After more than a decade of expansive stability operations in the Middle East, the U.S. Army is embracing a more expeditionary posture. This shift finds America’s primary land power institution returning to its origins as a more modestly sized, but tactically effective, fighting force. During the final decade of the 18th century and throughout the 19th—with the exception of the Civil War—the Army predominantly operated in small garrisons across expanding frontiers while occasionally massing in distant theaters.
As the Army’s first successful major campaign far beyond home territory, the Northwest Indian War of 1794 set a precedent for the expeditionary warfare the Army is embracing now. In this conflict, a combined arms brigade under Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne, a Revolutionary War veteran, deployed to the Ohio territory to prosecute national interests.
Called the Legion of the United States, America’s first standing Army formed in 1792 to contest British influence and Native American control of the lower Great Lakes region after two previous militia offensives suffered devastating defeats. Under orders from Secretary of War Henry Knox to “make those audacious savages feel our superiority in Arms,” Wayne trained a professional force of approximately 5,000 infantry, dragoons and artillerymen in Pennsylvania.
The Legion then marched west beyond support range, secured extended lines of communication, defeated a confederation of Native American warriors at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and ultimately established American dominance in Ohio. The war ended as an instructive, if nakedly aggrandizing, example of the U.S. Army enabling strategic gains abroad and preceded more than two centuries of foreign campaigns.
Small Forces, Distant Theaters
The Legion’s victory on the Ohio frontier is relevant for today’s paradigm and holds lessons for future campaigns where modestly sized American joint forces will again unite in distant theaters. The Army’s tenets of unified land operations contained in Army Doctrine Publication 3-0: Unified Land Operations offer a modern doctrinal framework that can place its first, and largely forgotten, foreign expedition in a comparable and understandable context. Though separated by hundreds of years and dramatic technological advances, the Northwest Indian War is a valuable case study for modern military leaders when it is assessed against the six tenets of flexibility, integration, lethality, adaptability, depth and synchronization.
The first tenet, flexibility, is defined as “a versatile mix of capabilities, formations, and equipment for conducting operations.” The American Army that invaded the Ohio territory in 1794 embodied this fundamental by adopting a unique combined arms profile. While standard European armies were typically structured with pure regiments, Wayne designed his brigade with combined arms “sublegions” that each comprised two battalions of assault infantry, one rifle battalion of skirmishers, one dragoon troop and one light artillery battery.
Similar to the Army’s current modular brigade combat teams, Wayne created a versatile command that could fight both centralized and decentralized. When put to the test, this flexibility allowed him to defeat hybrid indigenous forces throughout the advance, at the decisive engagement and during subsequent clearing operations.
The second tenet centers on integrating Army forces with other elements of military and national power. Though the Ohio expedition lacked joint cooperation with naval forces, it included a different kind of unity: augmentation by state militia and allied Native Americans. While the Kentucky volunteers provided a highly mobile, if undisciplined, mounted force to augment Wayne’s dearth of cavalry, Native American contingents contributed indigenous reconnaissance to guide his advance into the Northwest frontier. This “total force” and multinational cooperation consequently negated the Legion’s structural inadequacies in tactical mobility and intelligence collection while preserving assault battalions for decisive maneuvers.
Technological, Tactical Overmatch
Modern U.S. Army doctrine defines the third tenet of lethality as “the capacity for physical destruction.” It “is fundamental to all other military capabilities.” Like the tactical overmatch enjoyed by American forces in recent decades, the Legion relied on technological and tactical overmatch to allow it to win convincingly at the culmination of the campaign.
At the Battle of Fallen Timbers on Aug. 20, 1794, south of then British-held Detroit, Wayne unleashed forward skirmishers with precision rifles, main force infantry with musket volleys, light field artillery fires, and charging horsemen armed with sabers and pistols. This lethality distribution, which surpassed the Native American armament, allowed the Americans to attrite, fix, flank and overwhelm with combined arms attacks.
The fourth tenet, adaptability, is a crucial quality that expeditionary forces must possess as they enter, sometimes forcibly, into unpredictable and unfamiliar environments. Though he anticipated fighting a “Heterogeneous Army composed of British troops, the militia of Detroit, & all the hostile Indians NW of the Ohio,” Wayne carefully engaged the Native Americans while only intimidating, and thus preventing, unwanted escalation with the more powerful British Empire. This ability to defeat one enemy while deterring another stemmed from his nuanced appreciation of the strategic setting and President George Washington’s intent to secure Ohio while avoiding a larger nation-state conflict.
Previous Armies Defeated
Fifth, Army doctrine defines depth as “the extension of operations in time, space, or purpose … to achieve the most decisive result.” In the Ohio campaign, American ground forces advanced steadily and securely into hostile territory where two previous armies had recently suffered costly defeat. When the Native American alliance attacked the Legion’s forwardmost outpost at Fort Recovery on July 1, the defenders repelled a force 10 times their size through superior firepower and preserved Wayne’s operational reach.
This ability to secure extended lines of communication in-depth allowed the American main force to rapidly advance deep into the heart of Native American territory—similar to the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003—and ultimately compelled the Native Americans to accept a general engagement to protect their domestic centers.
The final tenet of unified land operations is the requirement to synchronize military actions to maximize capabilities and effects. As a veteran of numerous battles, Wayne knew the value of applying combat power at the ideal time and place. When the Legion approached the Native Americans’ strongpoint, the veteran commander arrayed his forces to integrate each subordinate elements’ strengths in reconnaissance, marksmanship, close combat assault and mobility while converging their effects at the decisive point.
This reinforcing scheme, in addition to the synchronization of advance, main body and logistical elements during the preceding march into Ohio, created favorable conditions for operational, and ultimately strategic, success.
21st Century Lessons
The Army’s victory at Fallen Timbers opened the way for American settlement across the lower Great Lakes region. After the battle, Wayne and the Legion remained in Ohio to clear the immediate area of Native American resistance. While the tactical gains were crucial, Wayne’s success in separating the Native Americans from their British sponsors held even greater import. The Europeans, who had encouraged Native American militancy by providing armament and promises of support, abruptly closed their forts to the retreating warriors largely because of demonstrated American resolve. In a book published several years before he became president, Theodore Roosevelt wrote that the campaign “was one of the most striking and weighty feats in the winning of the West,” assessing it with little sympathy for the Native Americans who lost their ancestral lands.
Since the Legion’s decisive victory in 1794, the Army has conducted dozens of expeditionary campaigns. However, the fundamental tenets that made America’s first standing Army successful in its first foreign war remain unchanged. By incorporating flexibility, integration, lethality, adaptability, depth and synchronization, Wayne’s combined arms team managed to, as defined by Army doctrine, “gain and maintain a position of relative advantage in sustained land operations through simultaneous offensive, defensive, and stability … operations.” Like nearly all victorious expeditionary armies, it achieved this by arranging tactical actions to enable strategic ends in a distant theater while fighting on unfamiliar terrain with limited support.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley recently stated that America’s premier land power institution “must be lethal, agile, adaptive, innovative and expeditionary” and “armed with leader, technological and training overmatch” to achieve success in the contemporary security environment. As the U.S. enters an era of evolving complexity and instability, its ground forces must incorporate these qualities as they deploy across oceans and continents to serve national interests.