Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

Sinclair's (St. Clair's) Defeat - The Battle of Pea Ridge

November the fourth in the year of ninety-one,
we had a sore engagement near to Fort Jefferson
It was on March the Seventh in the year of sixty-two.
We had a sore engagement with Abe Lincoln's crew.

I found the words to Sinclair's Defeat in "The American Songster", published 1836. I immediately recognized the connection with the Civil War song The Battle of Pea Ridge. One of my favorite recordings of that ballad is on Cathy Barton and Dave Para's album "Johnny Whistletrigger: Civil War Songs for the Western Border, Vol. 1". The Battle of Pea Ridge is an Ozark variation of St. Clair's Defeat, which is said to have hung on the walls of many Ohio homes in the early 1800s. In its lament of the Confederate defeat at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, The Battle of Pea Ridge exaggerated many of the facts of that battle.

The song Sinclair's Defeat did not exaggerate. General Arthur St. Clair's men were camped near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio. They consisted of regular regimentals, levies, and Kentucky militia men, all "badly clothed, badly paid and badly fed." In all, there were about 1400 men plus 200 women and children camp followers with the group. Although a reconnaissance party warned of imminent attack, and President Washington has cautioned him not to underestimate the tactics used by the Indians, St. Clair had few guards posted and his troops were completely unprepared.

At dawn, the Miami and Shawnee forces under Little Turtle and Blue Jacket, possibly augmented by contingents of Wyamdots and Delawares, attacked the militia, who collapsed and retreated in chaos through the middle of the camp of the regulars and levies. As they concentrated toward the middle of camp, they were surrounded by the attacking Shawnee and Miami forces, who deliberately targeted the officers. Their insignia and their visible attempts on horseback to rally their men made the officers easy targets. After three hours of fighting, the ground was covered with the dead. A wounded Major General Richard Butler was propped against a tree by his two brothers, but was soon tomahawked and his heart cut out to be eaten later by the tribes. Colonel William Darke reported that the "whole army ran together like a mob at a fair," breaking through to reach the road they had cut, and escaped because most of the Indians paused in the camp to loot, tomahawk, kill and torture the wounded and the women and children who had been left behind.

Of the 200 camp followers, only three women survived. 918 Army casualties included 623 soldiers dead, 258 wounded, 24 civilian employees dead, 13 wounded, and 69 of 124 commissioned officers killed or wounded. It was February of 1792 before a contingent from Fort Washington returned to the battle site to bury what remained of the dead. St. Clair's Defeat was the greatest defeat that U.S. Army ever suffered at the hands of the Native American Nations; and the losses surpassed those in any battle during the American Revolution. (Information from R. Douglas Hurt's "The Ohio Frontier".)

1. November the fourth in the year of ninety-one, we had a sore engagement near to Fort Jefferson; Sinclair was our commander, which may remembered be, for there we left nine hundred men in the Western Territory.
2. At Bunker's Hill and Quebec, where many a hero fell, Likewise at Long Island, 'tis I the truth can tell.
But such a dreadful carnage, never did I see, As happened on the plains, near the River St. Marie.
3. Our militia were attacked, just as the day did break, And soon were overpowered, and forced to retreat. They killed major Ouldham, Levin, and Briggs likewise, While horrid yells of savages, resounded thro' the skies.
4. Major Butler was wounded the very second fire; His manly bosom swelled with rage, when forced to retire. Like one distracted he appeared, when thus exclaimed he, Ye hounds of hell shall all be slain, but what reveng'd I'll be.
5. We had not long been broke, when general Butler fell; He cries, my boys, I'm wounded, pray take me off the field, My God, says he, what shall we do, we're wounded ev'ry man; Go, charge, you valiant heroes, and beat them if you can.
6. He leaned his back against a tree, and there resigned his breath, And like a valiant soldier, sunk in the arms of death; When blessed angels did await, his spirit to convey, And unto the celestial fields, he quickly bent his way.
7. We charged again, we took our ground, which did our hearts elate, There we did not tarry long, they soon made us retreat; They killed major Ferguson, which caused his men to cry; Stand to your guns, says valiant Ford, we'll fight until we die.
8. Our cannon balls exhausted, our artillery-men all slain, Our musketrymen and riflemen, their fire did sustain; Three hours more we fought like men, and they were forced to yield, While three hundred bloody warriors lay stretched upon the field.
9. Says colonel Gibson to his men, my boys, be not dismayed, I'm sure that true Virginians were never yet afraid; Ten thousand deaths I'd rather die, than they should gain the field, With that he got a fatal shot, which caused him to yield.
10. Says major Clark, my heroes, I can no longer stand, We will strive to form in order, and retreat the best we can. The word retreat being passed all round, they raised a huing cry, And helter skelter through the woods, like lost sheep we did fly.
11. We left the wounded on the field, O heavens, what a shock! Some of their thighs were shattered, some of their limbs were broke; With scalping knives and tomahawks, soon eased them of their breath, with fiery flames of torment soon tortured them to death.
12. Now, to mention our brave officers, 'tis what I wish to do. No son of Mars e'er fought more brave or courage true. To captain Bradford I belonged, in his artillery, who fell that day amongst the slain; - what a gallant man was he.

The Civil War song Battle of Pea Ridge made use of many of the same phrases from the original song, but the Confederate casualties were nowhere near the "ten thousand" mentioned in the lyrics, Confederate General Sterling Price was wounded but not fatally, and it was General Van Dorn, not Price, who ordered the retreat. Pea Ridge was near the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and Cherokee, Creek and Choctaw Indians fought in the battle, under Confederate Gen. Albert Pike.

1. It was on March the Seventh in the year of sixty-two. We had a sore engagement with Abe Lincoln's crew. Van Dorn was our commander as you remember be. We lost ten thousand of our men near the Indian Territory.
2. Pap Price come a-riding up the line, his horse was in a pace. And as he gave the word "retreat" the tears rolled down his face. Ten thousand deaths I'd rather die than they should gain the field. From that he got a fatal shot which caused him to yield.
3. At Springfield and Carthage many a hero fell. At Lexington and Drywood, as near the truth can tell. But such an utter carnage as ever I did see, Happened at old Pea Ridge near the Indian Territory.
4. I know you brave Missouri boys were never yet afraid. Let's try and form in order, retreat the best we can. The word "retreat" was passed around, it caused the heathen cry. Helter-skelter through the woods, like lost sheep we did fly.

The sheet music and a playable midi file of St. Clair's Defeat/Battle of Pea Ridge are available on the music page.