Battle of Blue Licks

The History of the Battle of Blue Licks

THE BATTLE OF BLUE LICKS

By

Ron D. Bryant

The Battle of Blue Licks has the combined drama of frontier warfare and the Revolutionary War.  On August 19, 1782, nearly seventy Kentuckians died in what some historians have called the “Last Battle of the American Revolution.”  While that claim is debatable, the struggle at Blue Licks embodies the conflict between the American Indian, Kentucky settlers, and the British Crown.

Although Lord Charles Cornwallis had surrendered British forces at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781, bringing to a close the major hostilities of the American Revolution, isolated conflicts between the Americans, British, and Indians still occurred.  The Kentucky frontier experienced some of the bloodiest British and Indian raids of the war.  With the surrender of Cornwallis, many Kentuckians hoped that the attacks on their homes and settlements had come to an end.  Unknown to them, a large force of British and Indians had gathered at Old Chillicothe, Ohio, to prepare for a raid on the frontier settlements.

The British invasion force, made up of an estimated 1,100 men, included a number of Butler’s Rangers from Canada, along with Shawnee and Wyandot Indians.  Their invasion plans had targeted Wheeling, West Virginia, but on their way there they received word that George Rogers Clark and the Americans had planned a possible attack on Shawnee territory.  The majority of the Shawnee decided to return home to defend their homes.  British commander William Caldwell and Captain Alexander McKee, along with sixty Canadians and about three hundred Indians, some Shawnee, Delaware, Chippewa, Mingo, Ottawa, and mostly Wyandot, changed their plans and decided to attack some of the Kentucky outposts.  They chose Bryan’s Station, north of Lexington.  On August 15, 1782, Caldwell’s force surrounded the fortified settlement.  Seeing that Bryan’s Station had stronger defenses than anticipated, the British and Indians withdrew.  The retreat from Bryan’s Station seemed to signal the beginning of the end of the British invasion of Kentucky.    

When word of the attack on Bryan’s Station reached other Kentucky settlements, groups of militiamen prepared to come to their neighbor’s defense.  Col. John Todd, commander of the Fayette County militia, raised a force of 180 men comprised of about 130 men from Lincoln County under the command of Lt. Col. Stephen Trigg, and about 45 men from Fayette County under the command of Lt. Col. Daniel Boone, to help repulse the enemy.  Col. Benjamin Logan and a large force of militia were also on their way to assist their beleaguered fellow Kentuckians.  By the time Todd and his militiamen arrived at Bryan’s Station the enemy had gone.  Instead of waiting for Logan and reinforcements, Todd decided to pursue and overtake the British and Indians.  His decision would be disastrous.  While the British and the Indians had left Bryan’s Station intact, in reality they were waiting for the Kentuckians to catch up with them. 

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The retreating invasion force left Todd and his men an excellent trail to follow.  On August 19, the Kentucky militia caught up with the British and Indians at Blue Licks.  The night before the battle Todd’s men had debated whether they should wait for Logan and his force or engage the enemy at once.  According to legend, Major Hugh McGary insisted that the militia attack immediately.  Boone warned of a possible ambush from surrounding ravines, but to no avail.  On the day of the battle McGary supposedly rode his horse into the waters of the Licking River, waving his hat and calling out, “All those who are not cowards, follow me!”  His fellow Kentuckians charged after him.

As they reached the north shore of the Licking, the Kentuckians began to ready for an attack.  An advance column of the militia then proceeded up a hill where some Indians had been spotted, followed by three groups of the main force.  Todd commanded the center; Trigg led the right flank, and Boone the left.  As the advance party reached within fifty yards of an area of ravines, the British and Indians who had been lying in wait launched their attack. 

Within fifteen minutes the Kentucky militiamen had been defeated.  The British and Indians inflicted heavy casualties on the surprised Kentuckians, forcing them to flee for their lives.  Both Todd and Trigg died in the battle, as did Daniel Boone’s youngest son, Israel.  A few of the Kentucky militia stood their ground, trying to provide cover for their retreating comrades.  The Indians pursued the routed Kentuckians for about two miles, and then came back to the battlefield to scalp and mutilate their victims.  The Kentuckians had lost some seventy men.  The British and Indians suffered about two dozen casualties with only ten killed.  Logan’s force of 500 men met some of the fleeing survivors about five miles from the battle site.  Logan and his men arrived at Blue Licks and buried the grisly remains of their fallen comrades.

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The Battle of Blue Licks did not have an effect on the Revolutionary War.  It did, however, cause Gen. George Rogers Clark to lead another military expedition against the Indians in Ohio.  He destroyed Chillicothe and five other Indian towns in his reprisal for Blue Licks.  The power of the Indians in the Old Northwest had been forever weakened.  Within a few years the American Indian would lose control of their land north of the Ohio River.

With the deaths of Todd, Trigg, and others, the Kentucky frontier lost some of their most prominent leaders.  The Battle of Blue Licks had again proven the vulnerability of the Kentucky settlements to attack.  Not until the end of the War of 1812 would Kentuckians feel secure from possible Indian raids from across the Ohio River.

The Battle of Blue Licks continues to evoke debate among historians.  The ambush and resounding defeat of the Kentuckians by the British and Indians could have endangered the security of the western frontier for the American cause.  The Blue Licks battle was a great victory for the American Indian, but in the long run, their victory helped doom their control of the Old Northwest.         

On August 19, 1928, the 136th anniversary of the battle, Federal Judge A.M.J. Cochran of Maysville, chairman of the Blue Licks Battlefield Monument Commission, called to order an estimated audience of ten thousand people for the formal dedication ceremonies of the Blue Licks Battlefield State Park.  In 1928 the Kentucky General Assembly appropriated money for the erection of a granite monument inscribed with the names of those who died on August 19, 1782.  At the base of the monument would be the names of the Indian tribes that fought in the battle.

The Battle of Blue Licks is rightfully considered one of the worst American military defeats of the Revolutionary War.  However, the battle was also an inspiration to the settlers on the Kentucky frontier to resolve to secure their lands once and for all from Indian invasion.  Within less than a decade, of the Blue Licks debacle, Kentucky would become the fifteenth state of the American Republic.  The harshness of the frontier and the horrors of that August day in 1782 would soon become a nothing more than a distant memory.   

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