In the fall of 1780, most forces on both sides of the struggle were settling into winter quarters. The Americans were preparing for another winter in Morristown, New Jersey. The French were still in Newport, Rhode Island, not having gone anywhere since their arrival in America. The loyalists, who I discussed last time in their raids on New York, had returned back to Canada for the winter. The British southern army under Cornwallis had pulled out of North Carolina to take a defensive posture in South Carolina.
One man, however, opted to take one additional action that fall. Colonel Augustin Mottin de la Balme was determined to take Detroit.
Augustin Mottin de la Balme
While there were a handful of French officers who received commission as generals in the Continental army, there were also dozens of officers who traveled to America to accept lesser commissions. Agustin Mottin de La Balme was one of these men.
La Balme was born in France to a family that could trace its ancestry back to nobility. But somewhere along the way, one of his ancestors had been unfortunate enough not to be born first, so the family title passed to an older brother, and Mottin did not inherit any title of nobility. In his youth, he was simply known as Augustin Mottin. His father worked as a tanner, a respectable profession, but absolutely not nobility. Even so, his family background would get him a commission as an officer in the French Army. As such Mottin sought a military career beginning in 1757 when the Seven Years War began.
|Illustration from Mottin's
book on Horsemanship
Mottin later served in the Gendarmerie, which was a military company responsible for law enforcement among civilians. When the French Army seized a town the Gendarmerie would maintain law and order until a civilian force could be set up. By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of captain in the cavalry and also served as a quartermaster. A few years later, he received another promotion to major.
In 1773, as part of the French Army’s efforts to cut costs, it began to reduce the size of its army. Mottin, by this time in his mid-30s, accepted a retirement offer. He spent some time writing two different books on horsemanship and cavalry tactics. It was also around that time that he added “de La Balme” to his name at this time. Presumably, La Balme was his hometown, a small village in eastern France, between Lyon and Geneva Switzerland.
When Silas Deane came to Paris after the Revolution began, Le Balme was one of the first French officers to meet with him about the possibility of a commission in the new Continental Army. Deane wrote La Balme a letter of recommendation in 1776, but La Balme could not find a way to leave France and make his way to America. After Benjamin Franklin arrived in late 1776, La Balme also received a letter of introduction from him, recommending him to Congress as a capable cavalry officer who might be helpful in establishing a Continental Cavalry.
In February of 1777, La Balme, pretending to be a doctor, managed to secure passage on a ship leaving Bordeaux for America with two other French officers. He made it to Philadelphia where, in May, the Continental Congress commissioned him a lieutenant colonel of cavalry in the Continental Army. La Balme remained in Philadelphia, lobbying members of Congress and trying to promote himself. By July, he received a promotion to full colonel and the title of inspector general of cavalry.
|Gen. Casimir Pulaski
It’s not clear if La Balme ever really took up his position with the army, or if he participated in any way in the Philadelphia Campaign where General Howe’s British Army pushed up from Maryland into Philadelphia. After the battle of Brandywine in September of that year, Congress granted another officer, Casimir Pulaski, command of the Continental Cavalry based on his performance at Brandywine. Upset at being passed over, La Balme submitted his resignation to Congress.
Over the next winter, the Continental Army was trying to survive at Valley Forge, while Congress was focused on what became known as the Conway Cabal, that is whether to replace General Washington with the Hero of Saratoga, Horatio Gates. After Gates became the new head of the Board of War, La Balme approached Gates with a proposal to invade Canada. Gates liked the idea, but ultimately gave command of the project to General Lafayette. The plan later fell apart because Congress did not have the men or resources to launch the invasion.
In February of 1778, Congress finally accepted the resignation that La Balme had submitted in October saying it had “no further occasion for his services.” Losing his military commission did not seem to deter La Balme from his attempts to make a name for himself. He received approval from General Gates to take part in operations around Albany, New York. After France signed a Treaty of Alliance with America, La Balme was convinced that he could rally the French-Canadians to the American cause. He tried his luck at writing, issuing several leaflets written in French, German, and English, calling for volunteers among the French Quebecois.
By 1779 he was in Boston. His new goal was to establish contact with the Indians in what is today Maine and to enlist their support of the cause based on their prior alliances with the King of France before the French and Indian War. He moved to Machias, and seemed to be making some progress with the local tribes. But when the British launched their Penobscot Expedition in July, things fell apart. La Balme attempted to bring a force of Indian warriors to Penobscot. He ended up in a skirmish with British or loyalist forces and was defeated. La Balme was apparently captured in the skirmish. It’s not clear if he later escaped or was exchanged.
