Daniel B Starkey.

George Rogers Clark and his Illinois campaign online

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anybody into his confidence, he sent two young hunters to the
British posts in the capacity of spies, and from them learned


that they were not strongly garrisoned, though they were very
active. They reported, what Clark suspected, that, despite
the misrepresentations of the British regarding the Ameri-
cans, there were many among the inhabitants of the towns
who were in sympathy with the colonists and would aid them.
Clark knew that the British hope of uniting the western
tribes in an alliance that would destroy the frontier was but
half realized, that some of the tribes were divided in feeling,
and that if the British in the Northwest could be expelled, the
Indians could soon be awed into quiet. Having his plans fully
matured, he left Harrodsburg on October ist to make the long
journey to Virginia alone, fearing not the dangers of the
wilderness. He arrived in Williamsburg on November 5th,
and, while busying himself settling the accounts of the Ken-
tucky militia, carefully noted everything that indicated the
disposition of those in power. Burgoyne having surrendered
while he was on his way to the capitol, "and things seeming to
wear a pleasant aspect/' as he says in his "Memoirs," on Decem-
ber loth he laid his scheme before Governor Henry. He also
consulted George Mason, George Wythe and Thomas Jeffer-
son, but he was careful not to divulge his plans to others, lest
they should become generally known and be defeated by
reports reaching the posts he intended to attack. Those to
whom he communicated his design entered into the spirit of it
heartily. They saw in it a means of diverting the savage attack
upon the western frontier that had already fallen upon the
frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania, and they lent all their
influence to securing for Clark the aid which he needed.
Under the pretext that supplies were needed for the defense of
Kentucky, they secured the necessary legislation, 1,200 in the
depreciated currency of the state being voted to him to cover
his expenses. Governor Henry made him a colonel, and in
[anuary he departed with two sets of instructions, one public,
the other private. The first authorized him to enlist seven


companies of men "in any county of the commonwealth," who
were to proceed with him to Kentucky, there to obey such
orders and directions as he should give them. The second
directed him to take his force and "attack the British post at
Kaskasky," the Governor earnestly desiring him to "show
humanity to such British subjects and other persons" as fell
into his hands. If the white inhabitants of the post gave
evidence of their attachment to the state by taking the test
prescribed by law, their persons and property were to be duly
secured, but 'if they would not accede to those reasonable
demands, "they must feel the Miseries of War, under the
direction of that Humanity that had hitherto distinguished
Americans," etc. [23]

Proceeding to Pittsburg, Clark began the work of raising
his companies, but owing to a dispute between Virginia and
Pennsylvania, and the fact that there was reluctance to send
men to Kentucky when they were wanted nearer home, he had
great difficulty in securing recruits. He finally raised three
companies, and, hearing that four companies had been raised
by the officers whom he had sent to Kentucky for the purpose,
started down the river with his three companies of fifty men
each, taking supplies at Pittsburg and Wheeling. He pro-
ceeded to Corn Island, at the falls of the Ohio, opposite the
point where the city of Louisville now stands, to await the
arrival of the Kentucky troups. Only one of the Kentucky
companies appeared, and when Clark revealed the true object
of the expedition many of his men deserted. However, enough
remained to make four companies, and on June 24th, 1778, the
expedition started, leaving a few men to guard the island. On
that day the sun was in eclipse, and they shot the falls at the
moment when it became total, a circumstance which, Clark-
says, "caused various conjectures among the superstitious.''
A less resolute man, starting upon so great an undertaking

[23] Appendix to "Clark's Campaign."


with so small an army [24], might have seen in it an augury of
defeat; but Clark was an army in himself, and he had news of
the alliance between France and the United States, which he
knew would help him with the French settlers at Kaskaskia, so
he proceeded, not at all disturbed by the phenomenon that so
alarmed some of his soldiers.

