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The Battle of Blue Licks, fought 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, Kentucky (but was then in Kentucky County, Virginia), a force of about 50 American and Canadian Loyalists along with 300 American Indians ambushed and routed 182 Kentucky militiamen. It was the worst defeat for the Kentuckians during the frontier war.
Although the main British army under Lord Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781, virtually ending the war in the east, fighting on the western frontier continued. Aided by the British garrison at Fort Detroit, American Indians north of the Ohio River redoubled their efforts to drive the American settlers out of western Virginia (now Kentucky and West Virginia).
In July 1782, a meeting took place 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. As a result, 150 British rangers under Captain William Caldwell (of Butler's Rangers) and some 1,100 Indian warriors supervised by Pennsylvania Loyalists Alexander McKee, Simon Girty, and Matthew Elliott, set out to attack Wheeling, on the upper Ohio River. This was one of the largest forces sent against American settlements during the war.
The expedition was called off, however, when scouts reported that George Rogers Clark, whom the Indians feared more than any other American commander, was about to invade the Ohio Country from Kentucky. Caldwell's army returned to the Mad River to oppose the invasion, but the attack never came. In fact, Clark did have a large armed boat patrolling the Ohio River, but he had no plans to invade. Most of the Indian warriors returned to their homes.
Caldwell and about 50 Loyalists, supported by 300 Indians, crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky. They meant to surprise and destroy the settlement of Bryan Station, but the settlers discovered them and took shelter within their stockade. Caldwell and McKee's force laid siege to Bryan Station on August 15, 1782, killing all of the settlers' livestock and destroying their crops, but withdrew after two days when they learned that Kentucky militiamen were on the way. Caldwell had lost 5 Indians killed and 2 wounded during his short siege.
The militia arrived at Bryan Station on August 18. The force included about 47 men from Fayette County and another 135 from Lincoln County. The highest-ranking officer, Colonel John Todd of Fayette County, was in overall command. Assisting him were two lieutenant colonels, Stephen Trigg of Lincoln County and Daniel Boone of Fayette County. Benjamin Logan, colonel of the Lincoln militia, was gathering men and had not yet arrived.
The militiamen could either pursue the enemy immediately, to keep them from escaping, or they could more safely wait for Colonel Logan to arrive with reinforcements. Daniel Boone wanted to wait for Logan and his troops to arrive. Logan was only a day away, but Major Hugh McGary urged Boone to chase after the Indians. McGary convinced others that they would be cowards if they did not follow the Indians and Boone was forced to go after them. The Kentuckians decided to pursue the enemy, who had a 40 mile (60 km) lead on them. They set out on horseback over an old buffalo trail before making camp at sunset.
On the morning of August 19, the Kentuckians reached the Licking River, near a spring and salt lick known as the Lower Blue Licks. A few Indian scouts were seen watching them from across the river. Behind the scouts was a hill around which the river looped. Colonel Todd called a council and asked Daniel Boone, the most experienced woodsman, what he thought. Boone said he had been growing increasingly suspicious because of the obvious trail the Indians left. He felt the Indians were trying to lead them into an ambush.
Hugh McGary, eager to prove he was no coward, urged an immediate attack. When no one listened, he mounted his horse and rode across the ford. He yelled out, "Them that ain't cowards, follow me." The men immediately followed McGary, as did the officers, who hoped to restore order. Boone remarked, "We are all slaughtered men," and crossed the river.
Most of the men dismounted and formed a line of battle several rows deep. They advanced up the hill, Todd and McGary in the center, Trigg on the right, Boone on the left. As Boone had suspected, Caldwell's force was waiting on the other side, concealed in ravines. When the Kentuckians reached the summit, the Indians opened fire at close range with devastating accuracy. After only five minutes, the center and right of the Kentucky line fell back. Only Boone's men on the left managed to push forward. Todd and Trigg, easy targets on horseback, were shot dead.
