One of the largely unsung heroes of the American Revolution is George Rogers Clark. The campaign that he fought in Illinois and Indiana secured to America a claim to these territories that was recognized in the treaty ending the war.
In 1778 Virginian Clark, at 25, was already a seasoned veteran of the savage warfare that raged on the Kentucky frontier throughout the Revolution. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Hamilton, known to the patriots as “Hair-buyer” Hamilton, from Detroit constantly aided the Indians war against the settlers in Kentucky, and paid generous bounties to the Indians for the prisoners and scalps they brought him.
Clark realized that the best way to stop the raids into Kentucky was for the patriots to go on the offensive and seize British outposts north of the Ohio river. Recruiting 150 men to form what he called the Illinois regiment, Clark, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Virginia militia, led his force into Illinois and took Kaskaskia on July 4, 1778. The men of the Illinois regiment received an enthusiastic reception from the French, largely due to the efforts of Father Pierre Gibault, Vicar General of the Illinois Country, and Frenchwomen soon busied themselves sewing flags for the regiment. Cahokia and Vincennes were taken without firing a shot, and British power in Illinois and Indiana seemed to vanish over night.
Hamilton did not take long to respond. He raised a force of 30 regulars, 145 French Canadian militiamen and 60 Indians, marched from Detroit and re-took Fort Sackville at Vincennes on December 17, planning to stay there for the winter and then retake Illinois in the spring of 1779.
On January 29, 1779 Clark learned that the British had retaken Vincennes. Although it was the dead of winter he decided to attempt to retake Vincennes and thereby forestall a British offensive into Illinois in the spring. Writing to Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia, Clark justified his decision: “I know the case is desperate; but, sir, we must either quit the country or attack Mr. Hamilton. No time is to be lost. Were I sure of a reinforcement, I should not attempt it. Who knows what fortune will do for us? Great things have been effected by a few men well conducted. Perhaps we may be fortunate. We have this consolation, that our cause is just, and that our country will be grateful and not condemn our conduct in case we fall through. If we fail, the Illinois as well as Kentucky, I believe, is lost.”
On February 6, 1779 Clark and 170 volunteers, half of them French militia from Kaskaskia, embarked upon an epic winter march of 180 miles from Vincennes. The winter was wet, and Clark and his men were usually soaked to the bone, often wading up to their waists through flooded prairie. It is astonishing, and a tribute to Clark’s leadership and the determination of his men, that raw militia made such a grueling trek with inadequate rations.
On February 23, Clark and his men marched into Vincennes at sunset. Clark had his force entrench in front of the main gate. Jubilant residents of Vincennes supplied Clark’s men with powder and shot they had hidden from the British.
On February 24, Clark deployed his men in such a way that the British commander could not get a clear idea of the size of the American force. The ten flags of the regiment were prominently displayed, and thus Hamilton leapt to the conclusion that he was being besieged by a vastly superior force. After two hours of long range shooting, Hamilton surrendered his garrison of 79 men. The 26 year old Clark had earned the title of Conqueror of the Northwest.