In the spring of 1780 Le Balme was frustrated that he had been unable to accomplish anything after three years in America. He wrote to General Washington asking for a certificate of service, but Washington refused, saying he did not have any record of La Balme actually serving in his position as inspector general of cavalry. La Balme did manage to get back his letters of recommendation from Congress, but really didn't have much else going for him.
He still could not give up on efforts to rouse French Canadians to overthrow the British in Canada. By June of 1780, he was in Pittsburgh, trying to recruit volunteers for an effort to take Canada via the western frontier.
La Balme realized that he could not recruit an army large enough to conquer Canada. But he believed that the French Canadians would be willing to rise up if a French leader such as himself could make a credible attempt to organize an overthrow. La Balme spent much of the summer trying to recruit a small cadre of men who would serve as the core of such a force.
Their initial goal would be to take the frontier town of Detroit. The Americans had made several attempts to take Detroit, but each time were turned back, mostly due to the efforts of hostile Indian tribes, still allied with Britain, and mostly not wanting any outsiders marching through their territory.
|George Rogers Clark
La Balme began his efforts along the frontier, including Vincennes, Cahokia, and Kaskaskia. These were towns primarily inhabited by French speaking trappers and traders. The region had been under contention, but by 1780 was solidly under Virginia’s control thanks mostly to the leadership of George Rogers Clark and his men.
It does not appear that La Balme attempted to recruit Clark or his men as part of his effort. The French officer saw the frontiersmen as undisciplined. He also recognized that the Indians between Vincennes and Detroit were already pretty hostile to the Americans, so bringing them into the campaign would probably only increase the chances that they all would be massacred by the local tribes.
Instead, La Balme focused on raising support among the French-speaking population. Since the Virginians had secured the region, the French locals had not been particularly happy with American rule. The Americans stole their property and broke into their homes. Soldiers forced the citizens to accept worthless Continental dollars in exchange for their goods. Many French locals ended up losing their lands to Virginians, often moving across the Mississippi into Spanish territory.
La Balme’s recruiting efforts tried to benefit from these hard feelings. He at least implied that his efforts would eventually restore French control of the region. Although La Balme had corresponded with the French Minister, Luzerne in Philadelphia, there is no evidence that France had any expectations of reasserting any French control of the region. Even so, many locals were willing to take the chance.
As part of his efforts La Balme partnered with Godefroy de Linctot, a local trader who was well connected with several local tribes, spoke several tribal languages, and maintained an ongoing grudge against British rule. Linctot did hold a commission from Virginia, but like La Balme, seemed much more interested in returning French rule to the region than American rule.
Their words found a willing audience among many French speaking locals. Richard Winston, a Virginia officer stationed at Kaskaskia noted that the locals received La Balme as “the Hebrews would have received the Messiah.” Many of the town leaders provided La Balme with money and supplies for his expedition to Detroit. The vague promises of returning French authority, and the more immediate promise of taking plunder from Kekionga and Detroit encouraged a few dozen locals to join the effort.
Among his promises, Le Balme said he would capture Charles Beaubien and take him to Fort Pitt for trial. Beaubien was another French-speaking Canadian, but one who had definitively backed British rule. He served as the British agent for the Miami Indians in Ohio. Beaubien had married into the tribe and had led several Indian raids against settlements along the Ohio River. Beaubien had led a force of Miami to support British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton when he led a force from Detroit to attack Vincennes and other towns in 1778. Linctot was convinced that if they could take out Beaubien, the Miami would drop the British alliance and would support their efforts.
|Cover page from Mottin's
book on cavalry tactics
The remaining force of about 60 men pushed on to Kekionga, arriving four days later. La Balme expected Linctot to meet up with him there with a force of Indian allies. The party paused there, waiting for Linctot’s arrival. Fortunately, for the expedition, they also had not encountered any hostile Miami Indians thus far. Kekionga was a sizable town for the Miami, but most of the warriors were not there. Speculation was that they were away on a hunting party, Kekionga was a key to control of the region, as it controlled an important portage between the Wabash and Maumee Rivers. It was a key link to trade or to moving military forces between the St. Lawrence in Canada and the Mississippi River.
Le Balme and his men spent nearly two weeks in Kekionga, waiting for Indian reinforcements under Linctot. They found Baubein’s house, but he and his family were long gone. They looted his house, finding a large quantity of arms, blankets, and clothing, as well as a great many horses. Much of these supplies were probably meant to be gifts for the Miami or other local tribes friendly to the British cause. Several French-speaking locals at Kekionga also joined up with Le Balme’s forces.
