Daniel Boone and the Battle of the Blue Licks

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Excerpt from Boone: A Biography

Addressing a large force of Indians and British officers and militia assembled in Ohio in August of 1782 to attack the American settlements in Kentucky, Simon Girty spoke with a particular passion:

“Brothers, the intruders on your lands exult in the success that has crowned their flagitious acts. They are planting fruit trees and plowing the lands where, not long since, were the canebrakes and clover field. Was there a voice in the trees of the forest, or articulate sounds in the gurgling water, every part of this country would call on you to choose among these ruthless invaders, who are laying it waste. Unless you rise in the majesty of your might and exterminate their whole race, you may bid adieu to the hunting grounds of your fathers, to the delicious flesh of the animals with which they abounded—and to the skins with which you were once enabled to purchase your clothing and your rum.”

It is impossible to read Girty’s words without hearing the truth in them. By 1782 the Shawnees and Mingoes and Delawares and Wyandottes knew it was now or never. Either they drove the white settlers out of the Great Meadow, or they would lose forever their finest hunting ground, and therefore their relatively luxurious lifestyle on the rivers north of the Ohio.

In response to the resulting raid on Bryan’s Station on August 16, 1782, men from Lexington, Harrodsburg, Boonesborough, and Boone’s Station, gathered at Boone’s Station and headed north in pursuit of the British and Indians. Boone had been appointed lieutenant colonel of the new Fayette County militia, and he commanded forty-four men from his district, including several relatives and in-laws and his son Israel. Col. John Todd of Lexington was the nominal commander of the 182 men who set out on August 17.

The little army arrived at Bryan’s Station to find the Indians had gone. In conference with the officers there, Maj. Hugh McGary suggested they wait for a larger militia force commanded by Col. Ben Logan to arrive. Logan was assembling between four and five hundred men, and with a force that size a decisive victory might be achieved over Girty and the British and their Indian allies. Col. Todd accused McGary of timidity and said that if they did not follow now the Indians would reach the Ohio River and cross, and it would be too late to attack them.

On the frontier no suggestion could hurt a man’s pride more than the hint that he was a coward. The adage was that cowards did not even start out for Kentucky, and the weak died on the way there.

On August 18 the militia rode north from Bryan’s Station, following the Indians’ trail to within a few miles of the Lower Blue Licks. Boone knew an ambush was one of the Indians’ favorite tactics, and many signs pointed to an ambush. The militia arrived on the south bank of the Licking River early on Monday morning, August 19.

Some accounts say the officers held a conference by the river, still mounted on horseback, while a few Indians strolled in plain sight on the hillside across the river. Boone warned they were decoys, but Hugh McGary shouted, “Them that ain’t cowards follow me, and I’ll show you where the yellow dogs are.” The men from Harrodsburg followed McGary across the river, and then all the rest followed also.

Other historians such as Neal O. Hammon have argued that the conference by the river never happened. Col. Todd’s first mistake was to lead his men across a narrow ford to a position where quick retreat was almost impossible. His second was to advance his men over a wide, open space toward an enemy concealed by trees and brush on the higher ground.

All accounts agree that once across the river the militia divided into three companies. Trigg to the right, Harlin and McGary commanded the Lincoln County men in the middle, and Boone led the Fayette County company on the left. They moved to within a hundred yards of the trees and brush before dismounting. About two dozen men, led by Maj. Harlin, did not dismount, but rushed forward ahead of the middle company. Those riders took the first fire and all but two were killed.

It is a peculiar fact that in most battles each participant remembers events in a different way. In the heat of action each sees his part of the field from a particular angle. Frightened, disoriented, a soldier may have an vivid impression that is often a distortion. The Battle of the Blue Licks once it began, unfolded quick as the flash and crash of lightning and thunder.

Boone’s company advanced farthest up the hill into the woods along the first ravine, firing as they moved forward. Later, when Boone studied the battle, he decided the Indians may have pulled back to draw him and his men into a trap where retreat would be impossible. Boone raised the shotgun he carried and aimed it at an Indian and said, “You be there!” It appeared to Boone and his men they were winning the battle.

Had they looked to their right they would have seen that things were going differently on that side of the field. Riding his horse near the middle of the line, Col. John Todd was shot in the heart and died soon after the battle began. Men fired at the Indians, but then had to reload while warriors with black painted faces rushed at them with tomahawks and war clubs. The Kentuckians, called Long Knives by the Indians, did not have their long knives, bayonets and swords, for close-range fighting.

Trigg’s men on the far right took the heaviest fire, from a steep ridge running parallel to the advance. Trigg and many of his men were killed in the first few minutes. Indians sprang out of cover to take scalps, prisoners, horses, and to club running survivors to death before they reached the river.

Seeing they were cut off on the right and behind them, many of McGary’s men ran to the left to get behind Boone’s company, which continued to advance. Boone and his men were astonished when McGary rode up behind them and shouted, “Boone, why are you not retreating?” It was only then that Boone looked to his right and saw that Todd and Trigg and the two other companies had been swept away. Indians on horses rode around tomahawking and trampling the wounded, cutting them off at the water’s edge.

Boone shouted to his men to run to the left into the trees. If they could reach the river in that direction they might be able to swim across to safety. Some would later say the battle lasted only five minutes, while others asserted the action lasted about fifteen minutes. “We were obliged to retreat,” was Boone’s cool understatement to Filson a year later.

When McGary reached them, Boone and his company were about three-quarters of a mile from the river. Luckily many of the Indians were too intent on grabbing horses, taking scalps and booty and prisoners, to notice the Fayette County men fleeing to the left. As he backed away, facing the chaos of the battlefield, guarding his men as they retreated, Boone saw his son Israel nearby. Seizing a horse that belonged to his brother Ned’s widow, he ordered Israel to mount and get away.

“Father, I won’t leave you,” Israel answered.

Looking around for another mount for himself, Boone heard a thud behind him and wheeled to see Israel knocked to the ground by a bullet in his heart, bleeding from the mouth and already dying. Boone’s instinct was to pick up his son and carry him toward the river. But it was too late to do anything but leave the body and mount the horse himself and get away.

The Blue Licks was the last major battle of the American Revolution, and it was a horrifying defeat for the Americans. In the aftermath of the battle the people of Kentucky were stunned. Many packed up their belongings and headed back east. Almost everyone seemed to blame Hugh McGary and his provocative words for the debacle.

Few seem to have realized that the battle was something of a failure for Girty and the British and their Indian allies also. If the plan had been to draw all the Kentucky militia, including Logan’s four or five hundred men, into the ambush and kill the entire force in one complete victory that would drive the settlers out of Kentucky forever – Girty’s stated aim – then it was at best a partial victory. Because Todd, and perhaps McGary, plunged directly into battle, Logan’s larger force was saved, and the forts and stations of Kentucky were saved. Had Todd waited until Logan arrived, many more might have been killed. The hundreds of Indians firing from the thickets could have changed the course of American history in the Ohio Valley. Logan’s larger force was spared, and the Kentucky settlements survived. One of many examples history gives us of an army winning a decisive victory, but then losing the war.