It was Clark's original intention to proceed against
Vincennes from Corn Island, but, being informed that the post
was held by a strong garrison, he determined to strike
Kaskaskia first. Kaskaskia at that time consisted of a fort
and a town [25] inhabited almost entirely by Frenchmen. If
he could overcome the prejudices aroused by the British, Clark
felt that he could gain the support of the French residents, and
he hoped to increase his strength sufficiently to make the con-
quest of the more powerful Vincennes easy. Deliberating
upon his plans as he proceeded, he urged his men to the
greatest efforts. The oars were double-manned and plied
night and day. Their progress was rapid, and on June 28th
they reached an island at the mouth of the Tennessee. As
the river below the Illinois towns was being watched by spies,
Clark had determined to make a portion of the journey over-
land, and he made a landing on the island to prepare for the
march. Here their boats brought in "a party of hunters from
whom Clark obtained some valuable information concerning
the posts he was about to attack. They informed Clark that
the French had a "horrid idea of the barbarity of the Rebels,
especially the Virginians," and the astute commander saw in
this piece of news a circumstance that could be turned to
advantage. "I was determined," he says in his Memoirs, "to
improve upon this if I was fortunate enough to get them into

[24] Dunn places the number at 153. Governor Henry in a letter speaks
of 170 or 180, and Major Bowman also says 170 or 180. but both had in mind
the number gathered at Corn Island, and as Clark, had left a squad there,
his army probably did not exceed 153.

[25] The number of houses is variously estimated at from 80 to 250.
See Perkins' "Annals," pp. 176-178, and "Magazine of Western History,"
Vol. ii., p. 138.


my possession; as I conceived the greater the shock I could
give them at first, the more sensibly would they feel my lenity,
and become more valuable friends."

Everything being in readiness, the boats were concealed in
a small creek nine miles below the island and one mile above
old Fort Massac, and without a cannon, or means of transport-
ing supplies, the little army started on its march of more than
one hundred miles over the prairies. After getting lost, suffer-
ing from hunger and thirst, and enduring the other hardships of
such a march, they arrived within three miles of Kaskaskia on
the afternoon of July 4th. Waiting until dark, they procured
boats, crossed the river, and entered the town, to find that the
people, who had been under arms in expectation of an attack,
had not been aware of their approach. Dividing his army,
Clark ordered one division to surround the town, and with vhe
other he broke into the fort [26] and captured M. Rochblave,
who was in command. In fifteen minutes every avenue of
escape from the town was guarded. It was of the utmost
importance that nobody should get away to warn Vincennes,
and, to prevent an attempt, the soldiers, who could speak
French, were sent through the town warning the people that
every person appearing on the streets would be shot down, and
that anybody taken in an attempt to escape would be put to
death. To make an impression upon the minds of the inhab-
itants, the soldiers kept up a frightful- uproar in all parts of the
town, and the poor people, thinking they had fallen into the
hands of men worse than savages, gave themselves up for lost.
In the morning M. Gibault, the priest of the village, and five or
six aged citizens waited on Clark, and asked that before the
people were separated forever they be allowed to assemble in
the church and hold a farewell service, a request which, of

[26] A great historical painting 1 in the capitol at Springfield, 111., shows
the fort on the east side of the river, following Butler's statement in his
history of Kentucky, but it is now known that the old fort on the east side
was burned in 176fi. and the fort that Clark took was in the town. See
"Narrative and Critical History," vol. vii., pp. 719-722.


course, Clark granted readily, the time for leniency having
come. After the service, which was attended by almost every
inhabitant of the town, a deputation again waited upon Clark,
and, expressing a willingness to sacrifice their property, asked
that their families might not be broken up, and that they be
given food upon which to sustain themselves. This was
Clark's opportunity, and he embraced it. "Do you take us for
savages?" he asked, in feigned surprise. "My countrymen
disdain to make war on women and children. It was to
prevent the horrors of Indian butchery upon our wives and
children that we have taken up arms and appear in this strong-
hold of British and Indian barbarity, and not the despicable
prospect of plunder." He told them of the alliance between
France and the United States, assured them of personal and
religious liberty if they espoused the American cause, and, to
show his sincerity, informed them that they were "at liberty to
conduct themselves as usual, without the least apprehension."
The joy of the people knew no bounds. They decorated their
streets, sang songs and manifested their happiness in different
ways. They took the oath of allegiance, and raised a company
of volunteers to accompany Captain Bowman to Cahokia, a
French settlement a few miles below St. Louis, which surren-
dered without a blow. Clark, thinking all the tirne of Vin-
cennes, took pains not to let the people know the size of his
force. He would not allow them to enter the fort, which they
supposed was full of soldiers. He spoke of a big force at the
falls of the Ohio, and pretended that he could summon any
number of men from Kentucky. When he announced that he
was going to march on Vincennes, the people evinced a desire
to save their friends at that post. Father Gibault thought it
would not be necessary to send troops there, and he
volunteered to go with Dr. Lafonte to negotiate a
capitulation. Clark assented to the proposal, and, with
a caution that he never failed to exhibit, sent a spy


