The British tried very hard to keep the United States colonies of Great Britain. The odds were in their favor, but they badly misjudged the determination of the early pioneers of this country. The Revolutionary War would bear that out. On February 5, 1779, George Rogers Clark departed Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River with a force of approximately 170 men, including Kentucky militia and French volunteers. Their goal was to take Fort Sackville (Fort Vincennes, at that time), British garrison under Lieutenant-Governor Henry Hamilton. The men traveled across what is now the state of Illinois, a journey of about 180 miles, much of it covered by deep and icy flood water until they reached Fort Sackville at Vincennes, in what is now Indiana. They reached the Embarras River on February 17th, placing them only 9 miles from Fort Sackville. Unfortunately, the river was too high to cross there, so they followed the Embarrass River down to the Wabash River, where the next day they began to build boats. Moral was low, because they had been without food for the last two days, and Clark struggled to keep his men from deserting. Clark later wrote that “I conducted myself in such a manner that caused the whole to believe that I had no doubt of success, which kept their spirits up.” He really had no choice, no matter what his true feelings were on the matter. Still, in a February 20 entry in Captain Bowman’s Field Journal, he describes the men in camp as “very quiet but hungry; some almost in despair; many of the creole volunteers talking of returning.” The situation grew more bleak by the day, and on February 22, Bowman reports that they still have “No provisions yet. Lord, help us!” and that “Those that were weak and famished from so much fatigue went in the canoes” as they marched towards toward Vincennes.
Their first real break came on February 20th, when they captured five hunters from Vincennes, who were traveling by boat. In their complete surprise, they revealed that Clark and his little army had not yet been detected. They also revealed that the people of Vincennes were sympathetic to the Americans, and not the British. The news served to revive the men, and the next day, they crossed the Wabash by canoe, leaving their packhorses behind. On foot, they marched towards Vincennes. It was still not an easy go of it, and sometimes the men found themselves in water up to their shoulders. A 4-mile-wide flooded plain made the last few days the hardest, and they were forced to use the canoes to shuttle the most weary and weakened men from high point to high point. Shortly before reaching Vincennes, they encountered a villager known to be a friend, who informed Clark that they were still unsuspected. Clark sent the man ahead with a letter to the inhabitants of Vincennes, warning them that he was just about to arrive with an army and that everyone should stay in their homes unless they wanted to be considered an enemy. The message was read in the public square, and no one went to the fort to warn Hamilton. Clark secured the surrender of the British garrison at 10am on February 25, 1779, after brutally killing five captive Native Americans who were British alleys, within view of the fort, probably to scare those inside.
Prior to the surrender of Fort Sackville, the British truly thought that they were on track to win this war and retain their control, but the surrender of Fort Sackville took the wind out of their sails, and literally marked the beginning of the end of British domination in America’s western frontier. There were only 40 British soldiers in Fort Sackville, and an equal number of mixed French volunteers and French settlers who fought on both sides of the American Revolution. The French portion of Hamilton’s force was reluctant to fight once they realized their compatriots had allied themselves with Clark. To further confuse those in the fort, Clark managed to make his 170 men seem more like 500 by unfurling flags suitable to a larger number of troops. The able woodsmen filling Clark’s ranks were able to fire at a rapid rate. That caused Hamilton to believe that he was surrounded by a substantial army. While Hamilton was occupied, Clark began tunneling under the fort planning to explode the gunpowder stores within it.
When a Native American raiding party attempted to return to the fort from the Ohio Valley, Clark’s men killed or captured all of them. The public tomahawk executions served upon five of the captives frightened the British, assuming that theirs might be a similar fate in Clark’s hands. When the British surrendered to Clark’s men, the Native Americans understood fully that they could no longer rely on the British to protect them from the Patriots. The British finally understood too, that they were no match for the determined patriots. The United States was finally free of the British.
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