Harry Truman, 33rd President of the United States, wrote that President George Washington’s suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion was one of the six “great turning points” of American history. The significant, yet generally forgotten, events of the summer of 1794 strengthened the sovereignty of the unproven and newly formed nation and also helped to solidify the authority of the Federal Government.
Printed historical documentation tells the story of the insurrection through the eyes of the rebels, in accounts by William Findlay and in “The History of the Western Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania,” by Henry Brackenridge. We also see the point of view of the Federal Government through George Washington’s papers, the personal letters of Daniel Morgan and the letters of both John and Presley Neville. We get an account of the military involvement at Bower Hill on July 17, 1794, through the narratives and reports of Isaac Craig, the Quartermaster General for the American Army at Fort Fayette in Pittsburgh (who was both John Neville’s colleague and son-in-law). Additionally, Abraham Kirkpatrick, the officer sent to defend and capitulate the Bower Hill mansion on behalf of Neville, shares his version of the events.
Unfortunately, the account of the Battle of Bower Hill that has been lost to the ages is that of the twelve soldiers and one sergeant who were sent to defend John Neville’s country estate against a seemingly insurmountable opposition of several hundred angry Western Pennsylvanian farmers. Dispatched by the newly-appointed Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Butler, these valiant soldiers from the Fourth Sub-Legion were the foundation of the new American Army.
In the early 1790s, the Western Pennsylvanian frontier was a dangerous and unsettled land. Attacks by Native Americans were occurring with ever increasing frequency. Military expeditions were conducted in 1790 and 1791, culminating in two of the country’s worst defeats in the Indian Wars by Native American, Chief Little Turtle. General Josiah Harmar, who lost over 700 killed and wounded at the Battle of the Maumee, was second only in losses to General Arthur St. Clair. General St. Clair, Commander of the U.S. Army in 1791, lost over 900 of his 1400-man army at the Battle of Wabash (also known as St. Clair’s Defeat). To put this in perspective, General Custer would lose fewer than 260 men a century later!
With fewer than 300 soldiers protecting the new nation, these defeats left the United States in a perilous military position. Following the rout of St. Clair (which Washington described as “complete”), Anthony Wayne was appointed the new Commander in Chief of the almost non-existent army in early 1792. The headquarters of this new army would be in Pittsburgh at Fort Fayette. The fort was built in the spring of 1792, under the supervision of Isaac Craig. Craig described the fort as “completely stockaded in, and one range of barracks, a blockhouse in one of the angles finished.” In May of 1792, Craig officially named the fort in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, for whom Presley Neville served as both friend and aide-de-camp throughout the Revolution.
By this time, Anthony Wayne had reorganized the army into a legionary force. Each legion was made entirely self sufficient by having artillery, rifle and cavalry units. Wayne took up cantonment at the fort and began relentless training in an effort to ready his army for the expedition against the bellicose natives in the Northwest Territory (present day Ohio and Indiana).
By mid-year 1792, Wayne had reformed the army into the First and Second Sub-Legions from the remnants of the defeated First and Second Regiments. By September of that year, he had raised enough new troops to create the Third and Fourth Sub-Legions. On September 4, 1792, the Fourth Sub-Legion was officially commissioned under the command of Captain Thomas Hughes of the Second Sub-Legion. By the autumn of 1792, the new legion had begun to resemble a formidable army and as Wayne wrote, “discipline begins to make its appearance.”
Wayne also began to realize that the cramped living space and training area available in town were beginning to have a negative effect on his men. In late October of 1792, Wayne scouted a new and more isolated location, 22 miles from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River near present-day Ambridge. In late November, he would begin moving the army to this new encampment named Legion Ville. Training, which stressed marksmanship exercises, endless marching, maneuvering and mock battles, would be completed by April of 1793. The army then embarked by barges, down river and into the Ohio territory, to begin their campaign against the natives. Legion Ville was abandoned and a company of the Fourth Sub-Legion was left behind at Fort Fayette in order to defend Pittsburgh and to secure the supply base of the American Army of the west.
Fort Fayette was built approximately 1/4 mile upriver on the Allegheny, from the ruins of Fort Pitt. It was described as being “completely stockaded in” by pickets made of wood twelve feet high. There were two sets of double storied barracks holding 200 men, officers’ quarters built from brick salvaged from the ruins of Fort Pitt, three wooden blockhouses on each corner and a powder magazine in the remaining corner. The fort stood near the intersection of Ninth Street and Penn Avenue today, near the Pittsburgh Convention Center. Although it was a secure facility for the soldiers of Wayne’s Legion, it was hardly a formidable stronghold. Victor Collot, a military engineer for the French Army, wrote “on a dark night four grenadiers could burn the entire works without allowing a single member of the garrison to escape.” In 1794, Fort Fayette was headquarters for the American Army and home to the soldiers of the Fourth Sub-Legion.
