George Rogers Clark at Vincennes: “You May Expect No Mercy”

Painting of George Roger Clark's capture of Fort Sackville. Source: Wikimedia Commons

From the outset, it was a military operation whose strategic goals were combined with a fierce quest for vengeance. On January 3, 1778, Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers Clark received a congratulatory note from Virginia’s executive council, which had approved a campaign into the far reaches of the Illinois country. Although the British post at Kaskaskia was ostensibly Clark’s objective, members of the council, which included Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and George Wythe, asserted that certain western tribes had “without any provocation, massacred many of the Inhabitants upon the Frontiers of this Commonwealth, in the most cruel and barbarous Manner.” It was intended, continued the council, “to revenge the Injury and punish the Aggressors by carrying the War into their own Country.”[1]

March to Vincennes. Source: The Hero of Vincennes: The Story of George Rogers Clark, by Lowell Thomas
March to Vincennes. Source: The Hero of Vincennes: The Story of George Rogers Clark, by Lowell Thomas

Dispensing retribution would prove to be a game at which Clark excelled. Little more than an obscure militia officer with limited combat experience, Clark had nonetheless developed the bold plan to take the war to the enemy. The sparsely populated Kentucky settlements had endured the grim terror of Indian warfare in earnest since the summer of 1777, and southbound war parties were regularly supplied, as well as accompanied, by officers of the British Indian Department. The macabre atrocities thus perpetrated against the American backcountry only served to provoke an inveterate hatred for the redcoats in Detroit, the central supply hub of British posts in the far west. The most reviled Briton by far was Detroit’s Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton. An urbane gentleman who had initially resisted employing Indian auxiliaries, Hamilton nonetheless earned the unflattering sobriquet “Hair-Buyer” after he was widely – if unfairly – rumored to have paid bounties for American scalps.

Although he considered Detroit the ultimate strategic objective of the war in the west, Clark advocated the initial step of occupying the Illinois country, a vital if remote region which commanded the trade routes linking the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley. British neglect, which left the area undefended, invited attack. Such a move would serve to interrupt the enemy’s fur trade, discourage the region’s tribes from British alliance, and secure American communication with Spanish Louisiana.[2]

After receiving secret authorization from Governor Patrick Henry, Clark patched together a force of some 175 men and rendezvoused at the Falls of the Ohio River at the site of modern Louisville. On June 24, 1778, Clark’s troops set out for the Illinois settlements and reached the region entirely undetected. It proved to be an anticlimactic as well as bloodless conquest. By the first week of July the Americans, without opposition, occupied the villages of Kaskaskia and Cahokia, and the regions’ French inhabitants, rather lukewarm subjects of His Britannic Majesty, were largely cooperative. By the end of the month, Clark dispatched Captain Leonard Helm to assume command of the decrepit stockade of Fort Sackville in Vincennes, an isolated outpost situated on the lower reaches of the Wabash River.

When informed of the disaster, Detroit’s Governor Hamilton determined to strike back before the rebels could improve on their toehold in the Illinois country. “It appeared to me expedient,” he later explained, “to attack them as soon as possible, & before they should be reinforced, or have time to engage the Indians in their interest.”[3] The governor assembled a mixed bag of some 160 men composed primarily of Detroit militia, but including a solid core of 33 men from the 8th Regiment of Foot. The force was augmented by Indian auxiliaries who eventually amounted to 350 warriors, accompanied by 14 officers from the Indian Department.[4]

Hamilton reached Vincennes on December 17, and his seizure of Fort Sackville was something of a gentlemanly farce. The decrepit American installation was held by Captain Helm and about 25 rattled men, but Helm remarkably held out for the honors of war. Hamilton behaved rather graciously, permitting the chagrined American captain to haul down his colors. “It now became a point of consideration,” Hamilton later wrote, “whether or not we should prosecute our intended attack of the Rebels at the Illinois.”[5] Preoccupied with repairing the “miserable picketed work” of Fort Sackville, the governor dismissed the bulk of his militia, as well as the Indians, who were to return in the spring. Ultimately, Hamilton decided to sit tight for the winter and dispense with the rebels in Kaskaskia when the weather broke.

