Buried in Greensburg, Arthur St. Clair a forgotten Revolutionary
November 22, 2009 5:00 AM
Beer cans litter the grave of Revolutionary War hero Arthur St. Clair in St. Clair Park in Greensburg.
Arthur St. Clair
By Dennis B. Roddy Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bankrupted by the country he helped create and forgotten by a history he set on its course, Arthur St. Clair lies on a hillside in Greensburg, discarded beer cans littering his patriot grave.
"He is one of the most important figures in American history and it really is amazing how he is forgotten," said Stanley L. Klos, a historian of the early Colonial period who counts St. Clair among the 10 "lost" presidents: men who served as head of the U.S. government under the Articles of Confederation, the code of law that served before the Constitution went into effect in 1789.
The Scottish-born St. Clair's life spanned the Colonial era, from the Plains of Abraham, where he helped seize Quebec for the British, to Yorktown, where he stood with George Washington in the final battle of the Revolutionary War.
It was the ambitious, rebellious, controversial St. Clair who saved the post-revolution Congress from an uprising by mutinous troops in 1783. Three years later, on Feb. 2, 1786, he was named president of that same body, the country's government before the Constitution supplanted it three years later. He shepherded the Northwest Ordinance into law, opening what eventually would become six new states for settlement by an expanding nation.
Later, as the highest-ranking official in the post-revolution government, he pressed the Confederation Congress to put itself out of business, persuading members to change not one word in the new Constitution sent to them in 1787 by its framers meeting in Philadelphia. The move also put St. Clair out of consideration for the new presidency. The Constitution he pushed to adopt precluded all but native-born citizens from the office.
"His role in 1787 was second to none except Washington, who was president of the Constitutional Convention," said Mr. Klos, who has written two books on the subject.
Yet, in a nation that begins its political history at 1776, then skips ahead to 1789 and beyond, St. Clair is as lost as the places he dwelt.
Visitors to his monument -- arguably the most important pre-20th-century grave in Western Pennsylvania -- recently found beer cans and an empty whiskey bottle scattered by the stone. The site of The Hermitage, his home in the Ligonier Valley, was sold off at bankruptcy centuries ago and now houses, among other things, a junk yard.
On the mountain between the Westmoreland County villages of Darlington and Youngstown, along the original route of the Forbes Road, the tavern St. Clair opened in his late, impoverished years is a dilapidated farm.
The study from The Hermitage survives. It was saved in the early 1960s and moved inside the museum at Fort Ligonier.
After his death, a few places were named in his honor, including Upper St. Clair in Allegheny County and St. Clairsville, Ohio. Little of St. Clair's personal history has been preserved in school curricula or the historical canon.
"As important as he was, there is no biography of him today," said Martin West, director of the Fort Ligonier Museum.
How did a giant of his time shrink from the history he helped make?
St. Clair possessed a combination of brilliance, ambition and hard luck, historians say.
Born in 1734 in Thurso, Scotland, the young St. Clair studied medicine and purchased an officer's commission in the British Army. Sent to North America during the French and Indian War, he gained fame on the Plains of Abraham, where Gen. Sir James Wolfe led a force storming the fort at Quebec City.
The young Lt. St. Clair grabbed the battle flag from a fallen soldier and rallied the troops to a victory. He rose in rank and esteem.
Eventually, he was sent to the western portion of Pennsylvania as an agent of the Penn family, which appointed him King's Magistrate of Bedford County. As a hero of the late war, he was awarded land -- thousands of acres.
At the time, Bedford stretched from the center of the Colony through present-day Westmoreland County and several adjacent areas that later would become counties as well. When Westmoreland was split off from Bedford, St. Clair became its magistrate, acting as the arm of the Crown.
It was as King's Magistrate that St. Clair took a fort almost single-handedly.
In the mid-18th century, Pittsburgh was disputed territory. Both Pennsylvania and Virginia laid claim to the fort at the headwaters of the Ohio. The British, heavily in debt from the French and Indian War, withdrew their garrison and, in the confusion, a Virginian named John Connolly seized Fort Pitt and rechristened it Fort Dunmore, in honor of the Virginia governor who had given blessing to the seizure.
St. Clair marched in from the Westmoreland village of Hannastown.
"He came over and marched into Fort Pitt without arms, said 'I am the King's Magistrate' and arrested Connolly and took him to Hannastown. This ended Fort Pitt's occupation by Virginians," Mr. Klos said.
Lord Dunmore, Virginia's governor who was deprived of his eponymous fort, wrote angrily to Pennsylvania Gov. John Penn and demanded St. Clair's removal.