With no sign of his allies, or the enemy, Le Balme packed up his expedition in early November and prepared for the nearly 300 mile march to Detroit. After a day’s march, the expedition camped at a site a few miles northwest of Kekionga.
While the expedition had not yet encountered any hostile Miami, the locals were well aware of the expedition by that time. Many women and children had likely fled Kekionga when the expedition arrived and word quickly spread among local tribal leaders.
Among those who heard of the invaders was a local Miami Indian named Little Turtle (or Michikinikwa). In 1780 Little Turtle was in his late twenties. We don’t know much about his early life, although it is believed that he was born and raised in the area near Kekionga. By some accounts, his father was a Miami Chief, but his mother was a Mahican. As a result, Little Turtle could not inherit his father’s position as a tribal chief.
|Chief Little Turtle
There is no good record of the engagement, but Little Turtle assembled a force of local Miami to confront the expedition that had looted Kekionga as it was moving toward Detroit. Little Turtle led the attack. By some accounts a man named Paccanne, who was Beaubien’s brother in law also participated. Paccanne ran a local trading post that La Balme’s expedition might have attacked.
The Miami war party led by Little Turtle caught up with La Balme’s men, leading to an intense battle. The Miami apparently got the upper hand. They killed at least thirty members of the expedition, including La Balme. The Miami suffered only five deaths.
For the French survivors, death might have been preferable. By some accounts three of them were burned at the stake. Some were scalped while still alive. One had his hands and feet cut off before being killed with a tomahawk to the face. Only four prisoners were released to warn the rest of the French against any further attempts to move into Miami territory.
About a week later, word of the battle reached Detroit. The military commander there, Captain Arent Schuyler de Peyster, made a note of the report:
A detachment of Canadians from the Illinois and Post Vincennes arrive [at Kekionga] about 10 days ago, and enter the village, took the horses, destroyed the horned cattle, and plundered a store I allowed to be kept there for the convenience of the Indians, soon after assembled and attacked the Canadians, led by a French colonel.
According to the British account, the La Balme Expedition had initiated the attack: “The Miami resisting the fire of the enemy, had five of their party killed, being, however, more resolute than savages are in general, they beat off the enemy, killed 30.”
The results of the unsuccessful expedition were not very significant. The small British outpost in Detroit was on higher alert. The British rounded up some French in reaction to the incursion. They suspected these Frenchmen could be potentially treasonous and sent them to Montreal. Detroit’s military commander De Peyster, ordered all French traders in the region, other than Beaubien, to move to Detroit so that they could not assist in any future expeditions. De Peyster also sent British rangers to maintain control of the portage at Kekionga.
For the French in Vincennes, the loss was a disaster. Many leading citizens had joined the expedition and never returned. Many of them had also carried legal documents with them, planning to go to Philadelphia to assert legal claims against Virginians who had taken their land. With the loss of these documents, many of the Virginia squatters were able to obtain title to the disputed land.
The Miami even more solidly allied themselves with the British, offering sanctuary to anyone who suffered from treatment by the French or the Americans to their south and west. The Miami also planned an attack on Vincennes, seeking approval from the British and also some assistance for the attack. The British approved the attack, but did not provide any assistance. The Miami never followed through on their attack, but their actions did deter any further French or American attempts to move into Indiana during the remainder of the war.
Next week: We return to the south, where the Swamp Fox, Col. Francis Marion, continues to frustrate British efforts to rule South Carolina.
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Augustin de la Balme https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/augustin-de-la-balme
Mottin De La Balme, Augustin https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mottin-de-la-balme-augustin
Birzer, Bradley J. “French Imperial Remnants on the Middle Ground: The Strange Case of August de La Balme and Charles Beaubien.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-), vol. 93, no. 2, 2000, pp. 132–54. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40193325 also available here: https://web.archive.org/web/20120406183132/http://dig.lib.niu.edu/ISHS/ishs-2000summer/ishs-2000summer135.pdf
“To George Washington from Major General William Heath, 23 April 1777,” (introducing the arrival of La Balme in America) Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0233
“From Benjamin Franklin to John Hancock, 20 January 1777,” (recommending La Balme) Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-23-02-0127
“To George Washington from August 1780 from Mottin de La Balme, 5 March 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-24-02-0524
Sterner, Eric Augustin Mottin De La Balme’s Disastrous Detroit Campaign, Autumn 1780 Sept. 15, 2020: https://emergingrevolutionarywar.org/2020/09/15/augustin-mottin-de-la-balmes-disastrous-detroit-campaign-autumn-1780
La Balme's Defeat: https://www.hauleymusic.com/la-balmes-defeat-november-5-1780
La Balme’s Massacre Site: https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=52758