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This Week in History
February 22-28, 2015

George Rogers Clark Wins Major Victory at Vincennes
February 1779

By Pamela Lowry

General George Rogers Clark..

Our "This Week in History" column is pleased to post contributions from the extended American "Committee of Correspondence".[1]Historian Pamela Lowry reports on the historic event as if from on the scene. Additional material was contributed by Charles Notley.

February 24, 1779—Today, the Virginia militia, under Lt. Colonel George Rogers Clark, has won a major victory today at Vincennes (better known as Fort Sackville), which is located far to the west in the Illinois country. The notorious Lt. Colonel Henry Hamilton, who also serves as the British Lieutenant Governor of Canada, is called “the Hair-Buyer” because of the high prices he pays for American scalps, has been forced to surrender to a small force of American and French soldiers.

Since the Royal Proclamation of 1763, issued by King George III following Great Britain’s acquisition of French territory in North America at the end of the French and Indian War, the British have made a great effort to keep the Indians friendly to them, and to turn the Indians against the colonists. The French, at the villages of Cahokia, Bellefontaine, Kaskaskia, and Vincennes had aligned themselves with the British, while the village of St. Louis, belonging to the Spanish, remained neutral.

As early as 1776, Hamilton had urged the British Government to empower him to unleash the Great Lakes Indians against the American frontier. In June, 1777, when he had received London’s permission, Hamilton donned war-paint and Indian dress, and convened a huge conclave of the tribes. He provided them with food, guns, ammunition, scalping knives, and war-paint, for their murderous raids against the frontier settlers. He also equipped them with “broadside” leaflets, which they subsequently fastened to the burned cabins and scalped bodies they left in their wake, which urged the Americans to declare for Britain and move their families to the safety of the British fort at Detroit. For this coming spring, Hamilton had been planning an offensive, with more than a thousand Indians, to push the American frontier back east to the “proclamation line” at the Appalachian Mountains, the official border, according to the Proclamation of 1763.

Siege of Fort Sackville 

French settlements and forts in the Illinois Country 1763.

On January 29, Francis Vigo, an Italian fur trader, informed Clark about Hamilton's reoccupation of Vincennes and his nefarious plan. Clark decided that he needed to launch a surprise winter attack on Vincennes before Hamilton could recapture the Illinois country in the spring, and wrote to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry for support:

“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.”

He got it. Gov. Henry, with secret backing from Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and Richard Henry Lee, agreed with Clark’s bold plan to capture these French settlements.

On Feb. 6, Clark set out with a small force of Virginia militia down the Ohio River to the French towns in the Illinois country, and captured them from the British without a shot being fired. When the horrified Hamilton, then at Fort Detroit, learned that Clark was in his rear, he moved troops down the Wabash River to Vincennes. Instead of retreating, Clark marched his force of only 172 men, nearly half of them local Frenchmen carrying their own regimental colors sewn by the women of the various towns, 180 miles eastward to Vincennes. A February thaw had flooded the countryside, and the soldiers had to march through waist-high icy water for the last 20 miles.

March to Vincennes by Frederick Coffay Yohn, painted in 1929.

Undaunted, upon reaching Vincennes, Clark informed the people of the village that he intended to take the fort that night. He announced that any who wanted to cooperate with his plan should stay in their houses and anyone found outside would be considered hostile. A captured French hunter carried the message to the village, and to the surprise and delight of the Americans, there was silence from the fort. Neither warning gun nor drum. Clark did not reveal to the hunter the actual size of his force, but hinted that it numbered approximately 1,000 men.

Shortly before sundown on the 23rd, Clark assembled his men, marching them in two battalion groups, one led by him and the other by his second in command, Capt. Joseph Bowman. With drums beating and banners flying, and using the cover of a couple of small ridge lines, Clark and Bowman marched them just out of sight and then scrambled to march forward again, repeating this maneuver several times, thus giving the impression that his force was indeed about 1,000 men. The maneuver worked. Clark was careful not to let the townspeople actually see any but a small group of men at any one time. About 8 p.m., the group gained the heights southwest of the town. Even with all the fanfare, the fort did not appear alerted. Clark sent Lt. Bayley and fourteen of the Virginians to take up positions around the fort and to commence fire at his signal. The rest of the men occupied the town. Several of the town’s people brought hot food out to the troops.

A Card Game Interrupted

Meanwhile inside the fort, Hamilton had invited a certain Capt. Leonard Helm to join him in a game of cards. Helm was a commissioned officer in the Virginia militia, who had surrendered the fort on Dec. 17, 1778 to Hamilton, after his local militia had deserted, and he had too few men to attempt resistance. When the British had formed up within yards of the fort, Helm opened the gate and pointed a cannon at the British formation, with an artillery match in one hand and a bottle of whiskey with the other. He invited Hamilton to share his whiskey and discuss terms as gentlemen. Knowing that the British did not fully understand his desperate tactical situation, he demanded and received favorable terms of surrender. Hamilton was later shocked to find only three people within the fort but honored his agreement.