It was a decision he would come to regret. On January 29, Clark learned the full particulars of the disaster from Francis Vigo, a St. Louis trader sympathetic to the Americans. Clark’s lines of communication to the east were gravely threatened by the British occupation of Vincennes, and a reinforced Hamilton would easily seize Kaskaskia in the spring. In a report to Governor Henry, Clark announced his intention to seize the strategic initiative, attack “The Famous Hair Buyer General” with his available force, and “Risque the whole on a Single Battle.” It was a decidedly perilous venture, but Clark felt it imperative to strike Hamilton before his forces could consolidate in the spring. “The Case is Desperate,” he wrote, but “we must Either Quit the Cuntrey or attact Mr. Hamilton.” For the audaciously aggressive young Virginian, passively awaiting events was unthinkable. “Who knows what fortune will do for us,” he wrote to Henry, “Great things have been affected by a few Men well Conducted.”[6]

Portrait of George Rogers Clark from the collection of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.
Portrait of George Rogers Clark from the collection of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.

On February 6, 1779, Clark was on the move with about 170 men, roughly half of whom were French volunteers from the Illinois settlements. Approaching Vincennes with a sizeable body of infantry, however, would prove to be an epic test of human endurance. Excessive rains had rendered the roughly 200 miles to Vincennes a morass. “Great part of the plains,” Clark later wrote, “under water for several Inches it was difficult and very Fatieguing Marching.”[7] Bottom land was periodically found flooded to the depth of two to four feet.

Conditions only grew worse. When the rebels prepared for the final push to Vincennes on the morning of February 22, they faced a vast floodplain which submerged the men to their chests. Undaunted, Clark grimly blacked his face with gunpowder and was the first to enter the water. As Clark’s half-frozen scarecrows trudged the last grueling miles to their objective, it was clear that the troops were eager to get at the enemy. “Never was Men so animated,” Captain Joseph Bowman recorded in his journal, “with the thoughts of revenging the wrongs done to their back Settlements as this small Army.”[8]

At about 8 p.m. on February 23, the Americans gained high ground outside of Vincennes and it appeared that their presence was undetected by the garrison of Fort Sackville.[9] As Clark’s troops fanned out to secure the village, smaller detachments, rotated on a regular basis, took cover behind the village’s homes and fences and opened up a galling fire on the fort’s defenders. As an incredulous Hamilton scrambled to organize a defense, he ruefully noted that his men, who made ready targets for the American frontiersmen, took the worst of it. The stockade was still in pitiable condition, “so ill set up,” claimed the governor, “that a man might pass his closed fist between several of them, which gave a great advantage to people armed with rifles.”[10] British artillery fire proved singularly ineffectual. That night, four wounded Britons were taken to the officer’s quarters, one of the few spots in Fort Sackville safe from enemy fire. The Americans sustained no casualties; all in all, recorded Captain Bowman, the decidedly one-sided fight was “fine Sport for the sons of Liberty.”[11]

The situation failed to improve for Hamilton in the morning. The rebels’ incessant fire wounded three more men, and about 8 a.m. a demand for surrender was carried to the fort under flag of truce. Clark’s initial summons rather bluntly expressed his utter contempt for Hamilton. “I expect,” he demanded, “you shall immediately surrender yourself with your Garrison prisoners at discretion.” The Virginian’s blood was clearly up, and he concluded with a terse threat. If any of the fort’s stores or papers were destroyed, warned Clark, “you may expect no mercy, for by Heavens you shall be treated as a Murtherer.” To his credit, Hamilton rejected such bellicose posturing and returned a more tactful response, acquainting “Colonel Clarke, that neither he nor his garrison are to be prevailed on by threats to act in a manner unbecoming the character of British subjects.”[12]

The governor paraded the garrison and read his refusal to the rebels, vowing to “defend the Kings colours to the last extremity.” Hamilton was pleased that his English troops promised to “stick to me as the shirt to my back – Then they cried God Save King George, and gave three Huzzas.” Such pluck unfortunately failed to inspire the bulk of the garrison. Hamilton’s French militia sheepishly hung their heads and finally confessed their unwillingness to continue the fight against their own relations in Vincennes, who were clearly aiding the American assault on the fort.[13]

At that, Hamilton instantaneously wilted. “I determined from that moment,” he later wrote, “to accept honorable terms if I could procure them.” The governor met with his officers to suggest the necessity of surrender, but found them disinclined to give in so fast. Hamilton’s behavior was certainly a deflating display of indecision. Only moments before he had argued for a fight to the death, but now just as forcefully plead for capitulation. Hamilton’s observations were gloomy indeed: the French militia were treacherous cowards, he insisted; seven of the English troops were already wounded, and Fort Sackville was 600 miles removed from any possible reinforcement. Grudgingly, his officers agreed.[14]

Two more hours of fighting convinced Hamilton to make a desperate play for more time. The governor sent out the captive Captain Helm with terms; Hamilton suggested a three day truce, as well as a face-to-face conference within the walls of Fort Sackville. Clark, naturally, would have none of it. His dismissive refusal again demanded nothing short of surrender at discretion, but he did offer to meet the governor in front of the village church. Tellingly, Clark assiduously avoided addressing Hamilton in any official capacity; the letter was merely addressed to “Mr. Hamilton.”

