|A Year of Indiana History - 2016|
Colonel George Rogers Clark forced the British forces under British Lieutenant-Governor Henry Hamilton to surrender Fort Sackville. This returned the town of Vincennes to American jurisdiction. Clark and his men had captured the town, along with Kaskaskia, Cahokia and other small outposts the previous year. Lieutenant-Governor Henry Hamilton had retaken Vincennes on December 17, 1778. Then Hamilton, committing a fatal error, allowed most of his force to return home for the winter.
George Rogers Clark (November 19, 1752 – February 13, 1818)
John Clark and Ann Rogers Clark produced the second of their ten children on November 19, 1752. George Rogers Clark entered the world near Charlottesville, Virginia on the frontier. The family moved away from the frontier after the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754. Their new home was a 400-acre plantation that John Clark eventually increased to 2000 acres. His parents sent him to his grandfather's home so he could attend Donald Robertson's school. This famous school also educated James Madison and John Taylor, who attended at the same time as George Rogers Clark. His grandfather taught him how to survey land. At twenty, George joined a surveying team that traveled into Kentucky, which was part of Virginia at the time. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix had opened Kentucky to settlement and new settlers were flooding into the area. The Iroquois had signed the treaty had, but the various tribes that made up the rest of the area did not. British Lieutenant-Governor Henry Hamilton encouraged the Amerindian tribes to raid American settlements in Kentucky. Clark headed up defensive attacks against these tribes. In June 1778, he started a campaign to take the western British outposts along the Wabash and Mississippi Rivers. He saw success with his summer campaign. He captured all the British forts and eased the threats of attack on the Kentucky settlements.
British Lieutenant-Governor Henry Hamilton (c. 1734 – 29 September 1796)
His childhood obscured by the mists of time, Henry Hamilton was probably born near Dublin Ireland. He began his military career during the French and Indian War in North America, rising to brigade major. He sold his commission in 1775 and entered politics. The Crown appointed him Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs at Fort Detroit. He gained skill at working with the various Amerindian tribes. An amateur artist, Hamilton drew many pictures of the Indians that inhabited the area around Detroit. He left an extensive collection of work depicting them.
When war with the colonists began, the initial British policy was to leave the natives out of it. They did this in fear that the warriors would kill American civilians during their raids. Later he received instructions from the government to use the natives. He incited the tribes to attack the frontier settlements in Virginia and western Pennsylvania. He included a British officer in each raid to keep the warriors from killing civilians. This gambit failed and the natives killed and scalped many of the civilians. The raids were so fierce and successful that the colonist dubbed Hamilton the "hair buyer." He gained this name because of the number of scalps for which he paid a bounty to the Amerindians. After Clark's capture of Vincennes, he led a force of 600 men, a mixed force of Frenchmen, Amerindians and British. He was more confident of the loyalty of the Amerindians than he was the French component.
Founded in 1732 by French fur traders, Vincennes is the oldest European town in Indiana. Its location near the Buffalo Trace, which crossed the Wabash River nearby, was an excellent location. The town grew. The British gained control of the town in 1763 as part of the Treaty of Paris on February 10, 1763 that ended the hostilities. British Lt. John Ramsey traveled to the town in 1766. He enhanced the fort there, naming it Fort Sackville in honor of Lord George Sackville. The British held the town until July 1778, when an American force led by George Rogers Clark took it. The British reclaimed it in December 1778 when British Lieutenant-Governor Henry Hamilton retook it. It stayed in British hands for two months. Then, on a cold night in February, an American force rose from the icy waters that surrounded it and recaptured the town.
Francis Vigo (1747 - 1836)
A successful St. Louis fur trader, Vigo made frequent trips to the trading post at Vincennes. Unaware that the British had recaptured the town, he traveled to Vincennes in January 1779. The British captured him. Not knowing he was an ardent supporter of the Americans and had worked with Clark, the British released him. They extracted a promise that he would do nothing to aid the Americans during his return trip. Honoring his pledge, he returned directly to St. Louis. After returning, he traveled fifty miles to Kaskaskia to consult with Clark. He informed him of the British strength and deployments at Vincennes. Clark immediately began planning his campaign to capture Vincennes.
By February, the Wabash and Embarrass Rivers had flooded the area around Vincennes. Vincennes was a virtual island in flooded, icy river waters. Clark decided to do the unexpected and led his 170 men through 180 miles of flooded countryside in eighteen days. During much of this trek, they traveled up to their armpits in the frigid waters. They arrived on the outskirts of the town on Feb. 23, 1779. The French inhabitants of Vincennes had no love for the British and Clark knew this. He sent a message to the French, telling them he would attack the town the next day and warned them to stay indoors. The French responded by supplying the Americans with powder and other supplies they needed. Many of them joined the Americans. Thus, the Americans recaptured the town on February 24, 1778. Now they had to recapture the fort.
Clark's forces surrounded the fort. Using flags and other ruses they fooled the British that they had a much larger force than they had. The American soldiers, equipped with famed long rifles, kept a hot and accurate fire on the fort’s walls. Under cover of this fire, others began tunneling under the fort's walls to plant explosive charges. They built barricades and dug entrenchments to provide additional cover. A dismayed Hamilton watched these proceedings and contacted Clark to begin negotiations. These, conducted in nearby St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, ended unsuccessfully. Clark demanded nothing less than unconditional surrender, which Hamilton refused to accept. After Hamilton's return, a band of Amerindian warriors returned from a raiding party. Unaware of the American presence, they walked into the middle of it and Clark's men captured them. Clark ordered five of the warriors tomahawked in front of the fort, further rattling the British inside. Hamilton consulted with his officers, who were unanimous in their desire to continue the fight. However, Hamilton did not trust the Frenchmen who made up a third of his force. They were reluctant to fire on the French outside that had joined the Americans. At ten o'clock AM on February 25, 1779, Hamilton marched his men out of the fort, laid down their arms and surrendered the fort. An American flag once more flew over Fort Sackville.
Clark sent Hamilton back to Virginia. The authorities there did not consider him a prisoner of war because of his activities with the Amerindians. They considered him a war criminal and imprisoned him. They finally released him after the war and he returned to London. The Americans held the area that became the Northwest Territory at the end of the war. Thus, the British ceded the territory to the Americans. This would eventually become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. Clark and his men with their heroics had gained a western empire for the new United States.
For more information about Vincennes, check out the author’s book
A Visit to Vincennes – By Paul R. Wonning
This article excerpted from the author’s book”
American History A Day at A Time - February – By Paul R. Wonning
A Year of Indiana History - 2016
© Paul Wonning