By February 23, 1779–two hundred and forty years ago—Virginia Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers Clark had marched his little army from the Mississippi across the flooded plains of what would become southern Illinois to the French town of Vincennes on the Wabash River, in modern Indiana. His men were tired, hungry, and waterlogged, but they had made it safely across the Wabash and delivered themselves to the same shore as the town and Fort Sackville, then defended by the much-hated British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton. His river scouts had managed to find a small, dry hillock covered by a grove of trees and within sight of the town and Clark’s force, about 170 strong, lay in the grove drying their clothes by the sun, occasionally taking a wandering citizen from the town prisoner. Clark later reported:
“A thousand Ideas flushed in my Head at this moment. I found that Govr. Hamilton was able to defend himself for a considerable time, but knew that he was not able to turn out of the Fort; that if the Seige Continued long a Superior number might come against us, as I knew there was a Party of English not far above in the River; that if they found out our Numbers [they] might raise the disaffected Savages and harass us. I resolved to appear as Daring as possible, that the Enemy might conceive by our behaviour that we were very numerous and probably discourage them.”
His first action was to draft a letter addressed to the town, letting the residents know his army had arrived and telling those friendly to the American cause to remain in their homes and those disposed toward the British to enter the fort and defend it. His message further declared that no mercy would be shown to those pro-British townspeople who remained outside the fort and signed it with the compliments of his officers and those who might reinforce him, but who were not actually present. It was sheer bravado. Clark had about 170 exhausted men; Hamilton nearly 100, but the advantages of defensive works, supplies, and time. Having dispatched the note, he waited until dusk before marching from the woods and toward the town, making use of the terrain and dim light to reveal only his army’s presence while hiding its numbers. He was convinced it would make his force appear to number about 1,000. His small army made much of the march in chest-high water.
Once in town, Clark took the strongest positions he could find and sent one small party to conduct harassment fire against Fort Sackville. After an English soldier was wounded, the fort began returning fire and Clark dispatched a second group to bring the fort under fire. Clark reported that some of the pro-British Indians in town took the opportunity to depart, while others offered their serves to the American cause. Clark thanked them, but encouraged them to remain in their homes until light lest someone be injured by mistake in the dark.
As day broke on the 24th, Hamilton finally responded to the musket fire with some of his artillery, but Clark’s men remained in cover behind houses, trees, ditches, and the like. The exchange continued for the better part of eighteen hours. The hostilities seemed to give new life to Clark’s little army. He reported:
“In a few hours I found my Prize sure, Certain of taking every Man that I could have wished for, being the whole of those that incited the Indians to War; all my past sufferings vanished: never was a Man more happy. It wanted no encouragement from any Officer to inflame our Troops with a Martial Spirit. The knowledge of the Person they attacted and the thougths of their massacred friends was Sufficient.”
At one point, Clark became aware that some spies were lurking about, but his men could not catch them. Rather than leaving them in the countryside to stir up problems, he backed off the fort so they would enter. Once they did, his force resumed its fire.
Clark eventually sent a message to the fort requesting its surrender and demanding that Hamilton not destroy any official papers contained therein. Hamilton predictably replied that he would do nothing unbecoming of British soldiers and the firing resumed. According to Clark, some townspeople even joined the Americans. After a while, Hamilton hosted a flag and proposed a three-day ceasefire and a conference between himself and Clark. Clark’s initial reaction was to reject any discussions with Hamilton out of hand; he considered the man and his officers responsible for years of Indian raids against the frontier settlements from which Clark and his men came. But, he thought better of it and informed Hamilton he would only accept the Lieutenant Governor’s surrender of himself and post. However, he did accept Hamilton’s offer to meet in conference and named the location as a church in town. Accordingly, they met.
