The Why,How and When of Vincennes


Events Leading to Battle of Vincennes

  • On June 26, 1778, Lt. Colonel Clark set out with about 200 men from Virginia and arrived at Kaskaskia (Illinois) on the 4th of July. The local French militia leader at Fort Gage, the Chevalier Phillippe de Rocheblave, was caught by surprise and Fort Gage was captured without firing a shot. When the French learned that an Alliance with France had been signed in June, 1778, and that France had declared war on Great Britain, they were ecstatic.

  • On July 14th, Father Pierre Gibault, with a few of Roger's militia left for Fort Sackville at Vincennes in the Ohio Territory to inform them of the new treaty with France. On the 20th of July the French at Vincennes also swore allegiance to the Americans. Because of his small force, Clark could only leave three men to man the fort. Clark then dispatched Captain Joseph Brown with 30 mounted men to the French settlements of Prairie du Rocher and Cahokia, accompanied by some Frenchmen, to spread the word about the Alliance. The French were elated and quickly pledged their support to the Americans.

  • By August 6th the British learned of the events at Kaskaskia and Fort Sackville and made plans to recapture the fort. On the 7th of October Lt. Colonel Henry Hamilton departed Detroit with approximately 175 troops and 60 Indians for Vincennes. By the time he arrived, on December 17th, his force had grown to about 500. The fort at Vincennes was defended only by Captain Leonard Helm and three Virginians, the French militia having drifted away. Helm surrounded Vincennes without firing a shot.

  • By this time Lt. Colonel Clark was in a dangerous position. Since his arrival in July, Indians loyal to the British were all around him. He was running low on supplies for the winter. Oliver Pollack at New Orleans with the assistance of Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish Governor of New Orleans, shipped whatever supplies he could to Clark. Without this support Clark could not have continued with the Northwestern Operations.

  • Shortly after the capture of Vincennes, Lt. Colonel Hamilton, believing no one would attack him during the winter, let his Indians and his militias return to their homes. That left him with only 35 regular troops to defend the fort.

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Painted in 1825 by Matthew Harris Jouett

On January 29, 1779, Lt. Colonel George Rogers Clark informed of Lt. Colonel Henry Hamilton occupation of Vincennes.Clark decided that he needed to launch a surprise winter attack on Vincennes before Hamilton could recapture the Illinois country in the spring. He wrote to Governor Henry:

  • 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.

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  • On February 6, 1779, Clark set out for Vincennes with 127 volunteers, nearly half of them French militia from Kaskaskia. Captain Bowman was second-in-command on the expedition, which Clark characterized as a "forlorn hope." While Clark and his men marched across country, 40 men left in an armed row-galley, which was to be stationed on the Wabash River below Vincennes to prevent the British from escaping by water.

  • Clark led his men across what is now the state of Illinois, a journey of about 180 miles. It was not a cold winter, but it rained frequently, and the plains were often covered with several inches of water. Provisions were carried on packhorses, supplemented by wild game the men shot as they traveled. They reached the Little Wabash River on 13 February, and found it flooded, making a stream about 5 miles (8 km) wide. They built a large canoe to shuttle men and supplies across. The next few days were especially trying: provisions were running low, and the men were almost continually wading through water. They reached the Embarras River on February 17. They were now only 9 miles (14 km) from Fort Sackville, but the river was too high to ford. They followed the Embarras down to the Wabash River, where the next day they began to build boats. Spirits were low they had been without food for the last two days, and Clark struggled to keep men from deserting.


  • On February 20, five hunters from Vincennes were captured while traveling by boat. They told Clark that his army had not yet been detected, and that the people of Vincennes were still sympathetic to the Americans. The next day, Clark and his men crossed the Wabash by canoe, leaving their packhorses behind. They marched towards Vincennes, sometimes in water up to their shoulders.Clark sent the a 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. No one went to the fort to warn Hamilton.

  • Clark and his group were within three miles of the Fort at Vincennes. They were able to take a British prisoner who told them everything they needed to know.Clark knew he was outnumbered, Taking advantage of a slight elevation of land which concealed his men but allowed their flags to be seen he devised a plan to make it seem that there were a lot more men than forty-seven storming the Fort. While Clark and Bowman secured the town, a detachment was sent to begin firing at Fort Sackville.Despite the commotion, Hamilton did not realize the fort was under attack until one of his men was wounded by a bullet coming through a window. The British and the Indians thought there were thousands of soldiers outside. The Indians ran for their safety. Which left about 150 British soldiers inside the fort.


  • At about 9:00 a.m. on February 24, Clark sent a message to the fort demanding Hamilton's surrender. Hamilton declined, and the firing continued for another two hours until Hamilton sent out his prisoner, Captain Helm, to offer terms. Clark sent Helm back with a demand of unconditional surrender within 30 minutes, or else he would storm the fort. Helm returned before the time had expired and presented Hamilton's proposal for a three-day truce. This too was rejected, but Clark agreed to meet Hamilton at the village church.

  • Before the meeting at the church, the most controversial incident in Clark's career occurred. Unaware that Clark had retaken Vincennes, a war party of Indians and French-Canadians came into town. There was a skirmish, and Clark's men captured six. Two of the prisoners were Frenchmen and were released at the request of the villagers and one of Clark's French followers. Clark decided to make an example of the remaining four Indian prisoners. They were made to sit down in view of the fort and then tomahawked to death; the bodies were scalped and then thrown into the river.

  • At the church, Clark and Bowman met with Hamilton and signed terms of surrender. At 10:00 a.m. on 25 February, Hamilton's garrison of 79 men marched out of the fort. Clark's men raised the American flag over the fort and renamed it Fort Patrick Henry. Clark sent Hamilton, seven of his officers, and 18 other prisoners to Williamsburg. French-Canadians who had accompanied Hamilton were paroled after taking an oath of neutrality.

  • Clark had high hopes after his recapture of Vincennes. "This stroke", he said, "will nearly put an end to the Indian War." In the coming years of the war, Clark attempted to organize a campaign against Detroit, but each time the expedition was called off because of insufficient men and supplies. Meanwhile, settlers began to pour into Kentucky after hearing news of Clark's victory. In 1779, Virginia opened a land office to register claims in Kentucky, and settlements such as Louisville were established.

  • This video shows a reenactment of the Battle of Vincennes. (Lady explains some details of the battle)

Questions:

1) Do you think it was pure luck or strategy that helped Clark win Vincennes?
2)In your opinion do you think Clark's measures with the hostages were to gruesome?
3)If you were in Clark's position would you have done anything different? If so what would it be?