No sooner had Hamilton and Helm sat down, than a shot rang out, followed by a volley of shots. Hamilton later said he thought it was just some of the Indians in the village of Vincennes expressing themselves, unaware that those Indians had fled upon the approach of the Americans. It was not until he was informed that one of his sergeants was wounded that he ordered the drummer to beat to quarters. Shortly thereafter, a British surgeon made it back to the fort from town and reported that a Col. Clark had surrounded the fort “with at least 500 men.” By then, Capt. Bowman's men were about 120 yards from the main gate, and other sharpshooters were within 30 yards of the northeast palisade. The rest were taking cover behind houses, barns and natural barriers. Fire commenced on the fort's gun ports and any other openings that could be identified. It is said that the fire was so accurate that the defenders were forced to close the gun ports and thus lost the use of their cannons. When some tried to reopen a gun port, the fire wounded six of the British, one-sixth of Col. Hamilton's regulars.

A British patrol heard the firing and returned to the town. They evaded Clark's forces by taking shelter in a barn, but soon two of them deserted and were captured, and revealed the whereabouts of the patrol. Clark made an unusual decision. Cleverly, he ordered a cease-fire and allowed the patrol to scurry to the fort, scaling one of the walls to safety. This tactic insured that Clark did not have to worry about any of them alerting the friendly Indians to reinforce the British.

Firing continued sporadically throughout the rest of the night. By daybreak on the 24th the defenders sharply increased their firing. At 8:00 a.m. Clark called for a truce and sent one of his French captains to the fort with a letter of surrender addressed to Hamilton. In the letter he warned Hamilton that if he did not surrender, he would suffer the consequences. Hamilton refused, and firing resumed intensively on both sides. The attackers using typical siege tactics, began to dig a tunnel towards the fort's powder magazine. Hamilton saw that his situation was hopeless. Reinforcements from Fort Detroit, some 600 miles away would never arrive in time, and half of his troops were French, whose loyalties he could not now count on. Further, he still thought he was completely surrounded by more than 500 men. Hamilton considered surrender, and, displaying a white flag, proposed in a letter to Clark that they call a three-day truce giving them time to discuss terms. Clark answered that he must unconditionally surrender immediately and that if Hamilton still desired a conference, he should come under a flag of truce to the Catholic Church which was just southwest of the fort.


While the surrender conference was taking place, some 15 to 20 Ottawa and Delaware warriors, with two French partisans, were seen coming down the hill on the Buffalo Trace with two prisoners. Having been alerted of their coming, Clark sent Capt. John Williams, disguised as British, to greet them. When one partisan became suspicious, Williams seized him. The others, seeing their mistake, turned and attempted to escape, but Williams' men opened fire, killing two, wounding three, and capturing eight. The captive Indians were then paraded through the main street by the front gate and with their hands bound and ordered to sit in a circle within full sight of the British in the fort. To discourage any further Indian participation with the British, Clark ordered them tomahawked in full sight of Hamilton and the British garrison. He then ordered the French partisan leader who was dressed and painted like the Indians to be killed if he tried to escape.

About 2 p.m., the front gate of the fort opened, and Lt. Colonel Hamilton, in full dress, walked down the street accompanied by his Major, Jehu Hay, and Capt. Leonard Helm. He gave a list of conditions for surrender to Clark, who immediately rejected them, repeating his demand for unconditional surrender. Clark informed Hamilton that his cannons would arrive within a matter of hours, and continued resistance would then be futile. After much discussion Clark finally agreed to moderate his terms, and gave Hamilton a half hour to accept them, which he finally did and was allowed to return to the fort.

Clark Raises American Flag

This dramatic painting is one of several at the George Rogers  Clark National Historical Park in Vincennes, Indiana that  depicts the life of Patriot Clark. Here he is accepting the  surrender of Fort Sackville from Colonel Henry Hamilton.

The next morning, February 25th, Hamilton did not raise the British flag over Fort Sackville. At about 10 a.m. he and his men marched out, stacked, and surrendered their arms. Clark then led his two companies of ragged and rough men into the fort and raised the American flag. When asked by Hamilton, “Where is your army,” Clark informed Hamilton that he was looking at it! Hamilton slowly turned away, reportedly with tears in his eyes. He had just surrendered to a force much inferior than he was tricked into believing.

The defeated Hamilton termed Clark's march to Vincennes a military feat "unequalled perhaps in history." Clark has high hopes: “This stroke will nearly put an end to the Indian War.”

George Rogers Clark’s bold and successful plan, opens the Mississippi River to safe passage and ensures we will be able to continue receiving war supplies from the Spanish at New Orleans. The British will now be obliged to regroup their soldiers at Fort Detroit, and American troops who would have been needed to face a British attack from the west can now be held on the eastern seaboard to face Generals Clinton and Cornwallis.

As a result of Clark’s victory, it is expected that settlers will began to pour into Kentucky, and that new settlements and land offices to register claims will soon be established.


[1] The Committees of Correspondence, best known from Benjamin Franklins' work, were the American colonies' means for maintaining communication lines in the years before the Revolutionary War. In 1764, Boston formed the earliest Committee of Correspondence to encourage opposition to Britain's stiffening of customs enforcement and prohibition of American paper money. The following year, New York formed a similar committee to keep the other colonies notified of its actions in resisting the Stamp Act. In 1773, the Virginia House of Burgesses proposed that each colonial legislature appoint a committee for intercolonial correspondence. The exchanges that followed built solidarity during the turbulent times and helped bring about the formation of the First Continental Congress in 1774. The Committees continued to function in the following years as a US Intelligence Service.


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