Location: Vincennes, Indiana (midway between Louisville, Kentucky and St. Louis, Missouri)
In the spring a young woman’s fancy turns to George Rogers Clark. Or at least mine does, remembering a couple of great trips we made to Vincennes, Indiana, to visit the site of Clark’s amazing victory over the British at Fort Sackville in 1779. Ultimately, Clark’s triumph had incalculable consequences: it secured for the United States the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and a portion of Minnesota. It is impossible to imagine the Louisiana Purchase and westward expansion without Clark’s triumph.
I’ve approached Vincennes from both Louisville and St. Louis. From Louisville, most of the driving is on a winding highway through the woods, which unfortunately must be shared with innumerable trucks. The St. Louis route is more interesting and educational. Taking tiny backroads will enable you to closely follow the trail that George Rogers Clark and his band of 172 intrepid volunteers followed in 1779, when they set off for a surprise winter attack against British forces who controlled Fort Sackville on the Wabash River near the French village of Vincennes.
Acting on the time-honored underdog principle that the best defense is a good offense, Clark aimed to destroy the forces of British General Henry Hamilton (despised on the American frontier as the “Hair Buyer” for his practice of encouraging Indian scalping raids) before Hamilton could bring his superior forces out in the spring and destroy Clark’s. Today’s route lets you skip the frozen swamps they encountered and instead takes you past cultivated fields,big farmhouses and barns (some in full operation and some abandoned), and many little Illinois towns.
And fortunately, you can cross ravines on old railroad bridges with names like Wabash Cannonball and Baby Bear. Clark and his men weren’t so lucky. They encountered a completely flooded landscape. The account of their courageous approach to Vincennes is the centerpiece of James Alexander Thom’s Long Knife (highly recommended). Clark and many of his men would never be the same after the physical suffering they underwent here.
It’s one of the great mysteries of my entire Lewis & Clark existence that the incredible contributions of George Rogers Clark to his nation’s history are now considered “local history” and rarely taught outside of the Ohio River Valley. That certainly wasn’t the case in the 1920s, during the sesquicentennial of the American Revolution. The state of Indiana laid plans to build a memorial to Clark, a project that was taken over in the 1930s by the federal government. Completed in 1936 and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Clark memorial is the largest federal monument outside of Washington, D.C. and, along with the Jefferson Memorial and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial in New York, the last of the great classical federal monuments.
The Clark memorial is situated in a lovely park along the Wabash on the one-time site of Fort Sackville. It appears all the more gigantic in scale with the town of Vincennes, a slightly seedy old railroad town awaiting history’s next call. At the visitors’ center adjacent to the memorial, we saw some small but interesting exhibits, received instructions form a guide in period dress who made darn sure we didn’t go away ignorant of the relationship between George Rogers Clark and his younger brother William, and took in a good film about George and the Vincennes campaign.
A pleasant walk takes you to the magnificent Beaux-Arts monument itself, designed by Frederic Charles Hirons, whose portfolio included numerous public buildings. Inside the rotunda, a beautiful statue of George by Hermon Atkins MacNeil stands in the center. MacNeil is best known for designing the famous “Standing Liberty” U.S. quarter, as well as sculpting the figure of “Justice” for the U.S. Supreme Court building. Some of Clark’s famous quotations are displayed on the floor and walls, including:
“If a country is not worth protecting, it is not worth claiming.”
“Great things have been effected by a few men well conducted.”
On all sides are large and thoughtful murals done by Ezra Winter depicting the scenes of George’s heroism, including leading settlers into Kentucky, taking Kaskaskia, and leading the march to Vincennes. It was fun to talk to the guard and learn some about the structural issues that constantly plague the monument, mostly due to the challenges of maintaining it in the extremely harsh conditions that prevail in winter.
Afterwards, I highly recommend that you stroll the grounds to take a look at the Wabash and particularly to visit the Johns Angel statue of George’s friend, the great patriot Francis Vigo. Vigo was an Italian immigrant and fur trader who helped the patiot cause with money and intelligence. For his trouble, he was financially ruined when the U.S. government refused to reimburse Clark for his expenses (essentially destroying Clark’s life). Vigo died in poverty, though his heirs pursued his case, finally winning restitution for Vigo’s services in 1875 — a century after the war! Also, don’t miss the nearby historic church with its statue of another of Clark’s benefactors, Father Pierre Gibault, who persuaded the French inhabitants of Vincennes and the rest of the Illinois territory to aid the Americans.
Vincennes is a great place to visit for anyone who deeply cares about the founding of this country. Here, Clark pulled off one of the great bloodless victories of all time, a colossal, audacious bluff in which he convinced Hamilton that he was camped on his doorstep with five times the forces he actually had. The befuddled general surrendered to Clark without firing a shot. Imagine Hamilton’s surprise when Clark’s array of starving frontiersmen trooped into Fort Sackville to take possession, and he realized he’d been had by a 26-year-old Virginian who just happened to be a military genius.
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