in their retinue. Vincennes was in Father Gibault's [27]
spiritual jurisdiction, and after he had explained the
matter he did not have much difficulty in inducing the
citizens to surrender and become American citizens. The few
British soldiers left there by Governor Abbott, who had gone
to Detroit on business, could not prevent the action, and they
withdrew to follow their chief. "The people went to the
village church in a body, and took the oath of allegiance; an
officer was elected, the fort garrisoned, and the American flag
was raised for the first time on Indiana soil." [28] Clark in
less than one month had secured possession of every post in
the Illinois country without a battle or the loss of a single life.
The object of the expedition was accomplished, but a new
problem presented itself. How was the country so easily
acquired to be held against the forces that the British could at
any time send against it? His force was inadequate, and it
threatened to grow smaller. The term for which the men had
enlisted had expired, and he had no authority to extend it.
Moreover, the Virginia currency in his possession would buy
nothing in the Illinois country. Clark, however, was not a
man to be stopped by ordinary obstacles. Authority or no
authority, the country had to. be held, and he was the man
to hold it. He met this, as he met every other emergency, with
a sagacity and self-reliance that marked him as a great man.
He induced about one hundred of the men to reenlist for eight
months, under promise of liberal pay. The others he sent
home, and had them take Rochblave a prisoner to Williams-
burg, besides carrying dispatches to the Virginia government.
Then he put Captain Bowman in charge of Cahokia and
Captain Helm in command of Vincennes, and turned his
attention to the Indians. Through Captain Helm, whom he

[27] Judge Law, in his "Colonial History of Vincennes," says of
Gibault: "To whom, next to Clark and Vigo, the United States is indebted
for the accession of the states comprised in what was the original North-
west Territory, more than any other man."

[28] Dunn's "Indiana."


had made superintendent of Indian affairs on the Wabash, he
negotiated a treaty with the Piankeshaws, and soon all the
tribes in the vicinity were flocking in to make peace with the
great white warrior. He held a council with the Indians at
Cahokia, and, with characteristic coolness, treated them with
contempt until he had awed them, and then, with apparent
reluctance, granted a peace that he desired above all things.
His negotiations with the Indians lasted five weeks, and they
had an influence upon all the tribes around the great lakes.

Meanwhile Governor Hamilton at Detroit had heard of the
state of affairs in the Illinois country. In the fall he started out
with a force of regulars, Canadian volunteers and Indians [29]
to recapture the posts. On December I5th he took Vincennes,
which the inhabitants of the town made no attempt to defend.
Captain Helm and one soldier, Moses Henry, held the fort.
When the British appeared they found a loaded cannon point-
ing at them through the open gate. Helm, standing beside it
with a lighted match, commanded the British to halt. Hamil-
ton called upon the fort to surrender. Helm exclaimed with an
oath, "No man shall enter until I know the terms." Hamilton
answered, "You shall have the honors of war," and was aston-
ished to see the captain and one man walk out! [30] Thinking
it too late to operate against the rest of the country, Hamilton
sent out his Indians to harass the Americans and prevent
troops joining them by way of the Ohio River, and then sat
down to pass the winter in Vincennes.


On the strength of the dispatches announcing the reduc-
tion of the British posts, the Virginia Assembly had in October
erected the country beyond the Ohio into the County of Illinois,

[29] Clark ("Campaign," p. 52) says there were 800 men. Dillon makes
the number 480.