If the demoralized British garrison was in need of any further discouragement, it was provided in short order by George Rogers Clark. In what can only be described as the worst sort of bad luck, a party of some 15 Indians which Hamilton had previously sent out toward the Ohio River returned to Vincennes during the middle of the truce. As they heard no gunfire and clearly saw the English flag flying above Fort Sackville, the Indians confidently approached the village and discharged their firearms in salute. The tribesmen were accustomed to being received by welcoming parties from the fort, and Clark obliged by sending out a company under the command of Captain John Williams.

Vincennes 24 February 1779 painting by Charles H. McBarron. Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History
Vincennes 24 February 1779 painting by Charles H. McBarron. Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History

As Clark watched, he clearly reveled in the black humor of it all. The Americans played the part well, and each side set to “hooping, hallowing, and Striking each others Breasts as they approached…each seemed to try to out do the other in the greatest signs of Joy.” From near point-blank range, Williams’ men opened fire on the unsuspecting warriors. “The Poor Devils,” a pleased Clark recalled, “never discovered their mistake until it was too late.”[15]

The volley killed several on the spot while a handful of others dashed off into the forest, thought to be mortally wounded. Two French hunters held captive by the Indians were liberated, and seven others were marched into Vincennes, where Clark was found disinclined for a show mercy; he later insinuated that the warriors had successfully returned from their scout with fresh scalps.[16] Ultimately he reluctantly assented to spare an Indian youth of 18, as well as two white partisans who had friends among his French volunteers.

The rest, whom Clark regarded as savages who intentionally slaughtered women and children, were condemned to a brutal exhibition of summary frontier justice. Led to the street directly in front of the fort, the four were arranged in a circle and forced to kneel. The warriors, who stoically sang a death song, were coolly tomahawked in succession. In a harsh ending to the brutal spectacle, the corpses were bound about the neck with rope, dragged through the mud toward the river, and unceremoniously thrown into the Wabash.[17]

When Clark arrived for the scheduled meeting with Hamilton moments later, he put on an unusual exhibition for his counterpart. Hamilton claimed that the Virginian “had just come from his Indian tryumph all bloody and sweating.” Instead of getting to the formal business at hand, Clark rather disdainfully sat on an upturned bateau and made use of a puddle of water in the bottom of the boat to clean the blood from his hands and face. While he washed, he described the executions for Hamilton with “great exultation.”[18]

For a professional soldier like Hamilton, the entire affair was revolting; Clark, sensing victory, was rather brusque and, as he later explained, treated Hamilton “as a Man of his known Barbarity desrv’d.”[19] He warned Hamilton not to quibble for terms and demanded nothing less than surrender at discretion. The Virginian threatened that he would soon have artillery brought up, and was likewise aware that Hamilton could only rely on about 35 of his men. If the governor rejected his offer and the Americans were forced to storm the fort, Clark announced, “not a single man should be spared.”[20]

Vowing that he would not surrender without terms, Hamilton requested the opportunity to consult his officers. Later claiming that he simply wanted to give his men a rest, Clark agreed. Their second meeting, which commenced about a half hour later, started off no better.

Clark remained defiant, and, thought Hamilton, was “as determined as before” to grant no terms. After a further spell of bitter recriminations and useless haggling, Hamilton had had enough. Announcing that he would return to the fort to fight it out, the governor offered his hand to Clark, saying that “we might part as gentlemen tho not as friends.”[21] He had only walked a few yards before cooler heads prevailed. Loyalist Major Jehu Hay and Captain Bowman called Hamilton back and finally convinced the two antagonists to reach a reasonable agreement and avoid needless bloodshed. Clark drafted final articles that afternoon, which Hamilton signed in the evening. The British garrison was granted a bare minimum of terms for the satisfaction of honor. Officers were allowed their personal baggage, the bulk of the garrison “to deliver themselves up Prisoners of War and March out with their Arms and Acoutriments.”[22]

About 10 o’clock the following morning, the deed was done. Clark’s triumph was complete, although he noted that his men were “uneasy” about guarding their 79 prisoners; so many, he wrote, that “we ware at a loss how to dispose of them.”[23] For Hamilton, the day brought little more than “mortification, disappointment, and indignation.” The most humiliating blow for the defeated governor was that he and his men were “captives to an unprincipled motley Banditti.”[24]

In the aftermath of Clark’s stunning victory in the Illinois country, British authorities were greatly alarmed that the western tribes would be pulled into the American orbit. “It is to be feared,” wrote Loyalist Major John Butler, “that Governor Hamilton’s disaster will at least make them quite different” toward the Crown.[25] Such fears were not without foundation. Tribes from as far away as Wisconsin sued for peace with the Big Knives – or Virginians – and the tribes of the Illinois country and lower Wabash largely maintained neutrality for the remainder of the war.

