George Rogers Clark Recaptures Fort Sackville, Part I

March to Vincennes (Wikimedia Commons)
March to Vincennes by Frederick Coffay Yohn, 1875-1933 (Wikimedia Commons–Most of Clark’s men would not have dressed in the blue uniforms visible here, but would have dressed in fur and buckskin like the individual in the middle of the picture.)

Last fall, I posted several pieces following British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton’s campaign in the Illinois territory as seen through the eyes of Captain Norman MacLeod.  MacLeod led an advance party stuck with the logistical and diplomatic mission of moving 33,000 pounds of supplies and trade goods south from Detroit in order to mobilize the local Indian tribes as British allies.  Hamilton’s campaign culminated with the successful capture of Fort Sackville (Vincennes, IN) on December 17, 1778.  Since it’s the 240th anniversary of the campaign, I thought I’d continue the series by shifting to the American perspective, particularly that of Virginia Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers Clark and one of his Captains, Joseph Bowman.  This is not a campaign history by any stretch.  It’s meant more to be considered in combination with portions of MacLeod’s diary that appeared last fall.  Taken together, they might give rise to a few different ideas about the Americans and British fighting the Revolution on the frontier.

Although he planned to recapture the entire Illinois territory, Hamilton decided to winter at Fort Sackville and resume his campaign in the spring.  He dismissed the bulk of his force, settling in at the fort with just under 100 men.  Normally, this would have been a prudent choice.  Hamilton did not expect Clark to retake the field until spring brought about the customary campaign season and dispersing his army eased the logistical burden of maintaining so many men idle in the wilderness.  Hamilton had under-estimated the meddle of his adversary.

On January 29, 1779 word of Fort Sackville’s fall reached Clark, who was wintering in Kaskaskia on the Mississippi. He was already aware that Hamilton had marched into the area and was shuttling among the various settlements of the Mississippi that were largely populated by Frenchmen who had remained behind after the French and Indian War.  Clark was no more able to sustain his force than Hamilton and he had sent many of Virginia militiamen back to Virginia and Kentucky for the winter, deciding instead to rely on the local militia to defend his conquest.

Clark quickly convened a war council of his officers and considered his options.  He could fight Hamilton in the spring, but the British officer would likely be able to bring more force into the field more quickly.  So, Clark didn’t like his prospects.  He and his men could retreat quickly, planning to reach Kentucky and Virginia, but they would have to move soon since Hamilton held a position between them and their homes.  (Kentucky was actually organized as a county of Virginia.)  Retreat, of course, would render all their 1778 success moot and likely mean a resumption of the war on their frontier towns and homes.  He had reasonably accurate intelligence that Hamilton’s garrison numbered fewer than 100 and believed that the poor weather, untimely season, and bad roads would give the British a false sense of security, perhaps leading them to leave their guards down.[1]  So, Clark decided to do what he did best: attack.  He wrote Virginia Governor Patrick Henry, the original sponsor of his venture, from Kaskaskia:

“Being sensible that without a Reinforcement which at present I have hardly a right to Expect that I shall be obliged to give up this Cuntrey to Mr. Hamilton without a turn of Fortune in my favour, I am Resolved to take the advantage of his present Situation and Risque the whole on a Single Battle.  I shall Set out in a few Days with all the Force I can Raise of my own Troops and a few Militia that I can Depend on.”[2]

He ordered a row galley at Kaskaskia on the Mississippi loaded with supplies, guns, powder and shot to descend the Mississippi to the mouth of the Ohio River, at which point it was to proceed up the Ohio and then ascend the Wabash to a point a few miles south of Vincennes and Fort Sackville, there to wait until receiving further orders.[3]  Clark would march the rest of his troops overland, across modern Illinois to the Wabash River in Indiana with an eye toward recapturing Fort Sackville in the dead of winter.

