The hardship George Rogers Clark and his men suffered on the march to Vincennes is almost unimaginable. For seventeen days they marched through snow and ice, sending out hunting parties for food and sleeping on the bare ground. For some stretches, Clark’s small army had to traverse flooded wilderness through ice water shoulder-high, with the shorter men ferried across in canoes and everyone cheered up by the sight of “an antic drummer boy who floated by on his drum.” Clark kept the spirits of the men high, encouraging them to sing and trying hard not to show his doubts. After a while, the shared misery became a bond, strengthening the determination of the army to keep going.
On February 23, seventeen days after they had set out from Kaskaskia, Clark’s band of half-starved, half-frozen men finally arrived within sight of Vincennes. Clark wrote in his memoir:
A little after sunrise I lectured the whole. What I said to them I forget, but it may be easily imagined by a person who could possess my affections for them at that time. I concluded by informing them that surmounting the plain, that was then in full view, and reaching the opposite woods, would put an end to their fatigue; that in a few hours they would have a sight of their long wished for object, and immediately stepped into the water without waiting for any reply. A huzza took place. We generally marched through the water in a line, it was much easiest. Before a third entered, I halted, and, further to prove the men, having some suspicion of three or four, I hallooed to Major Bowman, ordering him to fall in the rear with twenty-five men and put to death any man who refused to march, as we wished to have no such person among us. The whole gave a cry of approbation that it was right, and on we went.
With his army in such weakened condition, it was almost too late. Clark wrote, “Getting about the middle of the plain, the water about knee deep, I found myself sensibly failing, and as there were (here) no trees nor bushes for the men to support themselves by, I doubted that many of the most weak would be drowned. I ordered the canoes to make the land, discharge their loading, and play backward and forward, with all diligence, and pick up the men, and to encourage the party; sent some of the strongest men forward with orders when they got to a certain distance to pass the word back that the water was getting shallow, and when getting near the woods to cry out ‘land.’ This stratagem had its desired effect.” Reaching a small spot of dry land called Warriors’ Island, the army captured an Indian canoe containing “half a quarter of a buffalo.” They divided the meat carefully among 170 famished men. As Clark wrote, “we were now in full view of the fort and town, not a shrub between us, at about two miles’ distance.”
“Our situation was now truly critical,” Clark continued. “No possibility of retreating in case of defeat—and in full view of a town that had, at this time, upward of six hundred men in it, troops, inhabitants and Indians.” Never one to think small, Clark prepared the following letter for the citizens of the town and the British soldiers in Fort Sackville :
To the Inhabitants of Post Vincennes:
GENTLEMEN-Being now within two miles of your village with my army, determined to take your fort this night, and not being willing to surprise you, I take this method to request such of you as are true citizens and willing to enjoy the liberty I bring you, to remain still in your houses; and that those, if any there be, that are friends to the king of England, will instantly repair to the fort and join his troops and fight like men. And if any such as do not go to the fort should hereafter be discovered that did not repair to the garrison, they may depend on severe punishment. On the contrary, those who are true friends to liberty may expect to be well treated as such, and I once more request that they may keep out of the streets, for every person found under arms, on my arrival, will be treated as an enemy.
G. R. CLARK.
Henry Hamilton was flabbergasted. He had been caught by total surprise, and had no idea the nature or strength of the force that was facing him. Clark ordered that all of the company’s flags be marched back and forth behind a slight rise to convince the British that he had 600 men rather than 170. Clark’s frontiersmen, masters of the long rifle, opened fire on the fort with such accuracy that the British were prevented from opening their gunports. After a harrowing night under siege, Hamilton sent a message proposing a three-day truce. Clark refused, sending the following reply:
Colonel Clark’s compliments to Governor Hamilton, and begs leave to inform him that he will not agree to any other terms than that of Mr. Hamilton surrendering himself and garrison prisoners at discretion.
G. R. CLARK.
Meanwhile, Clark began tunneling under the fort with the intent of exploding the gunpowder stores within it. When an Indian raiding party Hamilton had sent out attempted to return to the fort, Clark’s men killed or captured all of them. They tomahawked several Indian prisoners in full view of the fort and flung their bodies in the river, adding to the terror and uncertainty of the men within.
On the morning of the third day, February 25, Henry Hamilton surrendered the British garrison and all its stores and ammunition. As they marched out of Fort Sackville, Hamilton stared in disbelief at Clark’s band of exhausted, ragged, hungry frontiersmen. He asked, “Colonel Clark, where is your army?” Clark replied proudly, “This, sir, is them.”
Henry Hamilton was sent to Williamsburg as a prisoner. The British never regained control of the Illinois posts, and the American claims in the old Northwest served as the basis of the cession of these lands to the United States at the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The British withdrew from Detroit after the War of 1812, and the Great Lakes became the northern boundary of the United States.
As for George Rogers Clark, he was never to reap the glory of what he had achieved. Clark had assumed personal responsibility for many expenses incurred in his campaigns. Clark sent his vouchers to Virginia for repayment, but the vouchers were supposedly lost (though they were eventually rediscovered in an attic in a state building in 1913). Clark was never able to obtain repayment from either Virginia or the United States Congress. Crushed by insurmountable debt, he was hounded by creditors for the rest of his life. Instead of monetary reward, the Virginia General Assembly voted Clark “an elegant sword.” Apparently, Clark didn’t think much of the gesture. According to his nephews, he “took the fine sword, walked out on the bank of the river with none present but his servant, thrust the blade deep in the ground, & gave the hilt a kick with his foot, broke it off and sent it into the river.”
Treated shabbily in his own time, George Rogers Clark’s contribution and reputation enjoyed something of a rehabilitation in the early 20th century. In the early 1920’s, as the 150th anniversary of the taking of Fort Sackville neared, the citizens of Vincennes, Indiana proposed a monument be erected at Fort Sackville to commemorate Clark’s role in securing the Illinois Country for the United States. The Clark Memorial was dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in June, 1936. In keeping with the magnitude of Clark’s achievements, it is the largest national memorial outside of Washington, D.C.
For more great reading on George Rogers Clark, please visit the Indiana Historical Bureau, which provided much of the information for this post.