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Men of the Revolution: 11. George Rogers Clark

June 2024
9min read

Clark’s career was like the passage of a meteor—a quick, fiery moment that lit up the heavens for all to see and wonder at, then vanishing in oblivion.

It is of a piece with the rest of the story that the portrait of George Rogers Clark which his son described as “a Masterpiece” was painted long after the events that made him famous, when he was in the throes of his final illness, embittered and forgotten. Nor should it surprise anyone familiar with Clark’s sad tale that he should have commissioned the portrait himself or that he personally paid an itinerant painter named C. D. Cook eighty dollars for the work that required a month of sittings, since the old soldier’s face was so often contorted with pain that the artist could not continue.

Clark’s career, after all, was like the passage of a meteor —a quick, fiery moment that lit up the heavens for all to see and wonder at, only to vanish into oblivion. Yet in that brief, shining instant he revealed himself as one of the truly great captains of the Revolutionary War—never once losing a battle, saving the Old Northwest for the new nation and establishing its frontier firmly on the Mississippi River, whence all future westward expansion would be launched.

Born in 1752 near Charlottesville, Virginia, Clark was one of ten children. Of the six sons, five were officers in the Revolution, and the one who missed out on it was only five years old when it began (he more than made up for the omission by undertaking a highly important journey of exploration with his friend Meriwether Lewis in 1803). At nineteen, the tough, redheaded Ceorge Rogers Clark was surveying lands along the Ohio River, moving constantly in and out of forbidden territory beyond the Appalachians, and by the time war broke out in Massachusetts, he was a veteran Indian fighter and had made Harrodsburg, the first settlement in what is now Kentucky, his home.

War was nothing new to Clark and to the others struggling to establish footholds in a West controlled by the British and their Indian allies. Burned-out villages and murderous attacks by scalping parties were accepted hazards of existence in that dark and bloody wilderness, but no settler had known anything to equal the ferocity that began in 1777. That spring Lord George Germain, England’s Secretary of State for the American Colonies, ordered British commanders to arm the “merciless Indian Savages” (to quote the complaint against such tactics in the Declaration of Independence), and he encouraged raids on the new settlements, initiating the true years of horror for the frontier.

The way to discourage these forays, Clark knew, was to strike at the source and “distress the garrison at Detroit,” the British headquarters and supply base commanded by Henry Hamilton, infamous to Kentuckians as the Hair Buyer. From some hunters he sent out on a spying mission, Clark learned that the British outposts in the Illinois country—populated by Frenchmen who had been there for generations—were ripe for the plucking, if anyone could get to them. British troops had been recalled from Kaskaskia, on the Mississippi River; the fort there was in ruinous condition; and nearby Fort Chartres had been abandoned. The capture of Kaskaskia, he believed, would enable the Americans to dominate the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, help control the Indians, and perhaps win the allegiance of the French locals, who had no love for the British. Since Virginia claimed all this region, Clark set off on his own hook to Williamsburg and persuaded Governor Patrick Henry to let him raise troops for a secret expedition into Illinois country.

He assembled about a hundred fifty men, telling them that they were going to “defend Kentucky,” and after picking up additional volunteers on the way arrived at the Falls of the Ohio in May, 1778, where he informed his followers that their real destination was Kaskaskia—several hundred miles to the west—where they would attack an enemy of unknown strength in the middle of a country overrun by hostile Indians. Some men requested permission to go home, and a few deserted, but on June 36 (a day marked by an eclipse of the sun “that created unwanted alarm among the Soldiers”) Clark and a hundred seventy-eight men set out on flatboats and coasted down the Ohio to the mouth of the Tennessee River, where they struck off overland. Their only food was what they could carry and berries picked along the way (Clark dared not risk discovery by letting them fire on game), and after nine days they arrived at Kaskaskia, slipped into the town after dark, and took it without firing a shot.

Impressed by Clark’s firm but generous treatment, a group of Frenchmen from Kaskaskia accompanied thirty of his “Long Knives” to Cahokia, fifty miles to the north, and persuaded their countrymen there to swear allegiance to the Americans. A hundred fifty miles from Kaskaskia was Vincennes, and Clark’s pliant new allies also succeeded in talking its residents into yielding the town to Clark, who, before returning to Kaskaskia, garrisoned it with all the men he could spare—twenty-five Americans and Frenchmen under a sixty-year-old Indian fighter by the name of Leonard Helm.