In the spring of 1792, the reorganized American Army began to take shape under the supervision of General Wayne, Secretary of War Henry Knox and Quartermaster Isaac Craig. The army also began to take on the uniformed appearance of a legitimate and organized fighting force, similar to that of the European powers. Anthony Wayne, who had always been a strict adherent of military discipline and ceremony, immediately began redressing his troops.
Until 1792, the army was being supplied primarily with old uniforms from the Revolutionary War. By the fall of 1792, most of the uniforms issued to the original legion, dark blue coats with scarlet facings, were beginning to wear out. While waiting for the new uniforms to be issued, Wayne ordered the tails of the coats to be cut off and used as patches for coats and trouser knees. A 1792 drawing by Archibald Robertson of the troops stationed at West Point, New York, shows the assembled soldiers with distinctive round blue dots on their knees. The dots were a result of rudimentary repair work being done by the soldiers in a futile effort to maintain their uniforms. Also, the traditional cocked hats had become misshapen and were in various states of disrepair. Wayne ordered that they be converted into “jockey” style caps, similar to a modern baseball cap with a small visor and a shield on the front made from scraps of the brim.
By the time of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, most of the troops had been issued new uniforms developed for the army. Coats would be dark blue with scarlet colored facings and a stand up collar. Turn backs and linings would be white linen or wool. Following a change of fashion occurring in the civilian world, waistcoats were cut straight across the bottom.
Buttons on the coat and waistcoat were molded with a federal eagle or “frog-legged eagle,” the unofficial symbol of the new republic. Trousers were long-legged “overalls” that covered the top of the shoe and buttoned high above the natural waist. Leather neck stocks were to be worn when on duty. Finally, the hats were new “round” hats, similar to a modern top hat, cocked up on the left side. These hats were covered with bearskin to protect them from the elements.
Bindings and trim on the hats were to designate the Sub- Legion that the soldier belonged to. The First Sub-Legion had white binding upon their caps, white plumes with black hair. The Second Sub-Legion had red binding to their caps, red plumes with white hair. The Third Sub-Legion had yellow binding to their caps, yellow plumes with black hair. The Fourth Sub- Legion had green binding to their caps, green plumes with white hair.
Each soldier would have a waterproof knapsack (painted red or blue), a wooden canteen (painted blue) and a cartridge box holding a full combat ration of twenty-four cartridges (loaded with both round and buck shot). The infantry was armed with surplus French muskets from the Revolution. The muskets were equipped with a bayonet that was to remain “fixed” at all times and “scabbards and frogs to be thrown away” because, according to Wayne, a man should never be without his “cold steel.”
Ultimately, the Fourth Sub-Legion produced some of the heroes of the early nation, including Thomas Butler. Appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the Fourth Sub-Legion in July of 1794, Butler bravely stood up to the insurgent leaders as the whiskey rebels threatened to march on Pittsburgh in 1794. His response to the insurgents marching on Pittsburgh was that he would maintain the fort “at all costs.” His resolution against the threats was enough to dissuade them from attacking the town.
Another famous officer of the Fourth Sub-Legion was William Eaton, the “Hero of Derna.” Eaton, along with a small contingent of U.S. Marines that included Presley Neville O’Bannon (nephew to John Neville), were able to capture the Tripolitan stronghold on “the shores of Tripoli.” In 1794, Eaton was commissioned a Captain in the Forth Sub-Legion and participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers.
But arguably, the most famous soldier of the Fourth Sub-Legion was William Clark. Nine years later, Clark would embark on his famous journey to the west with another legion soldier, Meriwether Lewis. In 1794, Clark was commissioned a First Lieutenant and fought with distinction at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.
These individuals, along with the twelve brave men that one would have encountered at Bower Hill on that fateful day in July of 1794, were the soldiers of the Fourth Sub-Legion. It is difficult to imagine the apprehension and angst that each of these individuals must have felt as they prepared to march from Fort Fayette on the evening of July 16, following the first attack on Bower Hill. They were leaving the relative safety of a fortified American military installation, to face an armed and angry mob. Most likely, this mob would be in excess of the 150 men that had attempted to attack Neville on the previous afternoon.
In spite of the opportunity to simply “drift away” during the ten mile march from the fort to Bower Hill, each of these men persevered and bravely took up a position at the mansion house on heights over looking “Shurtees Creek.” They valiantly defended the home of the Federal Inspector of Revenue for most of the afternoon, until the flames from the burning barns and outbuildings began to consume the home. Only then did the soldiers surrender, on the condition that they lay down their arms and return to Pittsburgh.
After all was done, according to conflicting reports, two soldiers were either killed in the house or deserted and three others were wounded. Although the men of Wayne’s Fourth Sub-Legion were ultimately unsuccessful in their defense of the property at Bower Hill, for a short time they were able to exemplify the strength of a newly-formed government. The soldiers demonstrated to the insurgents the impending resolve of George Washington’s leadership and the strength of the United States.