A Sword For George Rogers Clark

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Before daybreak he set fire to houses adjoining the fort; he would leave no cover for attackers. Aroused citizens roamed the streets while soldiers crouched beside cannon at the portholes. Dawn broke over the silent, snowpatched prairie. Then Clark’s spies came in with word that ended the alarm. What had been mistaken for Hamilton’s army was merely a scouting force; it had lost its way and was now returning to Vincennes.

Day and night Clark kept sentries patrolling the approaches to Kaskaskia. Late in January they accosted a single horseman who wanted to see the American commander. The visitor was Colonel Francis Vigo, a rich merchant who traded throughout the Illinois country. He had come from Vincennes, and he gave Clark a report of the situation there. General Hamilton was making himself comfortable in the fort with a well-provisioned commissary and a strong garrison. He had sent Indian parties on raids to Kentucky, and some of his regulars had gone back to Detroit. In the spring he would gather his forces and march on Kaskaskia.

In the spring … Clark had a bold mind, made restless now by the false alarm of Hamilton’s attack. Hc looked at a map, studying the curve of the Wabash and the lowland approaches to Vincennes. At this moment, he wrote later, he would have bound himself to seven years’ imprisonment or slavery to have five hundred troops for a fortnight’s service. In fact, even with the Kaskaskia volunteers, he had barely 150 men. Still, he had won the Illinois town not by strength or logic but by audacity. A desperate situation, he thought, needs a desperate resolution. The season being so hostile, no enemy would suppose an attack could come over impassable country. Surprise can outweigh numbers. … That night he called in his captains and told them.

Clark’s resolve went through the town like a contagion. New French volunteers joined his depleted regiment. Citizens lugged bundles of food and clothing to the fort. With merchant Vigo’s backing, Clark bought a Mississippi flatboat and ordered his men to mount six cannon on its deck. The improvised gunboat, in charge of Captain John Rogers, the commander’s cousin, pushed off into the gray current of the Kaskaskia. It would go down the Mississippi, up the Ohio, and up the Wabash to hide in the thickets around Vincennes until the arrival of Clark’s regiment. Then it would bombard the fort while the troops attacked. The night before Rogers left, Clark had written a letter to Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia. “—I know that the case is desperate; but, Sir, we must either quit the country or attack. … Great things have been effected by a few men well conducted. Perhaps we may be fortunate.”

 

On the next day, February 5, 1779, the regiment drew into formation inside the stockade. When the drums were silent Father Gibault raised his hand in blessing. Clark’s men marched out of the gate in a thin, chill rain. The watching townspeople called farewell. In five minutes the little army was on the sodden prairie. It was a smaller force than Clark had counted on—some of his troops had been assigned to the gunboat. There were just 130 men facing an exhausting march and a superior enemy in a timbered fort.

A week out of Kaskaskia they reached the Little Wabash. That minor stream was now a mile-wide flood. Beyond it lay the drowned bottoms of the Embarrass River and then the swollen Wabash itself. They were sixty miles from Vincennes, and over all the desolation a cold rain was falling.

Their march seems incredible now. A third of the men were sick with chills and fever. All were wet, pinched, cold, and wretched. They had no sense of history to nerve them. Not even Clark with his dramatics dreamed that this campaign would be ranked with the great military feats, that his gaunt regiment would be immortal. They were merely miserable men slogging through mud and water, wading waist-deep rivers, building rafts to ferry their sick and their baggage, making cold camps in enemy country.

When they reached the Wabash, nine miles below Vincennes, their rations were exhausted. Here they were to meet the gunboat from Kaskaskia, but the swollen gray river, pitted with rain, was empty.∗ They made “Camp Hunger,” and in the gray daybreak they heard the boom of cannon—the morning gun from Fort Sackville at Vinccnncs. Chewing the bark of slippery elm to quiet their stomach pangs, the men chopped logs and laced them together with vines. Next day they ferried the Wabash and floundered toward Vinccnncs. Through mud and misery they struggled on, arms around each other’s shoulders. Late in the day the rain ceased, and thin sunlight slanted through bare trees. From a ridge they saw the houses of Vincennes, the timbered church, the heavy-walled fort with five souare blockhouses pierced with portholes.

∗ Rogers and his men had fallen into an Indian ambush and Rogers himself had been scalped. Clark later found the body.