Hamilton offered to surrender, but they could not agree on the terms and Clark was apparently dismissive of Hamilton and treated him in a manner to which he was no doubt unaccustomed. Clark could only recommend that the Lieutenant Governor and his men defend themselves with “spirit and bravery” as those were the only things that might lead the Americans to treat them leniently should they storm the fort. Things got more complicated when Hamilton asked what he and his officers might do to bring things to a peaceful resolution. Clark only indicated that he wanted a sufficient excuse to put the Indians and partisans to death. It was tough talk for a man leading such a small army so far beyond any assistance. But, the bluff clearly had an effect on Hamilton, who returned to the garrison to confer with his officers.
As it happened, Clark was about to provide physical evidence of the lengths to which he was prepared to go to secure the fort’s surrender. Some Kickapoo Indians had joined Clark’s force and discovered a party of Indian raiders returning from Kentucky with two prisoners in tow. The raiders were unaware that the fort was under siege and Clark sent a detachment of his own men to intercept them as they entered town. Thinking that the Clark’s men were allied with the British and sent to greet them, the Indians approached in the open, offering the typical war hollering that signified a successful raid. Clark’s men feigned the “greatest signs of Joy,” at the Indians approach. Then, as the two sides met, the Americans sprung their trap, taking six prisoners, scalping two, and leaving the rest wounded in the fields outside town. Only one of the wounded survived. Bringing the prisoners to town, Clark saw he could use them to impress the Indians in town and demonstrate his superiority over the British on the frontier. He ordered two tomahawked within sight of the fort while the garrison watched from afar, making no move to intervene. According to Clark, the watching Indians understood the message and upbraided the British for not trying to save their fellow Indians. Clearly, Clark’s bluffing and displays of seriousness outside the walls of Fort Sackville were meant for more than one audience; not only did he have to make an impression on Hamilton, he also had to send a message to the townspeople and local Native Americans.
The tomahawk would have found three scalps that day, but for the fact that one of the intended victims was a white man, the son of a Frenchman named St. Croix, who had done admirable service for the Americans. His son had apparently run off to fight with the Indians and the British and was taken prisoner wearing extensive body paint. When the young man realized his pending fate, he jumped up and cried out. St. Croix recognized his son’s voice. Knowing that St. Croix would beg for his son’s life, Clark made himself scarce, intending that the execution would be carried out before St. Croix could convince his commanding officer to spare the son. According to Clark, he was determined not to distinguish between Indian and whites when it came to punishing frontier raiding parties. In the end, however, he relented.
Clark and Hamilton met again with the later proposing new terms of surrender, which Clark refused. Instead, he laid out his own requirements:
- Lieutenant Governor Hamilton would deliver the fort and its stores to Colonel Clark.
- The garrison would march out of the fort, carrying its arms, and deliver themselves as prisoners of war.
- The surrender would take place the following morning.
- The garrison would have three days to settle accounts with local traders and inhabitants.
- The officers and garrison would be allowed to carry their necessary baggage and sundries with them.
Hamilton agreed. On the 25th, Hamilton’s troops marched out of the fort while Clark’s troops marched in and hoisted an American flag. They secured the arms therein and fired a 13-gun salute. In preparation of the salute, the untrained Americans apparently detonated the gunpowder cartridge for a twenty-six pound gun, injuring two officers and four privates.
After the surrender, Clark dispatched men upriver to meet a small relief party bringing provisions down the Wabash to keep the fort supplied through the winter. They returned with the boats, oarsmen and supplies in tow on March 5. With that capture, the number of Clark’s prisoners nearly equaled the size of his army. He had to parole the bulk of them by March 16.
With the fort surrendered and the prisoners paroled, on March 7 Clark dispatched Lieutenant Governor Hamilton up the Ohio bound for Williamsburg and then turned his attention to Indian diplomacy in an attempt to restore security to the Kentucky and Virginia border. On the 20th, with his mission accomplished, Clark and the bulk of his men took all the useful boats and set out down the Wabash to return to Kaskaskia via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
Clark’s letter to George Mason, which is the foundation of the foregoing two pieces, and Bowman’s journal are touchstone sources for the American perspective on the Illinois Campaign. In limiting ourselves to Clark and Bowman as sources for the winter 1778/79 campaign against Fort Sackville, we necessarily leave a lot out: British perspectives, Indian experiences, French fears and expectations as the Illinois country changed hands around them, and so on. That’s part of the reason these two posts don’t begin to approach a campaign history.
