Men Of The Revolution: 11. George Rogers Clark

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It is of a piece with the rest of the story that the portrait of George Rogers Clark which his son described as “a Masterpiece” was painted long after the events that made him famous, when he was in the throes of his final illness, embittered and forgotten. Nor should it surprise anyone familiar with Clark’s sad tale that he should have commissioned the portrait himself or that he personally paid an itinerant painter named C. D. Cook eighty dollars for the work that required a month of sittings, since the old soldier’s face was so often contorted with pain that the artist could not continue.

Clark’s career, after all, was like the passage of a meteor —a quick, fiery moment that lit up the heavens for all to see and wonder at, only to vanish into oblivion. Yet in that brief, shining instant he revealed himself as one of the truly great captains of the Revolutionary War—never once losing a battle, saving the Old Northwest for the new nation and establishing its frontier firmly on the Mississippi River, whence all future westward expansion would be launched.

Born in 1752 near Charlottesville, Virginia, Clark was one of ten children. Of the six sons, five were officers in the Revolution, and the one who missed out on it was only five years old when it began (he more than made up for the omission by undertaking a highly important journey of exploration with his friend Meriwether Lewis in 1803). At nineteen, the tough, redheaded Ceorge Rogers Clark was surveying lands along the Ohio River, moving constantly in and out of forbidden territory beyond the Appalachians, and by the time war broke out in Massachusetts, he was a veteran Indian fighter and had made Harrodsburg, the first settlement in what is now Kentucky, his home.

War was nothing new to Clark and to the others struggling to establish footholds in a West controlled by the British and their Indian allies. Burned-out villages and murderous attacks by scalping parties were accepted hazards of existence in that dark and bloody wilderness, but no settler had known anything to equal the ferocity that began in 1777. That spring Lord George Germain, England’s Secretary of State for the American Colonies, ordered British commanders to arm the “merciless Indian Savages” (to quote the complaint against such tactics in the Declaration of Independence), and he encouraged raids on the new settlements, initiating the true years of horror for the frontier.

The way to discourage these forays, Clark knew, was to strike at the source and “distress the garrison at Detroit,” the British headquarters and supply base commanded by Henry Hamilton, infamous to Kentuckians as the Hair Buyer. From some hunters he sent out on a spying mission, Clark learned that the British outposts in the Illinois country—populated by Frenchmen who had been there for generations—were ripe for the plucking, if anyone could get to them. British troops had been recalled from Kaskaskia, on the Mississippi River; the fort there was in ruinous condition; and nearby Fort Chartres had been abandoned. The capture of Kaskaskia, he believed, would enable the Americans to dominate the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, help control the Indians, and perhaps win the allegiance of the French locals, who had no love for the British. Since Virginia claimed all this region, Clark set off on his own hook to Williamsburg and persuaded Governor Patrick Henry to let him raise troops for a secret expedition into Illinois country.

He assembled about a hundred fifty men, telling them that they were going to “defend Kentucky,” and after picking up additional volunteers on the way arrived at the Falls of the Ohio in May, 1778, where he informed his followers that their real destination was Kaskaskia—several hundred miles to the west—where they would attack an enemy of unknown strength in the middle of a country overrun by hostile Indians. Some men requested permission to go home, and a few deserted, but on June 36 (a day marked by an eclipse of the sun “that created unwanted alarm among the Soldiers”) Clark and a hundred seventy-eight men set out on flatboats and coasted down the Ohio to the mouth of the Tennessee River, where they struck off overland. Their only food was what they could carry and berries picked along the way (Clark dared not risk discovery by letting them fire on game), and after nine days they arrived at Kaskaskia, slipped into the town after dark, and took it without firing a shot.

Impressed by Clark’s firm but generous treatment, a group of Frenchmen from Kaskaskia accompanied thirty of his “Long Knives” to Cahokia, fifty miles to the north, and persuaded their countrymen there to swear allegiance to the Americans. A hundred fifty miles from Kaskaskia was Vincennes, and Clark’s pliant new allies also succeeded in talking its residents into yielding the town to Clark, who, before returning to Kaskaskia, garrisoned it with all the men he could spare—twenty-five Americans and Frenchmen under a sixty-year-old Indian fighter by the name of Leonard Helm.