The Battle of Blue Licks, fought in Kentucky on August 19, 1782, was one of the last battles of the American Revolutionary War. The battle occurred ten months after Lord Cornwallis’s famous surrender at Yorktown, which had effectively ended the war in the east. On a hill next to the Licking River in what is now Robertson County, a force of about 50 Canadian and American Loyalists along with 300 American Indians ambushed and routed 182 Kentucky militiamen. It was the worst defeat for the Kentuckians during the frontier war.
i- Caldwell’s expedition
Although a British army under Lord Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781, the war on the western frontier continued. Aided by the British in Detroit, American Indians north of the Ohio River redoubled their efforts to drive American settlers out of western Virginia (what is now Kentucky and West Virginia).
In July 1782, a large meeting was held at the Shawnee villages near the headwaters of the Mad River in the Ohio Country, with Shawnees, Delawares, Mingos, Wyandots, Miamis, Ottawas, Ojibwas, and Potawatomis in attendance. A force of 150 British rangers under Captain William Caldwell (of Butler’s Rangers) and 1,100 Indians supervised by Pennsylvania Loyalists Alexander McKee, Simon Girty, and Matthew Elliott was sent against Wheeling on the Ohio River. This was one of the largest forces yet sent against the American settlements.
This expedition was called off, however, after scouts reported that George Rogers Clark, whom the Indians feared more than any other American commander, was preparing to invade the Ohio Country from Kentucky. Caldwell’s army returned to the Mad River to intercept the invasion, but Clark’s army never materialized. As it turned out, the rumours were false: Clark had a large boat patrolling the Ohio River, but he was not prepared to launch an expedition. Frustrated with this turn of events, most of the American Indians dispersed.
ii- Bryan Station
With the remaining force of approximately 50 Canadian and American Loyalists along with 300 American Indians, Caldwell and McKee crossed into Kentucky. They hoped to surprise the settlement of Bryan Station, but the settlers had learned of the approach of the army and “forted up.” Caldwell and McKee’s force laid siege to Bryan Station on August 15, 1782, but withdrew on August 17 when they learned that a force of Kentucky militia was on the way. Caldwell’s force had 5 killed and 2 wounded.
The Kentucky militia who came to the relief of Bryan Station on August 18 consisted of about 47 men from Fayette County and about 135 from Lincoln County. The highest-ranking officer, Colonel John Todd of the Fayette militia, was in overall command; under him were two lieutenant colonels, Stephen Trigg of Lincoln County and Daniel Boone of Fayette County. Benjamin Logan, colonel of the Lincoln militia, was still gathering men and was not present.
The officers discussed whether to pursue the enemy force immediately before it could escape across the Ohio River or to wait for Colonel Logan to arrive with reinforcements. Major Hugh McGary recommended waiting for Logan, but he was overruled by Colonel Todd, who shamed McGary by suggesting that he was timid. The Kentuckians therefore pursued the retreating British and Indian force, covering nearly 40 miles on horseback over an old buffalo trail before making camp.
The Kentuckians reached the Licking River on the morning of August 19, near a spring and salt lick known as the Lower Blue Licks. On the other side of the river, a few Indian scouts could be seen. Behind the Indians was a hill around which the river made a loop. Colonel Todd called a council and asked Boone, the most experienced woodsman, for his opinion. Boone, who had been growing increasingly suspicious about the overly obvious trail the Indians had been leaving, advised his fellow officers that the Indians were trying to draw them into an ambush.
Major McGary, apparently eager to prove that he was not a coward as Todd’s earlier criticism had suggested, urged an immediate attack. He mounted his horse and rode across the ford in the river, shouting, “Them that ain’t cowards, follow me.” Men began to follow, as did the officers, who hoped to at least make an orderly attack. “We are all slaughtered men,” said Boone as he crossed the river.
On the other side of the river, most of the men dismounted and formed into a battle line of three or four divisions. They advanced up the hill, Todd and McGary in the centre, Trigg on the right, Boone on the left. As Boone had suspected, Caldwell’s force was waiting on the other side of the hill, concealed in ravines. As the Kentuckians reached the summit, the Indians opened fire with devastating effect. After only five minutes, the centre and right of the Kentucky line gave way; only Boone’s men on the left managed to push forward. Todd and Trigg, easy targets on horseback, were quickly shot down.
The Kentuckians began to flee wildly back down the hill, fighting hand-to-hand with the Indians who had flanked them. McGary rode up to Boone’s company and told him that everyone was retreating and that Boone was now surrounded. Boone gathered his men for a withdrawal. He grabbed a riderless horse and ordered his son, Israel Boone, to mount and make an escape. Israel refused to leave his father, however, and was shot through the neck as Daniel searched for another horse. Boone saw that his son’s wound was mortal, mounted the horse, and fled. According to legend, Boone hid his son’s body before leaving, but in reality there was no time.
Although he had not taken part in the battle, George Rogers Clark, as senior militia officer, was widely condemned in Kentucky for the Blue Licks disaster. In response to the criticism, Clark launched a retaliatory raid into the Ohio Country. In November 1782, he led more than 1,000 men, including Benjamin Logan and Daniel Boone, on an expedition that destroyed five Shawnee villages on the Great Miami River, the last major offensive of the war. No battles were fought in that engagement because the Shawnees declined to engage the Kentuckians, instead pulling back to their villages on the Mad River.
Those villages were subsequently destroyed by Benjamin Logan in 1786 at the outset of the Northwest Indian War. On that expedition, Hugh McGary confronted the Shawnee chief Moluntha, asking him if he had been at Blue Licks. Moluntha had not taken part in the Battle of Blue Licks—relatively few Shawnees had—but he evidently misunderstood McGary’s question and nodded his head in agreement. McGary then killed the Shawnee leader with a tomahawk. Logan relieved McGary of command and later had him court-martialed.