Clark departed on February 5, 1779 with 240 miles of flooded terrain between his small force and Fort Sackville.  In his summary of the campaign, Clark reported his initial care was to distract his men in order to preserve their morale.  His small army met what he called its “first obstruction of any consequence” on the thirteenth, when it arrived at the Little Wabashes, normally two small rivers separated by three miles.  Now, Clark found, they were flooded into one vast watery plain at least three feet deep—sometimes four.  Taken together, Clark estimated the water extended five miles before they would encounter some distant hills.[4] It took three days of watery marching to cross.  Naturally, it rained a third of the time.  The men built scaffolds to hold their baggage until the horses could cross and again shoulder their burdens.  By and large they had marched without provisions and the men were near starving.  On February 17, they reached the Embarrass River, just a few miles below Vincennes.  Clark sent a few men down the Wabash to collect the row galley he had dispatched from Kaskaskia and bring it forward.

Clark’s little army was still about ten miles from Vincennes, with more flooded than dry ground between it and Fort Sackville.  He decided to press on, but said little about the army’s suffering en route:

“If I was sensible that you would let no Person see this relation, I would give You a detail of our suffering for four days in crossing those waters, and the manner it was done, as I am sure that You wou’d Credit it, but it is too incredible for any Perso to believe except that those that are as well acquainted with me as You are, or had experienced something similar to it.  I hope you will excuse me until I have the pleasure of seeing you personally.”[5]

However, one of Clark’s men, Captain Joseph Bowman, kept a journal of the trip.  He noted the same, seemingly endless flooded terrain, recording on February 17:

“About an hour by sun we got near the river Embarras.  Found the country all overflown with water.  We strove to find the Wabash.  Traveled till 8 o’clock in mud and water, but could find no place to encamp on.  Still kept marching on.  Found it impossible to cross Embarras river.  We found the water falling from a small spot of ground; staid there the remainder of the night.  Drizzly and dark weather.”[6]

By February 20, Clark and his men could find no way across the Wabash to get at Fort Sackville, even though they had arrived within the sound of its guns.  Bowman noted, “Camp very quiet but hungry; some almost in despair; many of the Creole volunteers talking of returning.”[7]  These were the French militia from the Mississippi who had joined Clark’s cause and army.  Clark loitered on the west bank of the Wabash for days, dispatching men up and down the river in search of crossing points and canoes they could steal while starting to build his own dugouts.  Eventually, the army assembled enough canoes to ferry its sick and overly fatigued across the river to some hills that rose from its banks.  The rest waded the river, neck deep at points.  Clark led the way.[8]  On the 23rd, George Rogers Clark finally had his army on the same side of the Wabash as Vincennes, Fort Sackville, and Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton. He was ready to retake the town. Bowman wrote, “Never were men to animated with the thought of avenging the wrongs done to their back settlements, as this small army was.”[9]

[1]               George Rogers Clark, “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” November 19, 1779, Col. George Rogers Clark’s Sketch of His Campaign in the Illinois in 1778-1779, (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1869), 64.  The memoir has circulated in many forms, but they generally draw from a lengthy letter Clark composed for George Mason.

[2]               “Clark to Patrick Henry,” February 3, 1779, in James Alton James, ed., George Rogers Clark Papers, 1771-1781, Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library, Volume VIII, Virginia Series, Volume III, (Springfield, IL: Illinois State Historical Library, 1912), 98.

[3]               “Clark to John Rogers,” February 3, 1779 in James, ed., George Rogers Clark Papers, 1771-1781, 100.

[4]               Clark, “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 65.

[5]               Clark, “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 66-67.

[6]               “Major Bowman’s Journal,” in “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 101.

[7]               “Major Bowman’s Journal,” in “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 102.

[8]               “Major Bowman’s Journal,” in “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 103.

[9]               “Major Bowman’s Journal,” in “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 104.



Hamilton Recaptures Fort Sackville: Norman MacLeod’s Campaign Journal, December 17, 1778

4 thoughts on “George Rogers Clark Recaptures Fort Sackville, Part I

  1. BillF

    I’ve been enjoying this series. I’ve enjoyed Allan Eckert’s books, and while I don’t usually like historical fiction, I’ve found them to be more history than fiction. I like learning about the history of the area of the country I live in (OH, KY, IN). Keep up the good work!


  2. Pingback: George Rogers Clark Recaptures Fort Sackville, Part II | Emerging Revolutionary War Era

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