Men Of The Revolution: 11. George Rogers Clark

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When word of Clark’s triumphs (although not the name of the conqueror, so secret had his plans remained) reached Detroit, Hamilton assembled a force of British regulars and Indians and with some artillery and a vast array of supplies began making his way toward Vincennes in October of 1778. Hamilton’s army of five hundred men took seventy-one days to make the arduous trip through the first snows of winter, and before he reached Vincennes, he captured an American patrol and learned that Helm was helpless. According to a later account, the British arrived at the fort to find the entrance blocked by one cannon, one soldier, and Helm, who stood there with a lighted artillery match in one hand and a bottle in the other. When he got the best terms he thought he could, he put out the match.

Clark reacted characteristically to the news of Vincennes’ fall. Well aware that if he did not take Hamilton, the latter would surely take him, he struck out for Vincennes in the middle of winter, across prairie lands that were little more than frozen water and half-frozen mud. He had about a hundred seventy men—forty of whom he sent off on a riverboat called the Willing , intending that they should travel up the Wabash River to a point about thirty miles below Vincennes and await orders while he led the remainder of his force overland. What roads existed could only be described as frightful, it rained without letup, and the men were never dry, even at night; but Clark was a born leader, and he pushed and cajoled and allowed them to shoot game as a diversion (each company took turns inviting the others to dinner) until they finally reached the banks of the Little Wabash on February 13, after enduring what their commander described as “Increditable difficulties.”

Then the real ordeal commenced. Ahead, the waters of the Wabash and Little Wabash had overflowed and become one vast flood, and Clark “Viewed this sheet of Water for some time with Distrust” before plunging in and striking out for the only dry land in sight—five miles away. As they pushed through water three or four feet deep the troops were cheered by “a little Antick Drummer”—a fourteen-year-old lad from Cahokia who floated along on top of his drum, singing comic songs—and by the time they reached the bank of the Wabash on February 18, they were only nine miles from Vincennes and could hear the fort’s morning gun being fired.

There was no sign of the Willing , and Clark’s party was suffering from hunger, fatigue, and exposure, but after waiting several days they crossed the deepest part of the river in two makeshift canoes and then set out on foot again, in water up to their shoulders, holding their powder over their heads to keep it dry. When they reached a soggy hill and collapsed, longing for food and wondering what lay ahead, they had been in or on the icy water for four days.

Clark let them rest awhile, then he blackened his face with powder, gave a war whoop, and strode into the water again, telling the men nearest him to start singing. At nightfall they made camp on àhalf acre of dry ground, where they found a few possums, a fox, and some nuts to eat. That night the weather turned bitter cold, and at sunrise on February 23 Clark roused his men and gave them a little speech. They had to cross a flooded plain known as Horse Shoe Prairie to reach high land, he told them, but there they would “put an End to their fatigue.” What this hopeful note really meant, in case anyone wondered, was that they would storm a newly rebuilt fort held by five hundred British and Indians as the “End to their fatigue.”

Once again Clark took the lead, and whenever he found that the water was getting deeper, he would sing out that it was shallower up ahead. Finally they reached dry ground, and the day, for once, was fair. They captured a canoe filled with Indian women who had some buffalo meat, from which they made hot broth; and after drying their clothes they shuttled across a deep lake, a boatload of men at a time. From the other side it was two miles to the town of Vincennes.

A patrol brought in a French prisoner, and Clark—without letting him see how few troops he had—gave him a message for the other Frenchmen in town, telling them to stay inside unless they wanted to join in fighting the British. He told the prisoner that he had a thousand men and that they had come from Kentucky (no one would possibly believe they had made their way across the flooded plains between Vincennes and Kaskaskia), and as dusk fell Clark ordered his little army to spread out in a wide skirmish line. He distributed twenty flags and spaced them at intervals along the line, and as the Long Knives moved toward Vincennes the French inhabitants believed that twenty companies were attacking. (The British were blissfully unaware of the movement, since the prisoner Clark released did not inform them.)