[30] This anecdote is related in Perkins" "Annals" and Butler's


but the county and Clark were now in a fair way to pass into
the hands of the British. Early in January a scouting party
sent out by Hamilton almost succeeded in capturing Clark
while he was on his way from Cahokia. Supposing that the
party was the advance guard of Hamilton's army, Clark called
Captain Bowman from Cahokia and made preparations for
defending Kaskaskia. In the midst of the preparations
Colonel Francis Vigo, a Spanish merchant, arrived from Vin-
cennes, and gave Clark information which changed his mind,
and gave a new direction to his energies. Judge Law says
that Vigo was sent to Vincennes by Clark in the capacity of a
spy, that he was captured by Indians on his way and taken
before Hamilton, and got off with great difficulty, in which
statement most of the historians have followed him, but Clark
nowhere mentions that fact, and speaks of Vigo's having been
at the fort when it was taken. [31] Neither does Vigo men-
tion the fact in his memorial to Congress [32] for the payment
of a claim growing out of advances made to Clark, though he
speaks of having given Clark the information which enabled
him to surprise Hamilton, and Major Bauman says in his
Journal that Vigo was there on "his lawful business.' 1 [33]
Vigo was an Indian trader, with headquarters at St. Louis,
who took a great interest in Clark, and. by advancing money
on his drafts enabled him to get supplies when he must other-
wise have failed. [34] From Vigo Clark learned that Hamil-
ton had sent away his Indians and most of his soldiers, retain-
ing only a force of eighty men at the fort, and did not contem-
plate an attack upon Kaskaskia until spring. Though it was
in the dead of winter, and the expedition must be attended with
great hardships and danger, the daring leader determined to

[31] "Clark's Campaign," p. 63.

[32] "House Report, No. 117," 33rd Congress, first session, etc.

[33] "Journal."

[34] For history of Vigo's claim, see "Magazine of Western History,"
January, 1885, p. 230.


attack Vincennes and beard the British lion in his den. With-
out the loss of an hour, he set about preparing for the expedi-
tion that was to go down in history as one of the most brilliant
in the annals of American warfare. He received his first
definite information concerning Hamilton's movements on
January 29th, and on February 4th he had a big "battoe,"
mounted with two four-pounders and four large swivel guns,
and filled with provisions, ready to go down the river and aid
in the attack. She was named The Willing, and Clark says
that she "was much admired by the inhabitants, as no such
thing had been seen in the country before." Lieutenant
Rogers was placed in command of The Willing, which had a
crew of forty-six men. He had instructions to force his way
up the Wabash as far as the mouth of White River, there to
secrete himself until he received further orders. On the next
day Clark, with one hundred and seventy men, started on his
overland march, "after receiving a lecture and absolution from
the priest.'' They crossed the Kaskaskia River, marched
three miles, and then encamped. What the reckless com-
mander may have thought as he lay in camp can only be con-
jectured, but the mind of the bravest man might well have
been filled with dismay at the thought of the difficulties ahead
of him. There was a painful march of two hundred miles [35]
to be made over a country that was well nigh impassable.
There had been heavy rains, and the rivers, choked with float-
ing ice, had overflowed their banks and covered the prairies,
converting portions of the plains into veritable lakes. Where
there was no water there was mud, deep as only Illinois mud
can be. The weather was comparatively mild at the time, but
it was at a season of the year when intense cold might be
expected at any moment. Altogether, the prospect was most
disheartening, but if the fearless captain felt any dismay he has
left no record of it.

[35] The distance actually marched is variously estimated from 160 to
250 miles.


