(An occasional series highlighting British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton’s march south from Detroit to recapture Vincennes (Indiana) on its 240th anniversary through the entries in Captain Norman MacLeod’s diary.)
This year marked the 240th anniversary of George Rogers Clark’s “conquest of the Illinois country” in modern-day Illinois and Indiana. During the summer, he led a small force of Virginia militia down the Ohio River and eventually captured the towns of Vincennes in modern-day Indiana as well as Cahokia and Kaskaskia in modern-day Illinois. The British Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, Henry Hamilton, could not abide such American audacity and set out to recapture the town of Vincennes and the British fort that had ostensibly protected it, Fort Sackville. On his march south from Detroit, he prodded, pleaded, and encouraged Native American tribes to join his force, significantly swelling his numbers for the late-fall offensive. By October, Hamilton’s army was regularly struggling with low water and ice on the rivers it needed to move supplies while freezing rain, snow, and falling temperatures plagued men on the march.
Captain Norman MacLeod, a Scots-born veteran of the British army and former Indian commissary at Detroit, rejoined the British Army with the outbreak of the American Revolution and participated in Hamilton’s offensive. With responsibility for moving the stores and trade goods that Hamilton planned to use to entice the Indians to join him, MacLeod’s campaign was an up-close-and-personal experience of the challenges of frontier logistics during the war. Days often began by dispatching an ad-hoc team of amateur engineers ahead with picks and axes to remove obstacles in the river, such as fallen trees and rocks, that could impede river traffic. The water was so low in some areas that MacLeod and Hamilton resorted to damming up the rivers and creating a reservoir from which to conduct controlled releases that would help the boats navigate down the river.
Fortunately, the captain kept a journal of the campaign, which the Friends of the Detroit Public Library and Wayne State University Press collaborated to publish in 1978, the 200th anniversary of the campaign. His entries for October 30-31 highlight the challenges of moving supplies down wild rivers on the 18th century frontier.
“The night the Governor had been been here he damed upe the water and left one Sergeant and three men to guard it with one Boat and one Perogue both loaded. Upon our arrival there the dame was let open and we went through…we proceeded through the Camain Couvert, a narrow little gut fill of willows almost meeting over your head and scarce the length of a boat without a Point which makes it very Serpintain. After going through you get into a quagmire wher you can Scarce observe anything of a River and the Stream barely Percievable.”
William A. Evans and Elizabeth S. Sklar, eds., Detroit to Fort Sackville, 1778-1779: The Journal of Norman MacLeod, (Detroit: Friends of the Detroit Public Library/Wayne State University Press, 1978), 74.