bridge streams and ravines. Promised supplies didn't materialise and bad weather meant that horses and cattle couldn't graze.

However, problems of supply didn't just dictate American strategy. The Indians could not gather a large army at short notice, or maintain it for long, far from their sources of food. Nor could they fight for long without supplies of gunpowder from their British allies. What comes across clearly to me is the way in which the logistical difficulties of both sides dictated the shape of the campaign.

There is also a fascinating description of the different tactical assumptions under which both sides operated and the way this affected the battle. So, for example, the American regulations were based on the 18th century European model which saw armies as machines to generate firepower. Such armies fought in tight knit batallions arranged in a linear formation in order to maximise firepower. In contrast, the Indians fought dispersed seeking to maximise enemy casualties while minimising their own.

This would certainly make an interesting campaign to wargame, and would possibly lend itself to a great solo game. However, I must resist the temptation to buy any more figures!