Washington’s reception of the news illustrates both his iron composure and the gusts of passion under which it sometimes gave way. The details are unquestionably authentic, as they were communicated by Washington’s secretary who witnessed the scene. Washington was having a dinner party when an officer arrived at the door and sent word that he was the bearer of dispatches from the Western army. The secretary went out to him, but the officer said his instructions were to deliver the dispatches to the President in person. Washington then went to the officer and received the terrible news. He returned to the table as though nothing had happened, and everything went on as usual. After dinner there was a reception in Mrs. Washington’s drawing-room and the President, as was his custom, spoke courteously to every lady in the room. By ten o’clock all the visitors had gone and Washington began to pace the floor at first without any change of manner, but soon he began to show emotional excitement and he broke out suddenly: “It’s all over! St. Clair is defeated—routed,—the officers nearly all killed—the men by wholesale,—the rout complete,—too shocking to think of,—and a surprise into the bargain!”
When near the door in his agitated march about the room, he stopped and burst forth, “Yes, here on this very spot I took leave of him; I wished him success and honor; ‘You have your instructions,’ I said, ’from the Secretary of War; I had a strict eye to them, and will add one word— Beware of a surprise! You know how the Indians fight us!’ He went off with that as my last solemn warning thrown into his ears. And yet, to suffer that army to be cut to pieces—hacked, butchered, tomahawked—by a surprise! O God, O God, he’s worse than a murderer! How can he answer it to his country! The blood of the slain is upon him—the curse of the widows and orphans—the curse of Heaven!”
The secretary relates that this torrent of passion burst forth in appalling tones. The President’s frame shook. “More than once he threw his hands up as he hurled imprecations upon St. Clair.” But at length he got his feelings under control, and after a pause he remarked, “I will hear him without prejudice. He shall have full justice.” St. Clair was, indeed, treated with marked leniency. A committee of the House reported that the failure of the expedition could not “be imputed to his conduct, either at any time before or during the action.” St. Clair was continued in his position as Governor of the Northwest Territory and remained there until 1802.
Notwithstanding the dire results of relying on casual levies, Congress was still stubbornly opposed to creating an effective force under national control, and in this attitude to some extent reflected even frontier sentiment. Ames in a letter of January 13, 1792, wrote that “even the views of the western people, whose defense has been undertaken by government, have been unfriendly to the Secretary of War and to the