Archive for the ‘American Revolution’ Category

Location: Vincennes, Indiana (midway between Louisville, Kentucky and St. Louis, Missouri)

George Rogers Clark Memorial, Vincennes, Indiana

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.

Inside the George Rogers Clark Memorial

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.

Liz at the statue of Francis Vigo, Vincennes, Indiana

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.

For more reading:

George Rogers Clark and the Taking of Vincennes, Part I
George Rogers Clark and the Taking of Vincennes, Part II
Great George Rogers Clark site from the Indiana Historical Bureau

Read Full Post »

George Rogers Clark and the Defense of Fort Harrod in 1777, by Frederick Yohn

The first obligation of the historical novelist is to create a believable alternate universe, a world of the past that people can enter and explore from the perspective of our own times. When we think about entering the world of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, we may think of technology (no electricity, no telegraph, no railroads, no steamboats). We may think of politics (the U.S. was not a world power, the Indians still hunted the buffalo unmolested by white expansion). Or we may think of glaring social differences, such as the existence of slavery or the role of women.

One difference we may not always consider is the difference in psychology that existed on Lewis and Clark’s frontier. Quite simply, a huge percentage of the population spent years living under the constant threat of Indian raids, and many people had witnessed atrocities and even engaged in mortal combat with the Indians. Today we might expect people who experienced such helplessness and horror to be at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is best understood as a persistent anxiety disorder that is caused by severe trauma that threatens you with serious injury or death. People may suffer from PTSD after a natural disaster or being the victim of a crime, but it is most commonly associated with combat veterans.To some degree the affliction is still quite poorly understood, especially why some people suffer from PTSD and others who endured the same events do not. The answer may lie in biochemistry, differences in the brain, or even genetics. The National Institutes of Health estimates 8% of people involved in a traumatic event will develop the disorder, though some experts believe it is significantly higher.

PTSD has been observed in combat veterans going back to the Civil War, though it was called by other names such as combat fatigue, shell shock, and soldier’s heart. So what about the frontier of Lewis & Clark’s time?

The defense of Boonesborough, 1777

Of the two explorers, the most likely to have been intimately familiar with frontier trauma was William Clark. From the time he was 14, Clark grew up on the Kentucky frontier. During the American Revolution, Kentucky was by far the most violent place in America; in fact, some historians believe that from 1776-1794, Kentucky was the most violent place in the world. In a great article (published in the Australian academic journal ERAS, November 2008) called “Soldiers of Settlement: Violence and Psychological Warfare on the Kentucky Frontier, 1775-1783,” Darren Reid writes about the relentless everyday warfare suffered by Kentuckians during the Revolution and early Federal period. Deaths by combat were seven times higher than in any of the 13 rebelling colonies, and many of them came among civilians.

Meriwether Lewis spent several years of his boyhood on the Georgia frontier, and family lore holds that the family had a tense wait for an Indian raid on one occasion, though fortunately no violence actually occurred. Kentucky was different and far worse. Essentially, almost every adult Clark knew had been a part of extreme traumatic violence, either as a victim, perpetrator, witness, or all three. Certainly Clark’s legendary older brother, the great frontier soldier George Rogers Clark, was deeply involved in the relentless warfare, having formulated and carried out numerous daring plans to combat the British and their allies among the Shawnee, Cherokee, Wyandot, and numerous other tribes.

Clark’s own family suffered severe losses during the frontier war. Clark’s brother Dick, age 24, was serving as an assistant to George Rogers when he disappeared while carrying a message near present-day Vincennes, Indiana. His body was never found but he was presumed killed by Indians. Clark’s cousin Joe Rogers was among the many frontiersmen kidnapped by the Shawnee. As memorably recounted in Long Knife by James Alexander Thom, Rogers lived as a captive for several years before troops engaged with the Shawnee at the Battle of Piqua near present-day Cincinnati in 1782. Unrecognizable as his former self, he was gunned down by American forces under the command of George Rogers Clark while trying to run to the American lines. One can only imagine the anguish of Clark recovering the body of his dead cousin.