The Indian threat had been blunted by Clark’s campaign but by no means eliminated. Subsequent claims that the expedition amounted to a conquest of the entire territory northwest of the Ohio River – an assertion conspicuously never forwarded by Clark himself – were grossly exaggerated.  More hostile tribes to the north and east remained inveterate enemies of the Americans, and would bedevil the young republic with incessant and costly war until 1795. Tellingly, British troops would remain in Detroit for over a decade after the end of the war; not until 1796 would Americans occupy the city.

Unfortunately for Clark, his aspirations for a grand stroke against Detroit, the only sure way of cutting off supplies to the tribes and ending the war in the western backcountry, would frustratingly never materialize.   Executing large-scale expeditions on the frontier of the far west invariably degenerated into logistical nightmare, a grand hurdle which could only be surmounted by generous funding and adequate manpower. As affairs on the frontier necessarily took a back seat to the primary theater of war in the east, a neglected and brooding Clark saw any opportunity of capitalizing on his victory in Illinois slip through his fingers. The expedition for Detroit, he later informed Virginia Governor Thomas Nelson, “in the execution of which my very soul was wrapt”, proved a chimera.[26]

“I have lost the object,” he wrote, “that was one of the principall inducements to my fatigues & transactions for several years past – my chain appears to have run out.”[27]

 


[1] Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1950), vol. 2, 132-133.

[2] James Alton James, ed., George Rogers Clark Papers (Springfield, Illinois State Historical Library, 1912), 30-32. Letter, Clark to [Patrick Henry?], 1777.

[3] John D. Barnhart, ed., “Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton’s Apologia”, Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 52, Issue 4, 1956, 389. Letter, Henry Hamilton to [Lord Shelburne?], April 9, 1782.

[4] Barnhart, Hamilton’s Apologia, 389.

[5] Barnhart, Hamilton’s Apologia, 390.

[6] James, Clark Papers, 97-99. Letter, Clark to Patrick Henry, February 3, 1779.

[7] James, Clark Papers, 269. Clark’s Memoir.

[8] James, Clark Papers, 159. Journal of Captain Joseph Bowman, February 23, 1779.

[9] John D. Barnhart, ed., Henry Hamilton and George Rogers Clark in the American Revolution with the Unpublished Journal of Lieut. Gov. Henry Hamilton (Crawfordsville, Indiana, R.E. Banta, 1951), 178. Hamilton had been informed of the likely presence of American troops after their campfires were seen earlier in the day by a scouting party. When gunfire erupted, the governor nonetheless initially attributed the noise to drunken villagers.

[10] Barnhart, Hamilton Journal, 185.

[11] James, Clark Papers, 160. Journal of Captain Joseph Bowman, February 23, 1779.

[12] Barnhart, Hamilton Journal, 180.

[13] Barnhart, Hamilton Journal, 181.

[14] Barnhart, Hamilton Journal, 181.

[15] James, Clark Papers, 144. Letter, Clark to George Mason, November 19, 1779.

[16] James, Clark Papers, 288. Clark’s Memoir.

[17] Both Hamilton and Lt. Jacob Schieffelin recorded second-hand accusations that Clark personally executed the Indians. Hamilton’s Apologia, 392. See also Jacob Schieffelin, “Narrative of Gov. Henry Hamilton”, The Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries, 1877, vol. I, 191-192.

[18] Barnhart, Hamilton Journal, 183.

[19] James, Clark Papers, 143. Letter, Clark to George Mason, November 19, 1779.

[20] Barnhart, Hamilton Journal, 184.

[21] Barnhart, Hamilton Journal, 184.

[22] James, Clark Papers, 145. Letter, Clark to George Mason, November 19, 1779.

[23] James, Clark Papers, 290. Clark’s Memoir.

[24] Bamhart, Hamilton Journal, 185.

[25] M. Agnes Burton, ed., Michigan Historical Collections (Lansing, Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, 1911), vol. XIX, 383. Letter, John Butler to Frederick Haldimand, April 2, 1779.

[26] James, Clark Papers, 605. Letter, Clark to Governor Thomas Nelson, October 1, 1781.

[27] James, Clark Papers, 608. Letter, Clark to Governor Thomas Nelson, October 1, 1781.

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