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:
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.
(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.