The Shawnee and their allies were highly organized and militarily savvy, and they were backed by the full power of the British in supplying both arms and advisers to drive the Americans out of Kentucky. Atrocities included torture, mutilation, and kidnapping of children, which resulted in a spiraling war of retaliation and revenge. Even after the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution in 1783, the British did not vacate their frontier forts (though required to do so by the treaty) and continue to arm and back the Indians.

Kentucky militia reenactor. Courtesy Sumac Enterprises (Ohio-based storytellers and reenactors Fred and Ross Shaw)

William Clark may have begun to go out on engagements to fight the Indians with George when he was as young as 16. It is certain that he enlisted in the Kentucky militia at the age of 19 and took part in several search-and-destroy missions against the Indians, including burning villages and crops. In at least one of these skirmishes, Indians attempting to flee in canoes were massacred.

At the age of 21, Clark served as a militiaman under our old friend General James Wilkinson, burning Indian villages but being extremely fortunate to miss the battle known as St. Clair’s Defeat. The losses suffered by the U.S. Army and Kentucky militia in the battle were staggering and have been compared by historians to the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Clark would almost certainly have been killed.

In 1792, Clark was commissioned an infantry lieutenant in the regular army, then being rebuilt almost from scratch by General Anthony Wayne. By 1794, he was highly experienced at scouting and escorting supply convoys and had become a skilled leader, woodsman, and riverman. In March of that year, a large pack train under his command was attacked by Indians. Clark built a breastwork of baggage and fought the Indians off. In August, he commanded a group of Chickasaw allies in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, one of the most decisive battles in American history. This excerpt from our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe gives something of the flavor of that day:

The forest exploded. Hidden in the weeds and the trees, the Indians fired. Balls thudded into flesh. Trees splintered and became projectiles, jagged shards of wood spiraling into faces and eyes.

The forest screamed. Soldiers bellowed, officers roared, horses shrieked. Clark bawled so many orders at the Chickasaws he lost his voice, and now couldn’t remember anything he’d said. Guns blasted everywhere.

In his article, Reid explicitly compares the frontier period in Kentucky with the “woodland warfare” experienced by troops in Vietnam, including the factors of guerrilla war, atrocities committed against civilians, and a constant sense that danger was lurking everywhere and could strike at any moment. Added to that was the witnessing of the suffering of women and children when their men were killed in the war — a circumstance that, in the words of one settler, left the families “poor, distressed, & naked, & starved.”

For decades to come, frontiersmen were often characterized as hard-drinking, violent, and anti-social, as well as restless and always ready to move on to the next frontier. It would be interesting to know to what degree PTSD played a role in these aspects of life in the early American West. In any case, dealing with traumatized people would have simply been part of life for William Clark (and later, during his many years on the frontier, Meriwether Lewis). Who knows — it’s even possible PTSD may have played a role in the alcoholism and lack of focus that characterized the post-war years of George Rogers Clark.

Recent studies of the effects of PTSD on the civilian populaces of places like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan show that the populations have much higher levels of mental illness than similar countries where death and horror are not everyday realities. Combat survivors, who generally have no access to mental health care, suffer from violent flashbacks and unexpected rages. There is even a new word in the language of Rwanda: ihahamuka, which means “breathless with frequent fear.”

Without any mental health care records whatsoever, it’s hard to know how one would go about researching the prevalence of PTSD on the frontier. What is certain is that Clark, Lewis, and anyone else navigating the social scene on the frontier would have to be aware that a huge percentage of the soldiers and civilians they encountered had been involved in the carnage — a reality so gruesome that, thankfully, few of us can imagine it today.

For more reading:

The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part 1
The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part 2
Young William Clark
Lewis and Clark road trip: Old Fort Harrod

Read Full Post »

The Burning of Washington, 1814

The Burning of Washington, 1814

Today marks the 197th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg. The day began with President James Madison confident that the U.S. capital was safe from the threat of British attack. It ended with the public buildings of Washington a smoking ruin. It is one of the ironies of history that the battle that is sometimes called “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms” led to the genesis of the modern U.S. Army.

From the colonial period forward, Americans had had a deep mistrust of standing armies. Colonials who fought alongside British troops in the French and Indian War had a low opinion of British troops, finding that the redcoats were generally coarse, profane drunkards from the lower ranks of British society. Further aggravating colonists’ hostility towards the British Army was the massive debt incurred during the conflict, which led the British Parliament to tax the colonies more heavily. The Quartering Act, which required colonists to provide housing and provisions for troops in their own homes, was another thorn in the colonists’ side. For many, the British Army began to seem like merely an expensive way to enforce King George’s tyranny.