In the politest go-to-hell letter of Colonial America, Penn responded that he considered St. Clair a gentleman, although perhaps a bit rash, but begged forgiveness "for not complying" with the request, "which you will allow me to think not only unreasonable, but somewhat dictatorial."
A year later, St. Clair's fingerprints appeared all over a document declaring the rights of the Colonists to equality with British citizens. After the confrontations at Lexington and Concord, Westmoreland's leading citizens gathered in Hannastown to draft the "Hanna's Town Resolves," pledging "our lives and fortunes" to resisting, by arms and militias, any royal encroachments on "our just rights."
"They stopped short of declaring independence, but they did say they were willing to fight to protect our rights," said Lisa Hays, director of the Westmoreland County Historical Society.
A year later, St. Clair was willing to take the next step.
Commissioned a brigadier general in the Continental Army, he took up arms for American independence. He was sent to a familiar place: Quebec, the scene of his earlier heroics for the British. A ragtag army of Colonials had been beaten by British forces there and St. Clair moved north, where he reorganized and rescued the group.
A grateful Congress promoted him to major general.
He accompanied Washington's forces across the Delaware and into Trenton. Washington became St. Clair's sponsor of sorts and credited the general with the advice that led the Continental Army into Princeton for another victory.
St. Clair's reputation was growing. Congress dispatched him to Ticonderoga to secure the region in northern New York. It was thought impregnable, but St. Clair found it in poor shape and when the British arrived, he made a decision to pull out.
"The right decision, but controversial," said Mr. West, the museum director. "His evacuation of Fort Ticonderoga saved part of the American army that later caused the British to surrender at Saratoga. But you don't win wars by evacuations. You're not remembered for that sort of thing."
John Adams called for St. Clair to be shot because of the evacuation. Congress demanded an explanation. St. Clair demanded his own court-martial, if only to clear his name.
The court found that St. Clair, outnumbered 3-to-1, with his men ill-shod and underfed and British cannons surrounding the fort, made the right call. The victory at Saratoga and the presence of St. Clair's troops, still alive and fighting, bore it out.
The Marquis de Lafayette wrote a celebratory letter. John Paul Jones, a fellow Scotsman, wrote to him:
I pray you can be assured that no man has more respect for your character, talents and greatness of mind than, dear general, your most humble servant.
Consigned to an advisory role by political leaders that no longer trusted him fully, St. Clair spent much of the war on the fringes, finally rejoining Washington at Yorktown, where the war ended with American independence.
After the war, St. Clair took on another post: president of the Congress of the United States Assembled. Under the Articles of Confederation, this was the highest office in the land.
It was there that he pushed through the Northwest Ordinance. Becoming obsolete when the new Constitution made his friend Washington the first president under the new government, St. Clair took on the job of governor general of the Northwest Territories.
It would prove a disaster -- politically, militarily and financially.
First came the uprising by the Miami Indians in 1791. St. Clair, still a general, led a force of troops deep into the territory to defeat the uprising. It became the worst rout by Native Americans in American military history, surpassing even Little Bighorn. More than 600 men died, the troops scattered and it remained for a Pennsylvania officer of lesser rank, "Mad Anthony" Wayne, to quell the rebellion in 1794.
Ensconced in the territorial capital of Cincinnati, St. Clair financed most of his official life out of his own pocket, handing out the requisite gifts, bribes and tributes to the tribes as he sought treaties. He had assumed the new government eventually would reimburse him.
He was wrong. As the first of the new territories, Ohio, came up for statehood, St. Clair opposed it, saying it wasn't ready. It was a fatal misstep. At the time, St. Clair was virtually the only remaining Federalist in a position of real power in the new Republican government of President Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson sacked him.
St. Clair returned to Westmoreland County, politically finished, without a real military victory to his name and deeply in debt. His creditors sued. His estate, The Hermitage, was sold off, his possessions were seized and St. Clair moved 10 miles to the west, to a mountainside outside the Ligonier Valley, overlooking what is now Latrobe.
The former president of his country, bankrupt and ignored, opened an inn and took in strangers traveling the Forbes Road.
In August of 1818, St. Clair tumbled from the back of a wagon and died. Fellow members of the local Masons Lodge paid to bury him on the grounds of a Greensburg park now carrying his name. The original stone crumbled and, in 1913, another was erected. Its inscription reads:
"The earthly remains of Arthur St. Clair are deposited beneath this humble monument which is erected to supply the place of a nobler one due from his country."
Nothing more was ever built on the site.
A few years before he died, Mr. West said, a visitor to the area wrote to a friend: "I saw a relic of the revolution today serving ale at a tavern," he said. "It was Arthur St. Clair."