When word of Clark’s triumphs (although not the name of the conqueror, so secret had his plans remained) reached Detroit, Hamilton assembled a force of British regulars and Indians and with some artillery and a vast array of supplies began making his way toward Vincennes in October of 1778. Hamilton’s army of five hundred men took seventy-one days to make the arduous trip through the first snows of winter, and before he reached Vincennes, he captured an American patrol and learned that Helm was helpless. According to a later account, the British arrived at the fort to find the entrance blocked by one cannon, one soldier, and Helm, who stood there with a lighted artillery match in one hand and a bottle in the other. When he got the best terms he thought he could, he put out the match.

Clark reacted characteristically to the news of Vincennes’ fall. Well aware that if he did not take Hamilton, the latter would surely take him, he struck out for Vincennes in the middle of winter, across prairie lands that were little more than frozen water and half-frozen mud. He had about a hundred seventy men—forty of whom he sent off on a riverboat called the Willing , intending that they should travel up the Wabash River to a point about thirty miles below Vincennes and await orders while he led the remainder of his force overland. What roads existed could only be described as frightful, it rained without letup, and the men were never dry, even at night; but Clark was a born leader, and he pushed and cajoled and allowed them to shoot game as a diversion (each company took turns inviting the others to dinner) until they finally reached the banks of the Little Wabash on February 13, after enduring what their commander described as “Increditable difficulties.”

Then the real ordeal commenced. Ahead, the waters of the Wabash and Little Wabash had overflowed and become one vast flood, and Clark “Viewed this sheet of Water for some time with Distrust” before plunging in and striking out for the only dry land in sight—five miles away. As they pushed through water three or four feet deep the troops were cheered by “a little Antick Drummer”—a fourteen-year-old lad from Cahokia who floated along on top of his drum, singing comic songs—and by the time they reached the bank of the Wabash on February 18, they were only nine miles from Vincennes and could hear the fort’s morning gun being fired.

There was no sign of the Willing , and Clark’s party was suffering from hunger, fatigue, and exposure, but after waiting several days they crossed the deepest part of the river in two makeshift canoes and then set out on foot again, in water up to their shoulders, holding their powder over their heads to keep it dry. When they reached a soggy hill and collapsed, longing for food and wondering what lay ahead, they had been in or on the icy water for four days.

Clark let them rest awhile, then he blackened his face with powder, gave a war whoop, and strode into the water again, telling the men nearest him to start singing. At nightfall they made camp on àhalf acre of dry ground, where they found a few possums, a fox, and some nuts to eat. That night the weather turned bitter cold, and at sunrise on February 23 Clark roused his men and gave them a little speech. They had to cross a flooded plain known as Horse Shoe Prairie to reach high land, he told them, but there they would “put an End to their fatigue.” What this hopeful note really meant, in case anyone wondered, was that they would storm a newly rebuilt fort held by five hundred British and Indians as the “End to their fatigue.”

Once again Clark took the lead, and whenever he found that the water was getting deeper, he would sing out that it was shallower up ahead. Finally they reached dry ground, and the day, for once, was fair. They captured a canoe filled with Indian women who had some buffalo meat, from which they made hot broth; and after drying their clothes they shuttled across a deep lake, a boatload of men at a time. From the other side it was two miles to the town of Vincennes.

A patrol brought in a French prisoner, and Clark—without letting him see how few troops he had—gave him a message for the other Frenchmen in town, telling them to stay inside unless they wanted to join in fighting the British. He told the prisoner that he had a thousand men and that they had come from Kentucky (no one would possibly believe they had made their way across the flooded plains between Vincennes and Kaskaskia), and as dusk fell Clark ordered his little army to spread out in a wide skirmish line. He distributed twenty flags and spaced them at intervals along the line, and as the Long Knives moved toward Vincennes the French inhabitants believed that twenty companies were attacking. (The British were blissfully unaware of the movement, since the prisoner Clark released did not inform them.)

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.”

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