The Boston Massacre, March 1770

The Boston Massacre, March 1770

With the Boston Massacre in March 1770, Americans’ dislike of British soldiers turned into a rebellious rage. The death of five civilians at the hands of British troops crystallized American attitudes about standing armies for generations. The final draft of the Declaration of Independence railed against King George’s abuse of the army’s power. Citing his insistence that the British army was independent of American civilian authority, his quartering the troops among the people, and his use of mercenary soldiers, the Declaration accused King George of using the army to “compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny.”

After independence, James Madison was one of the founding fathers who most strongly opposed creating a standing army on the American continent. Despite Madison’s support for a strong central government, he felt that a regular professional army could not be “a safe companion to liberty.” Madison told the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, “The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending have enslaved the people.”

Most Americans shared Madison’s view. By the early 19th century, hatred of a standing army had become a powerful and near-universal attitude among the American people. The Continental Army was quickly disbanded after the Revolution, and irregular state militias were generally relied upon for local defense, with the exception of regular troops posted on the western frontier and at the arsenal at West Point. The Legion of the United States, created in 1792 to counteract the British/Indian threat on the western frontier, was disbanded after its victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the signing of the Treaty of Greenville, and the surrender of British forts in 1796.

James Madison

James Madison

During the Jefferson years, the regular U.S. Army was kept small, weak, and deeply politicized. Jefferson tolerated the dubious loyalties of commanding General James Wilkinson in exchange for his commitment to keep the army firmly under civilian control. The officer corps was full of incompetent dinosaurs from the Revolution, appointed mostly for political purposes, and the army relied heavily on the participation of citizen-soldiers – the mainstay of the Revolution – which all too often were poorly trained and ill-equipped for battle. It was this army that Madison inherited, and saw in action at Bladensburg, in August 1814.

The British Army, newly energized by the defeat and exile of Napoleon in the spring of 1814, had turned its attentions to the American theater. A brigade of British troops under Major General Robert Ross, consisting entirely of veterans from the army of the Duke of Wellington,  arrived in the Chesapeake Bay to “effect a diversion on the coasts of the United States of America in favor of the army employed in the defence of Upper and Lower Canada.”

U.S. Secretary of War John Armstrong was not concerned about an attack on Washington, believing the British were more likely to attack the more strategic city of Baltimore. Commanding the troops defending Washington was Brigadier General William H. Winder, a lawyer by trade and a veteran of the Battle of Stoney Creek. Although Winder theoretically had 15,000 militia at his disposal, his “boots on the ground” troop strength was actually about 120 Dragoons, 300 Regular troops, and 1500 poorly trained militia.

General William H. Winder

General William H. Winder

After a brief clash with Ross’s leading troops on August 22, Winder fell back and began to set up a line of defense at Bladensburg. Bladensburg commanded the roads to Baltimore, Annapolis, and one the two roads available for an advance on Washington. Unfortunately, Winder had placed Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury in command at Bladensburg. When Stansbury received a message from Winder that he had withdrawn across the Eastern Branch of the Potomac and intended to fire the lower bridge, Stansbury panicked, abandoned his strong position, and threw away the American tactical advantage.

The action the next day was a disaster for the Americans. The defending U.S. troops were poorly placed and their fire was largely ineffectual. When it became clear the British were about to overwhelm their position, the poorly-trained militia broke and ran, fleeing through the streets of Washington. A group of 400 navy men and marines desperately tried to hold the field, but were heavily outnumbered, badly cut up, and forced to retire.

The road to Washington was wide open, and the British marched in. That night, they burned the Capitol, the White House, and most of Washington’s other public buildings to the ground. Madison, who along with the rest of the cabinet had been present at the battle, was forced to flee for his life and liberty. The cabinet’s hasty flight was later satirized in an 1816 poem, “The Bladensburg Races:”

So like an arrow swift he flew,

Shot from an archer’s bow;

So did he fly—so after him

As swift did fly MONROE.