But, if you just take those two American snapshots, and compare them with the British perspective revealed by British Captain MacLeod’s journal, a few things come to mind. First, Clark and Bowman are not as dismissive of their enemies as MacLeod was. Where he expected to find cowards that would retreat before the British advance, Clark respected his enemy enough to realize that he could not for a moment appear weak, lest Hamilton capitalize on it. Thus, British self-assuredness may have contributed to Clark’s success by giving the American a weakness to exploit. Clark’s animosity for his enemy is also quite clearly personal, whereas it did not appear so for MacLeod. When they reached Fort Sackville, Clark and his men finally had Henry-the-Hair-Buyer-Hamilton in their sites. For them, he personified the brutality and cruelty that had been inflicted on their frontier towns and homes. Macleod may have been dismissive, but his fight was not so personal.
Second, the Americans and British had decidedly different views of the Native Americans. Hamilton counted on them, which was part of the rationale behind MacLeod’s mission. He paid them more attention and spent more resources on Indian diplomacy. Clark was more dismissive; he was determined to take Fort Sackville without them. Instead of looking to Native Americans as allies, he viewed them as one more variable to be managed during the campaign. Instead, he valued the local white community, largely comprised of Frenchmen who had settled in the area before the war. The speed with which Hamilton’s Indian allies melted away when Clark’s force entered Vincennes suggests the former may have placed too much emphasis on his erstwhile allies.
Third, both MacLeod and Clark/Bowman had to deal with the environment and it figures prominently in their recollections, more so perhaps in the diaries of Bowman and MacLeod than Clark’s account, which was written a few months after the fort’s recapture when he declined to discuss them in great detail. Taken together, they highlight the critical importance that geography and weather played in conducting military operations, particularly when it came to logistics on the frontier. One of the more important features that comes through is the value of rivers. In the eastern theater, they often formed barriers that slowed enemies or protected a flank, as when George Washington escaped Howe’s pursuit by crossing the Delaware in 1776 or failure to control the Chesapeake trapped Cornwallis at Yorktown.
In the western theater, rivers served as highways for moving provisions. MacLeod, perhaps reflecting his role at the head of Hamilton’s baggage train, had to measure success in moving his provisions down frozen rivers and across uneven portages, which required retracing routes in ways that neither Clark or his supply barge had to. For the British, the environment was simply an obstacle to be overcome, whether through hard, backbreaking work or the creativity of damming rivers in order to control the flow of water. Clark, on the other hand, had to move his supplies to Vincennes by a roundabout route over the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash Rivers. He was prepared to live off the land, thereby gambling everything on quickly reaching his target and achieving tactical success. Clark did not anticipate such widespread flooding; indeed he did not encounter it for nearly a week, when it was too late to turn back. Thus, the environment made Clark’s gamble that much more risky, which was not the case for Hamilton.
First-person accounts are always valuable in revealing the mind-set of their authors and adding some color to events. On this 240th anniversary of one of the campaign for Fort Sackville, the accounts by MacLeod, Clark, and Bowman help shed a little light into the American Revolution on the frontier.
 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), 68.
 Lowell H. Harrison, George Rogers Clark and the War in the West, Kindle ed., (Louisville, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1976), Loc. 735.
 Clark, “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 68; “Major Bowman’s Journal,” in “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 105.
 Clark, “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 69.
 Clark, “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 70.
 Clark, “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 71.
 Clark, “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 72-73.
 Clark, “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 74.
 Clark, “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 74.
 “Major Bowman’s Journal,” in “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 108.
 “Major Bowman’s Journal,” in “Clark’s Campaign in the Illinois,” 108.