The Kentuckians began to flee down the hill, fighting hand-to-hand with other Indians who had flanked them. McGary rode up to Boone's company and told him everyone was retreating and that Boone was now surrounded. Boone ordered his men to retreat. He grabbed a riderless horse and ordered his 23-year-old son, Israel Boone, to mount it. He then turned to look for a horse for himself. Israel suddenly fell to the ground, shot through the neck. Boone realized his son was dead, mounted the horse and joined in the retreat.
Although he had not taken part in the battle, George Rogers Clark, as senior militia officer, was widely condemned in Kentucky for allowing the British force to cross the river and the inflict the Blue Licks disaster. In response, Clark launched a retaliatory raid across the Ohio River in November 1782. His force consisted of more than 1,000 men, including Benjamin Logan and Daniel Boone. The Kentuckians destroyed five unoccupied Shawnee villages on the Great Miami River in the last major offensive of the American Revolution. No battles took place, since the Shawnees refused to stand and fell back to their villages on the Mad River.
Four years later, the Indian villages on the Mad River would be destroyed by Benjamin Logan at the outset of the Northwest Indian War. Hugh McGary confronted the Shawnee chief Moluntha and asked if he had been at Blue Licks. In fact, the Shawnees had not taken part, the Indians being Wyandots. Unfortunately, Moluntha misunderstood McGary's question and nodded his head in agreement. McGary killed him with a tomahawk. Colonel Logan immediately relieved McGary of his command and ordered him court-martialed for killing a prisoner.
The Blue Licks battle site is commemorated at Blue Licks Battlefield State Park, on U.S. Route 68 between Paris and Maysville, just outside the town of Blue Licks Springs. The site includes a granite obelisk, burial grounds, and a museum. Every August, on the weekend closest to the 19th, a re-enactment and memorial service is held.
- Capt. Caldwell's Report at The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies
- Faragher, Daniel Boone, 317.
- "Outline of the Battle of Blue Licks," Carlisle Mercury, August 17th 1882, University of Kentucky Special Collections, 51W8
- Cotterill, R. S. (October 1927). "Battle of Upper Blue Licks". http://connect1.ajaxdocumentviewer.com/viewerajax.php?l47yFFgA5HFXnLYYagm0VLMZTs%2FrLUaZPOMPXxfLqeD%2B3JlVF7Tb4mzVRO77SUveo088Z0kZfSCrR2RdGfbUc33f29I3golvXnxEuoH1IN65n08xmPr4ug9AkSldkMFmKDPr2MDN2NEO248whuIXZKdyUZGvBSCTo1qDngic9Z28N891GG%2F6wN2KgHiY3ISt%2Bq7b30jWuv3BJWWj%2Bf42zd%2FR9im9fEA6OUwc1gN8%2BhykXrEO%2FOvtBXV2cPX5tNUjFS3gzrcrv91JSyw8Auxbt9ywV599SiZ5LYge9tiaqPqibwxLVS5lBZXwk%2FG%2BRH5tlhrgloOBVaIxU2%2FKGajKuj%2FX30TLPKqPsERcAV85eBibWBoDeJnbl%2B5jWAeqjuGaSuxGefhEnbAUHCumcsaHFg5ZS%2BI1UKlw53316KmIgis%3D. Retrieved 2011-11-11.
- Faragher, John Mack. Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer. New York: Holt, 1992. ISBN 0-8050-1603-1.
- Hammon, Neal O. Daniel Boone and the Defeat at Blue Licks. Minneapolis: The Boone Society, 2005. (Local history, no ISBN)
- Lofaro, Michael A. Daniel Boone: An American Life. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2003. ISBN 0-8131-2278-3.
- Nelson, Larry L. A Man of Distinction among Them: Alexander McKee and the Ohio Country Frontier, 1754–1799. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-87338-620-5 (hardcover).
- Rice, Otis K. Frontier Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1975. ISBN 0-8131-0212-X.
- Sugden, John. Blue Jacket: Warrior of the Shawnees. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8032-4288-3.
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