Six gentlemen upon the road

Beheld our GENERAL ride—

MONROE behind—the chapeau gone;

The broadsword by his side.

As for Madison, what he had seen on the battlefield caused him to reexamine his long-held prejudice against a standing army. Just before the White House went up in flames, he exclaimed, “I could never have believed that so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force, if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.” Madison’s eyewitness view of the debacle at Bladensburg, along with the superb performance of well-trained American troops under General Winfield Scott at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane earlier in the summer, convinced him that a well-trained, well-equipped standing army was not a danger to liberty, but a vital part of national defense.

The Battle of Lundy's Lane, July 1814

The Battle of Lundy's Lane, July 1814

This sea-change in Madison’s attitude led to a wholesale reorganization of the U.S. Army. Within the next year, four-fifths of the Old Army’s officer corps was dismissed, with the new criteria for an officer’s appointment being competence to serve rather than political affiliation. Under new Secretary of War William Crawford, funding was provided for a military general staff, an expanded military academy at West Point, and improved conditions and uniform drill for new recruits. Much of their training was to be implemented by Winfield Scott, the hero of Lundy’s Lane. Out of disgrace and defeat at Bladensburg, the modern U.S. army was born.

Read Full Post »

Flight from Monticello, by Michael Kranish

I’ve been on a Thomas Jefferson kick lately. There’s so much to learn and try to understand about this fascinating, enigmatic, and contradictory man. I just finished reading Flight from Monticello by Michael Kranish and really, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Kranish tells a story that was almost entirely unknown to me: the story of Jefferson as the wartime governor of Virginia. In 1781, the British, led by the traitor Benedict Arnold, mounted a major invasion of the state, and one objective was clear: Get Thomas Jefferson. How Jefferson escaped, how and why the British overran the state, and how they were stopped at Yorktown make for truly delightful reading.

 This is a book worth savoring for its many untold stories. One of the most astonishing concerned the aftermath of the stunning American victory at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. As a result of the victory, the Americans had taken prisoner over 5000 British and Hessian (German mercenary) troops. In those days, it was generally a tradition to “parole” prisoners of war on the condition that they promise never to take up arms in the conflict again. But after about 1000 prisoners were released to Canada, Congress realized that the chances of the British honoring such a ban were practically nil.

Congressional representatives from Virginia made an audacious proposal. They suggested that Virginia would build a sprawling prisoner-of-war camp near Charlottesville, home of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson and others believed that housing thousands of enemy soldiers would result in a bonanza of federal money into the area. In addition, the soldiers would buy local goods, and craftsmen among the prisoners could be put to work on local plantations. Jefferson, a fine violinist who was ever restless about the lack of cultural peers in Virginia, also voiced the hope that some fine musicians among the Hessian officers might be willing to play with him.

Hessian Prisoners of War (Courtesy National Archives)

The prisoners reached Charlottesville in January 1779 after a grueling winter march from their previous barracks in Boston. As one Hessian officer wrote, “Never have I seen men so discouraged and in such despair as ours, when, tired and worn out from the long trip and the hardships, they had to seek shelter in the woods like wild animals.” But before long, the crude, leaking shelters known as “Albemarle Barracks” became home to some 4000 men — making the encampment the largest “city” in Virginia, nearly twice as large as the capital at Williamsburg.

Jefferson was worried about the scandalous conditions, which soon prompted calls to move the barracks away from Charlottesville. He estimated that the POW camp was pumping about $30,000 a week into the local economy (well over $300,000 a week in current dollars). As spring arrived, conditions improved, mostly due to the efforts of the prisoners themselves, who fixed up the barracks, planted gardens, began to raise livestock, and constructed their own store, coffeehouse, church, tavern complete with a billiard table, and a theater with a sign reading “Who would have expected all this here?” A number of the German prisoners simply walked away from the prison to intermarry with local girls or move out west to begin new lives.

William Phillips (1731-1781). Phillips died during the invasion of Virginia and is buried in Petersburg, Virginia. Jefferson called him "the proudest man of the proudest nation on earth."

