When most people think of the American War of Independence, they think of General George Washington and the Continental Army battling red clad, British regulars or suffering in the snows of Valley Forge. But there was another George Washington. A George Washington of the West. His name was George Rogers Clark. Made from the mold of determination, he received little schooling, yet he had the complete respect of his men. He took chances that many thought unwise, but in the end usually worked out for the best. Slogging through swamps in freezing weather, hungry, cold and weak, Clark and his men trudged through the wilderness. But sadly, these heroes of the past are becoming forgotten heroes.
Vincennes was a British post, whose population was made up of Indians and French settlers. It was vital that Vincennes didn’t stay in British hands, lest they (the British) decide to invade the eastern States. If this were to happen, the British forces in the West would push the Continental Army into the clutches of the main British Army in the East. A perfectly set trap that Colonel George Rogers Clark wasn’t going to let happen if he could help it. It would be the end of America’s future. So to keep that from happening, America would have to gain control of Vincennes. America was depending upon this ‘small speck on the map’.
With the support of a Catholic priest by the name of Pierre Gibault, Vincennes willingly surrendered to Clark. The US flag now flew proudly over Vincennes. With that ‘small feat’ finished Clark left the town’s fort, Sackville, in the command of the Captain Leonard Helm.
The news of Vincennes fall reached British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton in Detroit.Obviously, he was not thrilled. Thus, on October 7, 1778 he set out with a force of about 240. Although cold days and freezing nights proved troublesome and miserable for the troops, Hamilton unflinchingly pushed them cover a large span of miles. By the end of the journey Hamilton sought and gained Indian allies as well as doubled his forces’ number.
In Vincennes, Captain Helm had been deserted by those under his command, excepting for a few loyal men. Not nearly enough to hold the enemy at bay. He wrote a message to Clark telling of his desperate plight, “You must think how I feel; not four men that I really depend upon; but am determined to act brave – think of my condition. I know it is out of my power to defend the town, as not one of the militia will take arms, though before sight of the army no braver men. There is a flag at a small distance”. Unfortunately, that message was intercepted by Hamilton. Helm, unable to defend Fort Sackville, was forced to surrender to Hamilton, but not before negotiating civilized terms of surrender which would be enforced soon after. And once again the fort was given up without firing a shot.
Hamilton immediately set his men to repairing the fort. They dug a well and completed a half finished barracks, in addition to building a guardhouse. Hamilton was making sure that he had the upper hand if the fort was ever attacked. And with the coming storm of Clark and his troops he would need every bit of help he could get.
Clark learned indefinitely of Fort Sackville’s fall in late January. With the same determination and grit as Hamilton, so Clark possessed when he left Kaskaskia on February 6th. It would be a grueling, arduous journey for the Americans. While steering clear of Britain’s Indian allies they would have to trek through swamps and rivers. As the rather ‘insignificant’ force pushed onward with Vincennes on their mind, they came to the Little Wabash rivers. The crossing was cold and as Clark explained, “the bank of one to the opposite bank of the other is five miles. This whole distance we found covered with some three feet of water being never less than two, and frequently four feet in depth”. Yet, even through this the troops had a good approach. “Their spirits rose to such a pitch that [in their imaginings] they soon took Vincennes and divided the spoil, and before bedtime were far advanced on the road to Detroit”. Finally on the 23rd they arrived in Vincennes.
Earlier that day Clark put himself and his men at risk, by sending the townspeople a message. It was a risk, because they had again switched their loyalties. In the message Clark said to those who were Loyalists, to find shelter in the fort and prepare to fight. But those who considered themselves Patriots, they would be “well treated”. He also asked all of the people to stay off of the streets, “for any person found under arms upon my arrival will be treated as the enemy”.
The French made no move to warn Hamilton and so those within the fort remained blissfully unaware of America’s presence in Vincennes. Hamilton, however, had an eyewitness who had seen the American camp nearby. Fortunately for Clark, Hamilton made hardly any effort to take the threat seriously, other than keep the militia in the fort and issue bullets. On the whole, no doubt Hamilton thought, would the ragtag Rebels dare attack His Majesty’s troops on the eve of winter? Poor Hamilton was still oblivious, even to the last minute as bullets whistled by.But as a man under his command was hit, he fully comprehended what was happening. He ordered his men to their posts and so began the battling. Clark had the fort surrounded, and for once the Patriots had the advantage over the British.
Outside the fort Clark’s men hid behind buildings and picket fences, firing at the fort’s occupants. It was Hamilton’s belief that Clark had 500 men. It was in reality only 150. That’s how effective the American troops tactics were.
On the morning of the 24th Clark offered Hamilton a truce, which the Lieutenant Governor stubbornly decided against. As a result, the temporary golden silence, was again replaced with the reports of rifles and muskets. The sound of an American sharpshooter’s rifle was a disheartening sound for the soldiers in the fort. Many a comrade’s life had come to a permanent halt, due to the sharpshooters accuracy.
Hamilton, seeing the hopelessness of his situation, chose to meet with Colonel Clark and begin negotiations. Clark was adamant during discussions. He would accept and unconditional surrender. When Hamilton questioned his reasons, Clark responded, “I knew the greater part of principal Indian partisans of Detroit were with him and I desired free to put them to death or treat them in any way I might think proper”. Finally, Hamilton and Clark came to agreement. The next morning Fort Sackville was surrendered to Colonel Clark “with due formality” signaling the end of Hamilton’s distinctive career in America. Captain Helm was given the privilege of raising the United States flag over the newly named Fort Patrick Henry, which was named in honor of Virginia’s governor.
In the end, the trying ordeal had undoubtedly worked out for the best for America. In the frontiers and in the East it gave hope to the American citizens and struck fear in the hearts of the Loyalists far and wide. Clark, a man with little formal schooling, and his small, mostly undisciplined force had overcome Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton’s ‘superior’ force, who were, by the way, part of the world’s most professional army. But still the British would continue to underestimate the ‘Rebels’, although victories would follow. The British Empire had an uncompromising foe in Colonel Clark and would do well to remember that everything Clark was, represented the American frontiersman. Although Washington best represented the more English-like citizens of the East, Clark and Washington both fought and believed in the cause of freedom. But Clark continues to take a backseat, farther and farther into the back of American memory. His more sullied later life sometimes overshadows his accomplishments. It was the determination of people such as Clark that helped win freedom for we the people.