A Sword For George Rogers Clark

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They captured a stray duck-hunter, a Frenchman from the town. Clark opened his baggage, rubbed his stiffened fingers and wrote a letter: To the Inhabitants &c of Vinccnnes, Gen”: Being now within Two Miles of Your Village with my Army, … I take this step to Request of such of you as are true citizens and willing to Injoy the Liberty I bring you, to remain Still in your Houses, and those (If any there be) that arc friends to the King of England, will Instantly repair to the Fort andjoin his Troops and Fight like men. … Those that are True friends to Liberty may Expect to be well Treated as such. I onee more Request that they shall keep out of the streets, (or every person I find in arms on my arrival I shall treat him as an enemy. G. R. Clark

While the Frenchman returned to town with that message, Clark had his men chop twenty saplings and raise flags sewed by the women of Kaskaskia. With every seventh man a flagbearer, he started a zig-zag march that gave the appearance of twenty companies. In the winter dusk they entered the town. At the log church they broke lines and crept under the bastion towers of the fort; the British cannon swivcled but could not tilt. When Clark gave the order his men fired through gaping palisades.

All night the fighting flowed and ebbed and flowed again. Clark’s strategy was to spread confusion and bewilderment; he kept his men moving, firing from various quarters, whooping like savages. The French citizens came out with bread, meat, and cheese. With food in their stomachs Clark’s men yelled like demons. But coolly they continued pouring their rifle fire through the gun ports. One by one the British cannon were silenced.

Firing slackened at dawn, and Clark sent a message under a white flag to the bastion gate. It was addressed to General Hamilton. Sir: In order to save yourself from the Impending Storm that now Threatens you, I order you to Immediately surrender yourself, with all your Garrison, Stores, etc., etc., for if I am obliged to storm, you may depend upon such Treatment as is justly due to a Murderer beware of destroying Stores of any kind, or any papers or letters…in your possession, or hurting one house in the Town, for by heavens if you do there shall be no Mercy shewn you. G. R. Clark

When the messenger brought an answer Clark read it with narrowed eyes. Gov r Hamilton bogs leave to acquaint Col. Clark that he and his Garrison are not disposed to be awed into any action unworthy of British subjects. H. Hamilton

Clark gave the word, and firing was resumed. Crouching in ditches and under makeshift barricades, the men fired through gaping timbers. The sun broke through at noon, and a British messenger came out. A curt exchange led to a meeting in the log church: General Hamilton agreed to surrender at ten o’clock the next morning.

That day, February 25, was clear. At mid-morning a company of Clark’s mud-stained men drew up at the timbered gate. The British ranks marched out, and Clark’s gaunt regiment moved in. They fired the cannon thirteen times, for the thirteen colonies that had become the American nation which now was master of the entire Ohio Valley.

Colonel George Rogers Clark, twenty-five years old, was at the peak of his career.

Three years after the capture of Vincennes the West was quiet, and the Revolution was over. When Clark returned to Kentucky from a campaign against the Ohio tribes, peace talks had begun in Paris. To Kentucky came an official commission, sent from Richmond to settle Clark’s accounts. Clark had received no pay for five years; neither had the men in his command. The commissioners had a bewildering task, checking piecemeal ledgers and sorting chits and promises signed by one officer or another. They worked through this maze of papers and made their report. But nothing was paid: Virginia passed the debt to the federal government, where it rested. In the end Clark got a grant of land, which was promptly claimed by his creditors—holders of vouchers he had signed for military stores. The claimants held Clark responsible, and the law sustained them. There went his land.

The commission had officially approved Clark’s own claim for five years’ pay and for reimbursement of funds advanced to buy flour for his troops—a total claim of about $15,000. But the state of Virginia declined to make payment without the required vouchers. Clark had delivered his papers to the commission, which sent them on to Richmond. There they were lost.∗

∗ They stayed lost for 130 years. In 1913 a pile of documents was found in an attic of the Virginia statehouse. They were the Clark papers thousands of them. Some were official sheets and ledgers; more wenjottings on scraps of paper, even on sandpaper and old playing cards. The past smoulders like an old campfire in those makeshift records: “for four pair handcuffs… for a colt lost when his mare was in public service… ½ gal. rum for a fatigue party landing boats… 6 days board for an Indian interpreter … for rum at a treaty … for shirts and shoes for Indians … 2 lbs. of nails … tallow for candles … flags for Indians … for subsistence for wounded soldiers.” Now they are historic treasures, protected from dust, damp, and daylight in the Virginia State Library.