Meanwhile, thanks in part to Jefferson’s lobbying, the officers were permitted to rent some of the best homes in Charlottesville for their lodging. Jefferson soon became close with Brigadier General William Phillips, a stout and ruthless artillerist, and Baron Frederick von Riedesel, the Hessian commander. Riedesel was even joined at the mountainside estate of Colle by his three daughters and his statuesesque wife, who shocked Charlottesville society by riding her horse astride.

Music formed the foundation of friendship between Jefferson and the Hessians. Before long, just as Jefferson had dreamed, he was playing duets with a Hessian violinist, while Mrs. Jefferson played the pianoforte and the Baroness led dances. Apparently, Jefferson saw nothing disturbing in forming close friendships with officers who had led brutal charges against American soldiers. He also apparently thought nothing of the intimacy with which the British and Hessians were coming to know the rivers and roads around Charlottesville, even allowing Phillips and Riedesel to leave Charlottesville to travel to Berkeley Springs, 134 miles further into the interior of the state, to visit a health resort.

In the summer of 1779, Jefferson became governor of wartime Virginia and had to leave Charlottesville for the seat of government in Williamsburg. Not long after taking office, he received a furious letter from George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, demanding to know why hundreds of British and Hessian prisoners were simply packing their bags and walking away from the lightly-guarded camp in Charlottesville. Though embarrassed, Jefferson was convinced Phillips and Riedesel knew nothing of the escapes.

Later in the year, the two officers were exchanged for American prisoners. Riedesel and his family ended up in Canada, where the Baron served as a senior military official. As for Phillips, Jefferson looked forward to socializing with him again in times of peace. And Phillips would indeed return to Virginia: as commanding officer of a force of 4500 with orders to invade the state and take Thomas Jefferson prisoner.

Albemarle Barracks was belatedly closed by Governor Jefferson in the fall of 1780, as the state lay open to invasion. The remaining prisoners were marching north to Fort Frederick, Maryland, where they were held until the end of war. As in Charlottesville, a number of the Hessians remained behind and settled in the United States.

Flight from Monticello tells a story that is complex, fascinating, and at times even funny. This is a must-read book for any history lover!

Read Full Post »

We’ve been ragging on Thomas Jefferson a lot in this blog lately. In the interest of fairness, we feel compelled to give TJ a bit of positive face time. For your entertainment, here is a fantastic satirical video by Soomo Publishing, which uses the song “Apologize” by  One Republic, featuring Timbaland, to illustrate the momentous events leading up to the Declaration of Independence. You will see Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and cohorts in a whole new rockin’ way. I wish this had been around when I was studying high school history. I bet teachers and students alike love it. Enjoy!

Read Full Post »

Colonel George Hancock

Colonel George Hancock

In March 1807, William Clark confided to Meriwether Lewis that he had asked for the hand of young Julia Hancock in marriage. “I have made an attacked most vigorously, we have come to terms, and a delivery is to be made first of January,” Clark wrote proudly. He expressed surprise that his future father-in-law, Colonel George Hancock, had turned out to have anti-Jeffersonian political leanings. Clark wrote that Hancock was “a Fed which I did not know untill the other day. I took him to be a good plain republican.”

Perhaps Clark shouldn’t have been surprised about Hancock being a Federalist, as Hancock came from one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the country. His father, also named George Hancock, owned large possessions in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Accompanied by a large number of slaves, the elder George Hancock fled South Carolina during the early days of the Revolution, when the British took possession of the seacoast. Ill with gout, the old man faltered and died on the road.

Count Kasimir Pulaski falls at the siege of Savannah, 1779

Count Kasimir Pulaski falls at the siege of Savannah, 1779

Young George Hancock entered the Revolutionary Was as an ensign from Chesterfield County, Va., in 1776, at the age of 22. He served on the staff of Count Kasimir Pulaski and was said to have been one of the officers who caught Pulaski’s body in his arms when the count fell mortally wounded from his horse during the siege of Savannah in October 1779. Captured by the British, Hancock survived the war, went home to Virginia, married a wealthy young lady, and became a successful lawyer. Together he and his wife had five children. One biographical sketch of Hancock says that he “had a splendid presence, being six feet three inches in height, and possessed much of the personal beauty that distinguished his daughters as among the most beautiful women in Virginia.”

