(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.)
As Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton’s army arrived on the lower Wabash, the river widened and deepened, enabling his much-fatigued army to spread out and make better progress to Vincennes and Fort Sackville. All along the way, the governor’s efforts to grow his army through the addition of Indian allies had largely succeeded, not only increasing his numbers but improving his intelligence about the American forces awaiting him. Those were paltry, indeed.
Clark’s invasion of the Illinois country relied on a small body of hard-bitten men recruited around Pittsburgh and in Virginia, particularly the newly named Kentucky County, Virginia. Beyond that, he successfully convinced French populations in the Illinois Territory to foreswear their allegiance to Great Britain and join the Americans as militia while cowing local Indian villages and tribes into neutrality. While Clark wintered in Kaskaskia, he left Captain Leonard Helm in command at Fort Sackville, which he had renamed Fort Patrick Henry. Not anticipating a British effort to recapture the Illinois country that winter, Helm’s veteran frontiersman had taken leave, forcing him to rely on the unreliable French militia to defend the fort. By the time Hamilton approached the fort, even those had departed, forcing the American captain to defend the place with just three other men. Hamilton knew the fort was drastically undermanned and his for the taking, but his approach to the works demonstrated every bit as much showmanship as Clark had throughout his campaigns.
MacLeod combined his entries for December 16th and 17th, but the selection below describes his experience of the recapture of Fort Patrick Henry–soon again to become Fort Sackville–on December 17th.
“On our landing the Governor order’d a man to remain in every Boat and Perogue. Masonvills Company was order’d to face to the right and march toward the Town. I had orders to remain with my Company where I was till I had orders from him to move. 1/4 of an hour after I received orders to march mu Company towards the Town and form them 100 yds. to the right of Lieut. Schuffelins Division. As Soon as the Governor arrang’d his little Army he sent to the Fort to demand of Captain Helm to Strick [strike] his Collowers, that Governor Hamilton was coming in this Majestys name to take Possession of it immediately. Captain Helm reply as to this message, ask the Governor on what terms he expects the Collowers will be struck and the Fort Surrenderd. On which the Governor Said he wold Soon Sho him on what Terms, then ordered Lieut. DuVernet with the Gun to march on to the Gate. The Detachment of the 8th followed him, then my Company followed by Masonvills and Captain Lamoths in the Rear. The Poor man Deserted by his Officers and men having at this time but three and Seing the Governor Determind to lose no time he struck the Collowers. When we came within 20 yds. to the Fort Gate, and notwithstanding every Precaution taken to Prevent the Savages getting in, a Number of them got in through Gun Ports and began to Seas [seize] every thing they coud com at, in the first Place Anumber if Horses and Hogs. Others again broke the windows with their Tomhawks and got into the house and took every thing they could carry away, one Barrel of Tafia, Some Corn and Papers excepted. After the Savages had gon away with the Plunder the Troops was orderd to take the boats and Perogues under the Fort, bring their tents & bagage on Shoreabd encamp in the Fort. In the mean time the Governor had Some Private talks with Captain Helm. He Seems to be a Plain honest disinterested brave man, his conversation entertaining and Spirited, and I believe the Governor looks upon him as Such for which reason he is a Prisoner at large on his Parole of honor.”
Fort Sackville, and Vincennes, again belonged to the British. The ever-irrepressible George Rogers Clark, however, was not done with the northwest.
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), 111-113.