Men Of The Revolution: 11. George Rogers Clark

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When Clark’s men entered the town and seized the main street, Hamilton still had no idea they were there. He was in the fort playing cards with Helm, and his first intimation that something was wrong was the sound of shots, which he at first took for the work of a party of drunks. By that time it was too late to do anything but hold out until daylight, and all night the shooting went on, Clark’s soldiers moving around from one position to another, keeping up a constant fire, making as much noise as possible to give the impression of great numbers. In the morning the American sent a flag of truce to the fort with a message calling Hamilton a murderer and demanding immediate surrender. Hamilton replied starchily that “he and his Garrison are not disposed to be awed into any action Unworthy of British subjects,” and as the shooting resumed Clark’s snipers took a steady toll of the defenders.

What broke the impasse was Clark’s capture of a party of returning Indians; within view of the garrison he had five of them tomahawked, and when Hamilton came out to parley, Clark sat coolly on the edge of a canoe, washing blood off his hands. On February 25, 1779, Hamilton’s troops filed out of the fort to lay down their arms, and two companies of Long Knives marched in. Hamilton looked at the handful of rough, ragged men and turned to the American commander: “Colonel Clark,” he asked, “where is your army?” This was it, Clark replied, and the Briton turned away with tears in his eyes.

George Rogers Clark was then twenty-five years old. He had initiated and won a campaign that stands with Benedict Arnold’s march to Quebec as one of the most heroic sagas of the war; he had conquered the Illinois country, winning over the French and numerous Indian tribes, providing the United States with the basis for its successful claim to the land between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi; and he proposed to exploit his victories, as soon as he could raise the necessary troops and money, by seizing British-held Detroit. The Continental Congress sent him thanks, and the Virginia legislature, in whose behalf he had campaigned, voted him “an elegant sword,” but that same legislature refused him the men, supplies, and money for the expedition against Detroit, and the sword they sent was secondhand. Clark received it in silence from the messenger, broke it in two, and threw the hilt into the Ohio River. Although he could not know it, the peak of his career had passed.

There would be more Indian fighting, more plans for military exploits that never came off, but Clark would learn, as time wore on, that no winter wind along the Wabash blew as cold as man’s ingratitude. Until the end of his days his chief foe was to be a bureaucracy he could not comprehend, which prevented him from collecting his own and his men’s back pay and the money with which he had personally financed his expeditions, obtained by pledging his own funds and his land as security. He made a trip to Virginia to press his claims, but the state gave him nothing but land, which his creditors promptly seized for the debts he had assumed in Virginia’s behalf. He drifted into surveying again, became a partner in an ill-fated meathunting firm, and worked for a while as an Indian commissioner, but he never succeeded in staving off financial ruin. Sick at heart, he turned to drink, and by 1805, while his young brother William was exploring the new West, a visitor found him living in a cabin near the Falls of the Ohio, racked with rheumatism, “frail and helpless,” his only companion the bottle. That same year Virginia finally voted him a pension of four hundred dollars a year and awarded him a new, elaborately engraved sword, but the old soldier had no need of a weapon, and a story made the rounds that he told the emissary who presented it to him, “Young man, when Virginia needed a sword, I found her one. Now I need bread.”

Four years later Clark fell into the big stone fireplace in his cabin, burning one leg so badly that it had to be amputated, and he was taken to Louisville for the operation. No anesthetic was available, of course, but in order to distract the patient the commander of the local Kentucky militia—Captain George Rogers Clark Floyd—paraded his command outside the room where Clark lay and marched them round and round the building, with fifes tootling and drums banging away. While the surgeon sawed off the limb and sealed the wound with a red-hot iron, Clark tapped his fingers in time to the sound of his memories and when the operation was over turned to the surgeon and asked, “Well, is it off?”

He never used a wooden leg, but spent most of his remaining days in an armchair on rollers. He moved to the home of a sister, where his portrait was painted, and there lingered on for another nine years, suffering from depression and from a paralytic stroke that left him looking like an “animated clod.” When news of his friends’ deaths reached him, he could only remark that “Everybody can die but me,” and his own merciful end came on February 13, 1818. There was the usual long oration at the funeral, but the one line remembered by most of those who attended was “The mighty oak of the forest has fallen and now the scrubby oaks may sprout all around.”