Fotheringay in Botetourt County, VA

Fotheringay in Botetourt County, VA

Hancock was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates from 1784 – 1792 and represented Botetourt County as a federalist member of the Third and Fourth United States Congress. He received his title as “colonel” in 1785 by appointment to the Virginia militia. Hancock was also a highly successful planter. He owned at least two beautiful houses on fine estates. One was “Santillane” in Fincastle, where William Clark first met Hancock’s 11-year old daughter Julia, who would later become the first Mrs. Clark. The other home was “Fotheringay” in Botetourt County. Fotheringay took its name from the castle in England where the imprisonment, trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, took place. Fotheringay was also home to a number of slaves, and Hancock was known as a strict slave-master.

Fotheringay and Colonel Hancock are at the center of one of the most bizarre burial stories in Virginia history. According to tradition, following his death in 1820, Hancock was interred in the family tomb on a mountainside at Fotheringay either standing or sitting in a marble chair.

In 1886, a member of a subsequent family who owned the estate, a Miss Anne Beale Edmundson, went into the vault in 1886 in preparation to having it repaired and to investigate whether or not Hancock was, indeed, “buried standing up.” According to a 1935 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, this is what she found: “On the floor a mass of crumbled bones and stones were found. Near the top of the heap was the skull of what she supposed was the last of the earthly remains of Colonel Hancock. At the bottom of the pile were other bones identified as the legs and trunk. The position of the bones and the fact that they were intermingled with the disintegrated stone led to the belief that the body had rested upon some kind of support in a sitting position.”

George Hancock's tomb at Fotheringay

George Hancock's tomb at Fotheringay

In an interview, Miss Edmundson reported:

I can hardly believe he was placed in the vault in a standing position. If that were true, it would have been necessary to support his body with a chain or some other device to prevent it from falling down. When I examined the interior of the vault I found no chain nor other supports which could have been used for this purpose.

The theory as to Colonel Hancock’s burial in a sitting position is further substantiated by the fact that the tomb contains three other bodies, all laid to rest in the usual way. These are his daughter, Julia, who married General William Clark, brother of George Rogers Clark, conqueror of the Northwest Territory; a son, John Strother Hancock, who died at the age of 8, and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Patrick Lockhart, who was the former Mrs. George Strother, mother of Margaret Strother, wife of Colonel Hancock. When I entered the vault I found the bones of all three of these bodies intact in their niches in the walls of the tomb. If Colonel Hancock had not been buried in an unusual way, why didn’t his bones occupy a niche in the wall like the others?

According to tradition, the colonel wished to be buried sitting up so he could look down into the valley (dubbed with the misnomer “Happy Valley”) and make sure his slaves were hard at work. Which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the kind of guy Colonel Hancock was—definitely not a man who would subscribe to a crazy notion like “all men are created equal.”

Read Full Post »

James Monroe

James Monroe: No pushover, he

Early America wasn’t for sissies. In the 18th century, even the most distinguished gentlemen who moved in the highest of circles had to be ready to rumble. I recently read that President James Monroe, who carried a bullet in his shoulder throughout his life from the Battle of Trenton, once got into a heated argument with his Secretary of the Treasury, William Crawford, over the issue of government patronage. Crawford—who had once killed a man in a duel—called Monroe “a damned infernal old scoundrel.” Monroe responded by grabbing up a pair of fireplace tongs and brandishing them at Crawford’s head. Fortunately tempers cooled before actual blood was shed.

President's House, Philadelphia

President's House, Philadelphia

One of my favorite anecdotes about George Washington comes from the book Historic Philadelphia, published by the American Philosophical Society. George Washington was at home in the President’s House on Market Street one morning when he heard a scream from downstairs. Charging down half-dressed and half-shaved, he found a tradesman molesting one of his maids. Washington promptly grabbed the man, spun him around, and booted him out the door. With a big, bare, presidential foot.

General George Rogers Clark is a major character in our book The Fairest Portion of the Globe, and his military exploits during the American Revolution are the stuff of legend. Clark was also about as close as a real person can be to a character in a romantic novel. In descriptions of Clark written by his contemporaries, I am always struck by two things. The writer never fails to mention Clark’s intelligence. And, he was evidently an attractive “hunk” of a man.

