Book Review: Unlikely General: Mad Anthony Wayne and the Battle for America by Mary Stockwell (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018).
Typically, biographies of Continental Army generals are almost entirely devoted to the subject’s participation in Revolutionary War campaigns and battles with only nominal descriptions of their post-war lives. Contrary to this norm, Mary Stockwell focuses her new biography chronicling Anthony Wayne’s life on his service after the rebellion’s 1783 conclusion. The centerpiece of her work is Wayne’s leadership of a 1790s military campaign to attack and defeat Native Americans in the heavily disputed Ohio country. Adeptly, she intertwines his Revolutionary experiences with descriptions of the pivotal Ohio Native American campaign to demonstrate that revolutionary successes and failures helped to prepare Wayne for this game-changing expedition. Stockwell’s riveting narrative builds up to the apex of Wayne’s military career, his overwhelming victory in the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers and his personal crowning achievement, the resulting 1795 Treaty of Greeneville.
In the post-Revolutionary War period, expanding European settlement into Native American lands north of the Ohio River led to escalating conflicts and brutal loss of life. To quell the violence and to further open up the territory to European development, President George Washington sent two successive armies under the command of Generals Josiah Harmer and Arthur St. Clair, two former Revolutionary War officers. However, both of these armies were soundly defeated, causing Washington considerable political distress with Congress and among the electorate. Adding to his embarrassment and contrary to the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, the British refused to vacate their forts south of the Great Lakes and continued to arm and supply the Native Americans to attack settlers from the newly formed United States.
With his political stature on the line, Washington agonized over the selection of a commander to lead a third expedition, which he deemed must not fail. Stockwell devotes almost ten percent of her book to Washington’s fascinating decision-making process and the rationale for the controversial selection of Anthony Wayne to lead an army to exert United States control over portions of the Northwest Territories north of the Ohio River. While Washington had reservations about Wayne, he concluded that Wayne could create and train a new army and successfully prosecute a high stakes military invasion. Based upon their shared Continental Army experiences, he directly observed Wayne envisioning battlefield contingencies which were essential in Native American country; Washington saw that Wayne would avoid leading his army into dangerous traps as did Harmer and St. Clair. In spite of this, Washington had deep concerns and unsettling doubts about Wayne as he sometimes exhibited a volatile temper and overly emotional responses when faced with adversity. However, Washington recognized that Wayne never shied away from accepting an assignment for his country, whether it was a coveted opportunity to lead a daring attack a fortified British post or the lowly task of foraging for needed supplies. In the end, Washington chose Wayne as the best of a bad lot because, in the past, he could always count on him to get the job done.
The most interesting and insightful passages in the book are the result of Stockwell’s extensive research into Wayne’s correspondence and written papers mined from four disparate library archives. Despite terrible handwriting, Wayne penned highly descriptive, heartfelt and colorful prose, demonstrating a learned understanding of the liberal arts and leaving a rich historical record of his thinking. Like several other Continental Army generals, Wayne incorporated into his communications concepts from influential works on military strategy and tactics including those by Julius Caesar and Maurice de Saxe, a German and French general who wrote a book on military strategy entitled Reveries on the Art of War. Sometimes taking this knowledge to an extreme in critical combat situations, Wayne advocated directly following Cesarean tactics, even when they did not correctly fit the case at hand.
One of the best features of Stockwell’s work is her description of Wayne’s character. She delves more in-depth than just recounting how Wayne acquired the nickname of “Mad Anthony”and simply repeating the usual scandalous character traits contained in previous biographies such a being a womanizer, a spendthrift, and a heavy drinker. She posits three key traits that most closely describe Wayne as a person and engendered his successes on the Ohio Indian campaign.
The crucial first character trait is Wayne’s unswerving devotion to advocating liberty from Britain, building a new country and espousing personal loyalty to Washington. One of the earliest proponents of independence, Wayne fervently embraced the goals of individual liberty and ending class distinctions, nobility and royalty. In addition to his steadfast commitment to the rebellion, Wayne fiercely supported Washington at every turn, especially in the dark days of Valley Forge when Washington most needed the backing of his generals. However, there were limits to Wayne’s devotional traits as he almost entirely neglected his wife and children from the outset of the Revolution through to his death. Stockwell’s analysis of Wayne’s family life is a prime example of her extensive scholarship not found in previous biographies. Wayne’s ownership of slaves, on the other hand, is the one aspect of Wayne’s devotion to liberty that Stockwell did not address. Similar to most other Revolutionary War generals, Wayne condoned slavery and readily purchased numerous slaves after the Revolution to work on his new plantation given to him by the state of Georgia for his service in chasing the British from the state.
Secondly, Wayne possessed remarkable fortitude. He endured many physical and emotional hardships including suffering Revolutionary battle wounds in the hand, head and leg, and almost died from malaria while on campaign in Georgia during the last days of the war. Wayne not only physically persevered despite a ball remaining in his leg; he exhibited a high degree of resiliency in the face of setbacks and defeats. Strikingly, he never became bitter or lost his high self-esteem when faced with defeats or adversity. For example, he bounced back to assume leadership of the new American Army shortly after being thrown out of office when the United States Congress discovered that unscrupulous supporters stuffed the ballot box to elect him. Further, during the 1790’s campaign, he endured great physical stress and emotional hardships when sick with depression, gout and lingering Revolutionary War ailments that would have caused most others to turn around and go home. During the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the pain from gout was so great that Wayne’s legs had to be wrapped in flannel to support his weight and he required assistance to mount his horse.
Lastly, Wayne benefited from an innovative imagination. For example, to train his army to not flee from frightening Native American attacks, every Sunday he conducted simulated war games in which half of his soldiers acted as Native Americans and the other half American soldiers. The two years of war gaming aided his legion in overcoming the terror of Indians’ combat tactics, which had engulfed the previous two American armies and led to their bloody defeats. In fact, Wayne conducted two mock battles just one hour before the Native American attack at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. These war games paid off, as Wayne’s army at Fallen Timbers held its ground, fought as a cohesive unit and after the first signs of the Native Americans’ faltering attacks, they perfectly executed a bayonet charge which ended all organized resistance and caused the Native Americans to flee the battlefield.
Unexplored by previous biographers, Wayne when contemplating destiny did not invoke his Christian heritage but admired the Roman god Fortuna. In his pre-battle writings, Wayne referred to the Roman god as “Madame Fortune,” who despite all of his planning and daring determined the outcome of the fight and his fate. Despite a confident persona on the outside and an illustrious reputation for bravery, Wayne felt an intense fear of death before each battle – and for good reason as he always placed himself in the thick of intensely personal eighteenth century combat. As Wayne aged, his desire to seek combat glory faded and he ended up hating war. Perhaps this is why after the initial rout at Fallen Timbers, when faced with the opportunity to run down and slaughter stragglers, Wayne did not further pursue the Native Americans. With a cool head and clear understanding of his adversary, Wayne recognized that even after an only one-hour battle, he had accomplished what he needed to bring the Native Americans to the negotiating table and further fighting would only produce needless bloodshed.
Those solely seeking to discover new details of Wayne’s Revolutionary War exploits will not be satisfied with Stockwell’s biography which reflects the pride of her familial and community connections with Toledo and the Fallen Timbers battlefield. However, what readers will absorb is a fascinating account of the only Continental Army general whose military career peaked after the Revolution. Secondly, an excellent biography should go behind the historical facts and events to deeply discern the subject’s character, motivations, and personality. Far above and beyond previous biographies, Stockwell does this exceedingly well, and I highly recommend her book to better understand Wayne as a person including his character strengths and flaws. Most importantly, readers will understand why after Fallen Timbers, some Native Americans referred to Wayne as the “Wind,” which evokes determination and fortitude and is more descriptive of Wayne’s personality and capabilities than the too often misunderstood moniker “Mad.”