Arthur St. Clair was born on March 23, 1734, at Thurso Castle, in Thurso, County Caithness, Scotland, to William and Margaret St. Clair. After completing his formal education, he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and was apprenticed with Dr. William Hunter in England for a time. However, like so many of his warrior ancestors, he heard the call of adventure and could not deny it.
Purchasing a commission in the British Army, St. Clair came to America in 1757-1758 during the French and Indian War. He served in the Canadas and was promoted for his heroism.
In 1759, at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec, Lt. St. Clair seized the colors, which had fallen from the hand of a dying soldier, and bore them until the day was won. When his regiment was stationed in Boston, the lieutenant met Ms. Phoebe Bayard, and in May 1760, the young couple was married at Trinity Church in Boston. They would be married for 58 years and have seven children together.
In 1776, St. Clair was commissioned as a colonel of a Pennsylvania regiment. He raised and trained a regiment in the dead of winter and then marched six companies north to join the American Army in Quebec. Unfortunately, St. Clair arrived to find the Army in full retreat and with his familiarity of the terrain and British strategy, saved the army from certain capture.
He was promoted to brigadier general and ordered to join Gen. George Washington and help him raise a militia in New Jersey. On Christmas night, St. Clair’s troops, now under the command of Washington, crossed the Delaware into Trenton, New Jersey, and won a victory over the Hessian mercenaries.
On Jan. 2, 1777, the British attacked Princeton and routed the garrison, who escaped over the Assunpink Creek to where Washington had posted several cannons, which managed to stalemate the British. A Council of War was called that night, with many advocating for retreat. It was St. Clair’s lone voice that advocated for an attack. He offered a daring plan to outflank the British and capture Princeton. St. Clair’s brigade marched ahead of the advancing army and his plan resulted in a resounding victory for the Continental Army.
For his “fierce bravery and loyalty” he was promoted to major general and given the command of Fort Ticonderoga, which had previously been a British stronghold. St. Clair, arriving in early June 1777, found the fort in disrepair, ill supplied, and manned by a garrison of only 2,500.
In July, Gen. John Burgoyne laid siege to the fort with a force of 8,000 British regulars and 2,500 auxiliary. Not seeing for the needless waste of life, St. Clair ordered the fort evacuated and later recounted, “I know I could have saved my reputation by sacrificing the army; but were I to do so, I should forfeit that which the world could not restore, and which it cannot take away, the approbation of my own conscience.”
A court martial was convened and St. Clair was acquitted,“with the highest honor, of the charges against him.” After his vindication, St. Clair’s active leadership continued and he commanded at West Point, suppressed a mutiny, continued raising troops and sending them south to aid Washington and Lafayette, and also served on the court martial that condemned Maj. John Andre, the co-conspirator of Benedict Arnold.
He joined Washington at Yorktown four days before the surrender of Cornwallis and reinforced Gen. Nathanael Greene in his campaign to expel the British from the Carolinas.
“Quorum having been formed in Congress, they proceeded to the choice of President for the ensuing year, when his Excellency Arthur St. Clair, Esq., was elected.” During his 1787 term, the U.S. Constitution was drafted. In 1789, he had the great joy of assisting in the inauguration of his friend as the first president of the U.S. and had once been named as a possible candidate for the vice presidency.
From 1788-1803, St. Clair served as first governor of the Northwest Territory and in 1791 was once again called into action. As major general, he was tasked with suppressing the hostile Indians and his force of 2,000 dwindled down through illness and desertion to less than 1,000. The combined forces of the Miami, Shawnee, and Delaware numbered over 1,000 and on Nov. 4, 1791 ambushed the American force. St. Clair, ill with gout, suffered a devastating loss and, arriving at Philadelphia, requested a court martial to clear his name. This was denied by Washington who demanded his resignation as commander of the Army. The House of Representatives began an investigation and found the War Department had ill manned, equipped, and supplied the army. Congress voted against a resolution on the report and so St. Clair was never officially vindicated.
He was allowed to remain governor, a position he found increasingly difficult following his forced resignation. St. Clair believed that the Ohio Territory should be admitted as two states instead of one and at the Ohio Constitutional Convention, he delivered a speech that railed against the Convention and President Thomas Jefferson, “acting like a father betrayed by his son, he used a paternalistic tone and discussed his contributions to the territory, outlining what he had accomplished in fourteen years ...” Jefferson responded by removing St. Clair from office.
The old soldier returned to Ligonier Valley and, facing debts from loans he had given out during the Revolution, attempted to rebuild his wealth but all attempts turned on him. His property was sold for all the debts he had incurred and he beseeched Congress for money he was believed owed to him for his services to his country.
The St. Clair’s moved to a log house on Chestnut Ridge near Youngstown, Pennsylvania, and months later the Pennsylvania Legislature awarded him an annuity of $8,400. Shortly before his death, Congress granted $2,000 in discharge of his claims, and a pension of $60 a month.
On his way to Youngstown, St. Clair was thrown from his wagon and found unconscious on the side of the road. He was tenderly carried back to his home where he died surrounded by his family on Aug. 31, 1818, after a departing message of peace forevermore. He was buried at the St. Clair Cemetery in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and his monument, a gift from his Masonic brethren, reads, “The Earthly Remains Of Major-General Arthur St. Clair Are Deposited Beneath This Humble Monument, Which Is Erected To Supply The Place Of A Nobler One Due From His Country.”
St. Clair County was created by the Second Alabama territorial Legislature at St. Stephens on Nov. 20, 1818, in honor of the soldier, statesman, president and patriot — Arthur St. Clair.
Robert Debter is the archive director for the Ashville Museum & Archives.