George Rogers Clark Defending the Stockade, by F.C. Yohn

George Rogers Clark Defending the Stockade, by F.C. Yohn

One of the earliest contemporaneous descriptions of George Rogers Clark comes from the journal of Englishman Nicholas Creswell, who encountered the 22-year old Clark on a journey down the Ohio River in 1775. “We took into our company Captain George Clark,” Creswell wrote. “This morning Captn Clark (who I find is an intelligent man) showed me a root that the Indians call pocoon, good for the bite of a rattle snake.” Creswell didn’t get along with some of the Americans, whom he called “red-hot liberty men,” but he noted, “Clark always behaved well while he stayed with us.”

Clark’s dignified, self-controlled conduct seemed to be a striking feature of his personality. Governor John Reynolds of Illinois in particular seems to have had a man-crush on Clark.

Col. Clark himself was nature’s favorite, in his person as well as his mind. He was large and athletic, capable of enduring much—yet formed with such noble symmetry and manly beauty, that he combined much grace and elegance together with great firmness of character. He was grave and dignified in deportment, agreeable and affable with his soldiers when relaxed from duty, but in a crisis, when the fate of a campaign was at stake or the lives of his brave warriors were in danger he became stern and severe. His appearance in these perils indicated without language to his men that every soldier must do his duty.

Father Pierre Gibault

Father Pierre Gibault of Kaskaskia

A six-foot redhead with rugged good looks, Clark personified an early American type made famous by Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: the tough, resourceful frontier gentleman. That sometimes meant a little bit of backwoods flash. A Kentucky contemporary said of Clark, “His appearance, well calculated to attract attention, was rendered particularly agreeable by the manliness of his deportment and the intelligence of his conversation.” Clark’s own accounts of his Illinois campaign reveal a frank, dignified, unpretentious character. However, he also knew how to use shock and awe. When Clark and his men captured Kaskaskia in June of 1778, a delegation of terrified townspeople, led by the village priest Father Pierre Gibault, came to learn how Clark intended to deal with them. Clark left this account in his memoir:

After some time the priest got permission to wait on me. He came, with five or six elderly gentlemen with him. However shocked they already were from their situation, the addition was obvious and great when they entered the room where I was sitting with other officers [all making] a dirty, savage appearance. As we had left our clothes at the river, we were almost naked, and torn by the bushes and briars. They were shocked, and it was some time before they could venture to take seats, and longer before they would speak.

The townspeople begged for permission to gather at the church, which Clark permitted. The next day, with everyone still terrified and expecting to be imprisoned or executed at any moment, a cleaned-up Clark was at pains to assure them that no one was going to be hurt and that the Virginians were “not savages and plunderers as they conceived.” Henry Hamilton disagreed, calling Clark and his men “unprincipled motley Banditti” after Clark forced him to surrender Fort Sackville.

Hamilton surrenders Fort Sackville, 1779

Clark and his "unprincipled motley Banditti" take Ft. Sackville, 1779

My all-time favorite description of George Rogers Clark comes from a brief but incredibly descriptive memoir on a fascinating genealogical site, written by a woman named Lucy Clark Moorman. What a writer she was! In a 1786 letter to Thomas Moorman of Albemarle County, Virginia, she gives us this indelible picture of the immortal “Hannibal of the West.”

We have seen Rogers Clark but once in 10 years, he migrated from about Lynch’s Crossing, I think about 1775 to Fincastle on the Ohio River, but he was back to see us a year afterwards when he came to see the Governor of Virginia about defense of that part of the state. Rogers made several trips back into the state since then and it is not always to see how the Indians were doing.

He always came unexpectedly and since he needed no daylight to see where he was going, he always moved at night. Sister Mary says George often visits them, but since he is an owl and disdains even moonlight, he travels on dark nights. When he comes home he stretches his long legs on the settee and entertains the boys with his histories of savagery in the country.

Rogers has sifted the ways and doings of most folk in this part of the dominion and knows every oaf who favors the King’s party. We were always afraid that no good would come of his talking before the boys. Zachariah and Bolling always had a spell of tinkering with old saw blades to make a cutlass after he was gone.

We often kept a dip burning in the window and some soup on the stove to cheer the poor fellows that were prowling about at night. I am glad to help them but when our boys go with them on some desperate foray, I am always afraid of trouble. …

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »