Revolutionary War Historical Article

Battle of Vincennes
Victory for G. W. Clark

By California Compatriot Charles R. (Chuck) Lampman

Editor's Note: Reprinted by Permission from the SAR Magazine, Winter 2004

The British, since the end of the French and Indian War, had made a great effort to keep the Indians friendly to them in the area of what is now Southern Illinois and Ohio. By the time of the Revolution, they had turned the Indians against the colonists who were encroaching on the Indian hunting grounds. Lt. Governor of Canada, Lt. Colonel Henry Hamilton had made arrangements with the Indians to reward them for all scalps they brought to him and was given the nickname of "the Hair Buyer". The French at the villages of Cahokia, Bellefontaine, Kaskaskia and Vincennes had aligned themselves with the British while the village of St. Louis belonging to the Spanish remained neutral.

A young militia Lt. Colonel George Rogers Clark conceived a bold plan to capture the French settlements, thus opening the Mississippi for safe passage and ensuring that the Patriots could continue to receive war supplies from the Spanish at New Orleans. Clark sent two scouts, Ben Lyon and Samuel Moore to reconnoiter. They reported back on the forts' weakness and he became assured that his plans were feasible. He then convinced Patrick Henry, the Governor of Virginia, on the plan. Secretly he also had the backing of Thomas Jefferson, George Mason and Richard Henry Lee.

This dramatic painting is one of several at the George Rogers
Clark National Historical Park in Vincennes, Indiana that
depicts the life of Patriot Clark. Here he is accepting the
surrender of Fort Sackville from Colonel Henry Hamilton.


On June 26, 1778, Lt. Colonel Clark set out with about 200 men from Virginia and arrived at Kaskaskia (Illinois) on the 4th of July. The local French militia leader at Fort Gage, the Chevalier Phillippe de Rocheblave, was caught by surprise and Fort Gage was captured without firing a shot. When the French learned that an Alliance with France had been signed in June, 1778, and that France had declared war on Great Britain, they were elated.

On July 14th, Father Pierre Gibault, with a few of Roger's militia left for Fort Sackville at Vincennes in the Ohio Territory to inform them of the new treaty with France. On the 20th of July the French at Vincennes also swore allegiance to the Americans. Because of his small force, Clark could only leave three men to man the fort. Clark then dispatched Captain Joseph Brown with 30 mounted men to the French settlements of Prairie du Roche and Cahokia, accompanied by some Frenchmen, to spread the word about the Alliance. The French were elated and quickly pledged their support to the Americans.

By August 6th the British learned of the events at Kaskaskia and Fort Sackville and made plans to recapture the fort. On the 7th of October Lt. Colonel Henry Hamilton departed Detroit with approximately 175 troops and 60 Indians for Vincennes. By the time he arrived, on December 17th, his force had grown to about 500. The fort at Vincennes was defended only by Captain Leonard Helm and three Virginians, the French militia having drifted away. Helm surrounded Vincennes without firing a shot.

By this time Lt. Colonel Clark was in a dangerous position. Since his arrival in July, Indians loyal to the British were all around him. He was running low on supplies for the winter. Oliver Pollack at New Orleans with the assistance of Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish Governor of New Orleans, shipped whatever supplies he could to Clark. Without this support Clark could not have continued with the Northwestern Operations.

Shortly after the capture of Vincennes, Lt. Colonel Hamilton, believing no one would attack him during the winter, let his Indians and his militias return to their homes. That left him with only 35 regular troops to defend the fort.

1779 TO BE VERY FATEFUL YEAR

The events of the first two months of the year have been described by James A. James as an expedition which proved to be one of the most heroic and dramatic undertakings of the American Revolution.

Prior to Clark learning of the fall of Vincennes, the French took a neutrality oath fearing severe repercussions at the hands of the British. On January 29th, Colonel Francis Vigo arrived at Kaskaskia and informed Clark of the events at Vincennes. Vigo, a Spanish trader from St. Louis, had been captured at Vincennes while delivering supplies to Captain Leonard Helm. Although Hamilton suspected him of being a patriot sympathizer, he allowed him to go free because he was Spanish. Hamilton did require Vigo to give his word he would return to St. Louis without doing anything injurious to the British en route. Vigo kept his word but upon arriving at St. Louis immediately set out to inform Clark of the capture. Clark realized that the British with superior forces planned to initiate a spring campaign against him. He was in grave danger of losing the entire Kentucky territory and the necessary water route from New Orleans. Clark knew that the only way to prevent this was to conduct a surprise winter attack against Hamilton at Vincennes. The next day an order for supplies of $1,452 was drawn on Oliver Pollock's account and accepted by Vigo.

On February 4th Clark dispatched the row galley Willing, with a crew of 46 men under the command of his older brother Lieutenant John Clark. The Willing was loaded with ammunition and other supplies. They were to proceed down the Mississippi, up the Ohio, and north up the Wabash and anchor a short distance from Vincennes to prevent escape of any British by the river and act as a supply vessel for the expedition.

CLARK'S EXPEDITION LEAVES FOR VINCENNES

On February 5th, Lt. Colonel Clark commenced his expedition to recapture Vincennes with a force of only 172 men, nearly one-half of them local Frenchmen carrying their own colors. Vincennes was 180 miles away. Although it had been a mild winter, heavy rains had left many of the trails mired in mud and much of the lowlands under several inches to many feet of water. Most of the streams the expedition would have to cross were swollen from the rains.

The next couple of weeks would be filled with hardships that Clark described, as so poor that no one would believe except the men who were living through it. The first couple of days were on fairly level ground but because of the rain the ground was covered with several inches of water. On the 13th, the party arrived at the junction of the two branches of the Little Wabash. Normally the two branches were separated but this time they were as one with the floodwaters. They spent about two days building a canoe to ferry the men and supplies across the river.

On the 17th, they arrived at the Embarrass River, which they could not ford, again because of the floodwaters. The party then traveled downstream to the Wabash where it took them another two days to build boats to cross the river. The men were now experiencing real hunger and fatigue. Because even the animals had fled the floods to get to higher and drier ground, game was scarce.

On the 20th, they captured five hunters on the river and learned that so far Clark's approach had not been detected. The hunters told them that the French at Vincennes were sympathetic toward the Americans because of the treatment they had received from Lt. Colonel Hamilton.

On the 21st, the force ferried across the Wabash and for several hours had to walk in water up to their shoulders. They finally reached high ground where they rested and tried to dry their clothes. The next day they resumed the march and reached a place called Sugar-Camp, about six miles from Vincennes. It was a bitter cold night for the men.

The 23rd saw the party cold and still wet but they continued on until they reached the Horse Shoe Plain completely exhausted. Shortly after their arrival they captured some Indians on the river and took from them a quarter of a buffalo. The men's spirits were lifted as they devoured their first hot food in days plus the fact that it was only a short march to Warriors Island from which they could see Vincennes and Fort Sackville. They spent the rest of the day hunting and drying their clothes and other supplies.

Later in the day a French hunter was captured without raising an alarm. The hunter proved to be a friend to the Americans and informed Clark of the conditions at the fort and how it was defended. Clark was unsure of the reaction of the people of Vincennes and knew a long siege of the fort would probably bring reinforcements to Hamilton and would defeat his mission. Clark realized he had to make a bold move quickly.

CLARK DEVELOPS PLAN OF ATTACK

Clark's plan was to inform the people of the village that he intended to take the fort that night. He announced that any who wanted to cooperate with his plan would stay in their houses and anyone found outside would be considered hostile. The captured French hunter carried the message to the village and to the surprise and delight of the Americans there was silence from the fort - neither warning gun nor drum. Of course Clark did not reveal to the hunter the size of his actual force but hinted that it numbered approximately 1,000 men.

Shortly before sundown on the 23rd, Clark assembled his men. He marched them in two battalion groups, one led by him and the other by Capt. Joseph Bowman. The groups marched along with drums beating and banners flying. By using the cover of a couple of small ridge lines, Clark marched them just out of sight and then scrambled a group back to march forward again. He repeated this maneuver several times, thus giving the impression that his force was indeed about 1,000 men. The maneuver worked and Clark was careful not to let the townspeople actually see any but a small group of men at anyone time. About 8 PM the group gained the heights southwest of the town. Even with all the fanfare, the fort did not appear alerted. Clark sent Lieutenant Bayley and fourteen of the Virginians to take up positions around the fort and to commence fire at his signal. The rest of the men occupied the town. It was reported that several of the towns people brought hot food out to the troops.

PATRIOT SHOTS INTERRUPT CARD GAME

Meanwhile in the fort, Hamilton had invited Captain Helm to join him for an evening game of cards. No sooner had they sat down than a shot rang out followed by a volley of shots. Hamilton thought it was just some of the Indians in Vincennes firing. He was unaware that those Indians had fled upon the approach of the Americans. It was not until informed that one of his sergeants was wounded that he ordered the drummer to beat to quarters. Shortly thereafter, a British surgeon made it back to the fort from town and reported that Clark had surrounded the fort with at least 500 men. By now Bowman's men were about 120 yards from the main gate and other sharpshooters were within 30 yards of the northeast palisade. The rest were taking cover behind houses, barns and natural barriers. Fire commenced on the fort's gun ports and any other openings that could be identified. The fire was so accurate that the defenders were forced to close the gun ports and thus lost the use of their cannons. When some tried to reopen a gun port, the fire wounded six of the British, one-sixth of Hamilton's regulars.

A British patrol heard the firing and returned to the town. They evaded Clark's forces by taking shelter in a barn but soon two of them deserted and were captured. They revealed the whereabouts of the patrol and Clark made an unusual decision. He ordered a cease-fire and allowed the patrol to scurry to the fort, scaling one of the walls to safety. Now Clark did not have to worry about any of them alerting the friendly Indians to reinforce the British.

Firing continued sporadically throughout the rest of the night. By daybreak on the 24th the defenders sharply increased their firing. At 8:00 AM Clark called for a truce and sent one of his French captains to the fort with a letter of surrender to Hamilton. In the letter he warned Hamilton that if he did not surrender, he would suffer the consequences. Hamilton refused and firing became very intense on both sides. The attackers using typical siege tactics, began to dig a tunnel towards the fort's powder magazine. Hamilton saw that his situation was hopeless - reinforcements from Detroit, some 600 miles away would never arrive in time and half of his troops were French whose loyalties he could not now count on. Further, he still thought he was completely surrounded by more than 500 men. Hamilton considered surrender and, displaying a white flag, he proposed in a letter to Clark that they call a three-day truce giving them time to discuss terms. Clark answered that he must unconditionally surrender immediately and that if Hamilton still desired a conference, he should come under a flag of truce to the Catholic church which was just southwest of the fort.

IN THE MEANTIME...

While this conference was taking place, some 15 to 20 Ottawa and Delaware warriors with two French partisans were seen coming down the hill on the buffalo trace with two prisoners. Having been alerted of their coming, Clark sent Captain John Williams to greet them as though he were British. When one partisan became suddenly suspicious, Williams immediately seized him. The others, seeing their mistake, turned and attempted to escape but Williams' men opened fire killing two, wounding three and capturing eight. The captive Indians were then paraded through the main street by the front gate and with their hands bound ordered to sit in a circle within full sight of the British in the fort. To discourage any further Indian participation with the British, Clark ordered them tomahawked in full sight of Hamilton and the British garrison. He then ordered the French partisan leader who was dressed and painted like the Indians to be killed if he tried to escape.

About 2 PM the front gate of the fort opened and Lt. Colonel Hamilton in full dress walked down the street accompanied by his Major, Jehu Hay, and Captain Leonard Helm. He gave a list of conditions for surrender to Clark who immediately rejected them and repeated his demand for unconditional surrender. Clark told him that his cannons would arrive within a matter of hours and continued resistance of the fort would then be futile. After much discussion Clark finally agreed to moderate his terms and gave Hamilton a half hour to accept them, which he finally did and was allowed to return to the fort.

CLARK RAISES AMERICAN FLAG

The next morning, February 25th, Lt. Colonel Hamilton did not raise the British flag over the fort. At about lOAM he and his men marched out of the fort and stacked and surrendered their arms. Clark then led his two companies of ragged and rough men into the fort and raised the American flag. When asked by Hamilton, "Where is your army?" Clark indicated they were all in front of him. Lt. Colonel Hamilton slowly turned away and reportedly had tears in his eyes. He had just surrendered to a force much inferior than he was tricked into believing.

CLARK A TRUE PATRIOT AND GENIUS

Without the continued flow of supplies into Pennsylvania from the west through the Cumberland Gap and down the Braddock Road, Washington's armies, already poorly equipped, might not have prevailed. Clark had also prevented the British and Indians from opening a second front. George Rogers Clark continued to serve his country and eventually moved to Kentucky, dying there in 1818. Better known today are the exploits of his youngest brother, William Clark, who joined with Meriwether Lewis in a historic journey "up the river Missouri...to the Western Ocean."

 

Lafayette said that Clark was in every way equal to George Washington as a field commander. Thomas Jefferson wrote of Clark, "no man alive rated him higher than I did". It was at the urging of the future President James Madison that Clark wrote a long letter which was his only memoir. George Rogers Clark, while few know of him today, was a true military genius and patriot.

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