Captain, afterwards Major, Bowman, who accompanied the
expedition, kept a journal, the terse entries of which tell the
sufferings endured on that terrible march, better than anything
Clark wrote. Clark dwells upon the means employed to
accomplish his ends, but passes lightly over the suffering of his
men. [36] On the 7th the expedition set out again. In six
days the Little Wabash was reached. The chief difficulty,
Clark says, had been to keep up the spirits of his men. This he
did by encouraging them to shoot game and hold nightly
entertainments in the shape of games and feasts. The Little
Wabash presented the greatest obstacle they had yet encoun-
tered. The river and one of its affluents had united their
floods and formed a lake from three to five miles wide. Clark
confesses that he viewed this sheet of water with distrust, but
he sat about building a raft, and pretended that the crossing
would be nothing more than a diversion. The "diversion"
occupied them for three days, and the men had to wade
through water four feet deep to reach the opposite bank, after
the ammunition had been ferried across. The next day their
provisions commenced to run short, and hunger began to
aggravate their sufferings. On the i7th they reached the
Embarrass River, and found it impassable. Until 8 o'clock at
night they marched up and down the river in search of a dry
spot. Finally, in the words of Major Bowman, "we found the
water falling from a small spot of ground. Staid there the
remainder of the night. Drizzly and dark weather." [37]
Four men had been sent out to cross the river and steal some
boats from a plantation to ferry the army across the Wabash,
but the attempt failed. On the i8th, to continue with Major
Bowman's narrative, "at daybreak heard Governor Hamilton's

[36] Clark in his letter to George Mason says: "If I was sensible that
you would let no person see this relation, I would give you a detail of our
sufferings for four days in crossing these waters, and the manner it was
done, as I am sure you would credit it; but it is too incredible for any
person to believe, except those that are as well acquainted with me as you
are, or had experience something similar to it." "Campaign," p. 66.

[37] Appendix to "Clark's Campaign," p. 102.


morning gun. Set off and marched down the river saw some
fine land. About 2 o'clock came to the banks of the Wabash ;
made rafts for four men to cross and go up to town and st^al
boats; but they spent the day and night in the water to no pur-
pose ; for there was not one foot of dry land to be found/' The
next day a canoe was built, and Captain McCarty set out with
three men to make another attempt to steal boats. He had not
gone far before he discovered four large fires, which seemed to
be the fires of Indians and whites, and he returned. Clark then
dispatched two men in the canoe to go after The Willing, with
orders to have her proceed without rest to the rescue of his
starving company. It was their last hope, Major Bowman
says, and many of the men were downcast. He closes his
entry for that day: "No provisions now for two days. Hard
fortune!" It was hard fortune indeed.

On the 2Oth the men began to despair, and for the first time
the French volunteers talked of returning, but Clark laughed
away their fears, and told them he would be glad if they would
go out and kill some deer. They shot one, "which," says the
hungry Major, "was brought into camp very acceptably." To
keep them occupied, Clark set the men to work building
canoes, and during the day a party of hunters told them of two
canoes that were floating in the river, one of which was
captured. They also told them that the British had not yet
discovered their presence. At daybreak on the following
morning the work of ferrying the men across the river began.
They were landed on a small hill, and, hoping to reach town
that night, waded through water up to their necks to a second
hill three miles away. Here they were surrounded by water.
The nearest spot of dry land was a small elevation called the
Sugar Camp, nearly a league away. To transport the men
there in boats would take a day and night, which was a long
time to starving men. Wading being the only way out of the
difficulty, Clark assumed an air of bravado, blackened his face


with powder, gave a warwhoop and plunged into the water,
with his officers at his heels. "The party gazed," he says in his
Memoirs, "and fell in one after another, without saying a word,
like a flock of sheep. I ordered those near me to begin a
favorite song of theirs; it soon passed through the line, and the
whole went on cheerfully." [38] The water was up to their
necks, but they reached Sugar Camp in safety. That day the
men had nothing to eat, and that night the weather turned so
cold that their clothing froze to them, and ice half an inch thick
formed on the water. No tidings had been received from The
Willing. "Heard the evening and morning guns from the
fort," says Major Bowman. "No provisions yet. Lord
help us!"

The morning broke bright and clear. Before the starving
and half frozen band of heroes lay Horseshoe Plain, covered
for four miles with icy water breast deep, through which they
must wade to reach Vincennes. Clark addressed his men,
encouraging them to make a last effort. Within sight was
their goal; they had but to reach the wood beyond the plain,
and their hardships would be over. Without waiting for a
reply he dashed into the water, breaking the ice as he went.
The men answered with a hurrah and followed. When a few
had entered he sent Major Bowman back with a detachment to

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Online LibraryDaniel B StarkeyGeorge Rogers Clark and his Illinois campaign → online text (page 2 of 4)