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The introduction to the memoir and text of the memoir, which follows in nine parts, are quoted from Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio 1778-1783 and Life of Gen. George Rogers Clark by William Hayden English. The two volumes were published by The Bowen-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana, and Kansas City, Missouri, in 1897.
Marching through the Water is the caption on this illustration by John W. Vawter, which appears in English, 1:295. Vawter was a native of Indiana, best known as a cartoonist and illustrator.Courtesy Indiana Historical Society, M98.
Sections of the memoir have been titled to facilitate navigation within the document.
Clark prepares to retake Fort Sackville.
February 5, 1779.
February 14, 1779.
February 15, 1779.
February 17, 1779.
February 21, 1779.
February 23, 1779.
Placard to residents of Vincennes.
Fort Sackville fired upon.
Clark prepares to retake Fort Sackville.
Encouraged by the idea of the greatness of the consequences that would attend our success the season of the year being also favorable - as the enemy could not suppose that we should be so mad as to attempt to march eighty leagues through a drowned country in the depths of winter; that they would be off their guard and probably would not think it worth while to keep out spies; that, probably, if we could make our way good, we might surprise them, and (if) we fell through, the country would not be in a worse situation than if we had not made the attempt. These, and many other similar reasons, induced us to resolve to attempt the enterprise, which met with the approbation of every individual belonging to us.
Orders were immediately issued for preparations. The whole country took fire at the alarm and every order was executed with cheerfulness by every description of the inhabitants-preparing provisions, encouraging volunteers, etc.-and, as we had plenty of stores, every man was completely rigged with what he could desire to withstand the coldest weather.
Knowing that the Wabash, at this season of the year, in (all) probability, would be overflowed to five or six miles wide, and to build vessels in the neighborhood of the enemy would be dangerous, to obviate this and to convey our artillery and stores, it was concluded to send a vessel round by water so strong that she might force her way, as she could not be attacked only by water, without she chose it, as the whole of the low lands was under water, and of course she might keep off any heights that were on the rivers.
A large Mississippi boat was immediately purchased and completely fitted out as a galley, mounting two four-pounders and four large swivels and forty-six men, commanded by Captain John Rogers. He set sail on the 4th of February, with orders to force his way up the Wabash as high as the mouth of White river, and to secrete himself until further orders, but if he found himself discovered to do the enemy all the harm he could without running too great a risk of losing his vessel, and not to leave the river until he was out of hope of our arrival by land; but, by all means, to conduct himself so as to give no suspicion of our approach by land. We had great dependence on this vessel. She was far superior to anything the enemy could fit out without building a new one, and, at the worst, if we were discovered, we could build a number of large pirogues, such as they possessed, to attend her, and with such a little fleet, perhaps, pester the enemy very much, and if we saw it our interest, force a landing. At any rate, it would be some time before they would be a match for us on the water.
As we had some time past been in a state of suspense, we had partly prepared for some such event as this. Of course, we were soon complete. The inhabitants of Kaskaskia, being a little cowed since the affair of the supposed intended siege, nothing was said to them on the subject of volunteers until the arrival of those (from) Kohokia, to whom an expensive entertainment, to which they invited all their acquaintances of Kaskaskias, all little differences made up, and by twelve o'clock the next day application was made to raise a company at Kaskaskia, which was granted and completed before night-the whole of the inhabitants exerting themselves in order to wipe off past coolness.
February 5, 1779.
Everything being now ready, on the 5th of February, after receiving a lecture and absolution from the priest, etc., we crossed the Kaskaskia river with one hundred and seventy men; marched about three miles and encamped where we lay until the 8th (refer to Major Bowman's journal for the particulars of this march), and set out, the weather wet, but, fortunately, not cold for the season, and a great part of the plains under water several inches deep. It was difficult and very fatiguing marching. My object now was to keep the men in spirits. I suffered them to shoot game on all occasions, and feast on it like Indian war-dancers-each company, by turns, inviting the others to their feasts-which was the case every night, as the company that was to give the feast was always supplied with horses to lay up a sufficient store of wild meat in the course of the day, myself and principal officers putting on the woodsmen, shouting now and then, and running as much through the mud and water as any of them. Thus, insensibly, without a murmur, were those men led on to the banks of the Little Wabash, which we reached on the 13th, through incredible difficulties, far surpassing anything that any of us had ever experienced. Frequently the diversions of the night wore off the thoughts of the preceding day. This place is called the two Little Wabashes. They are three miles apart, and from the heights of the one to that of the other, on the opposite shore, is five miles-the whole under water, generally about three feet deep, never under two, and frequently four.
We formed a camp on a height which we found on the bank of the river, and suffered our troops to amuse themselves. I viewed this sheet of water for some time with distrust, but, accusing myself of doubting, I immediately set to work, without holding, any consultation about it, or suffering anybody else to do so in my presence, ordered a pirogue to be built immediately and acted as though crossing the water would be only a piece of diversion. As but few could work at the pirogue at a time, pains were taken to find diversion for the rest to keep them in high spirits, but the men were well prepared for this attempt, as they had frequently waded further in water, but, perhaps, seldom above half-leg deep. My anxiety to cross this place continually increased, as I saw that it would at once fling us into a situation of a forlorn hope, as all ideas of retreat would, in some measure, be done away with; that if the men began, after this was accomplished, to think seriously of what they had really suffered, that they prefer risking any seeming difficulty that might probably turn out favorable, than to attempt to retreat, when they would be certain of experiencing what they had already felt, and if (the) weather should-but freeze, altogether impracticable, except the ice would bear them.
February 14, 1779.
In the evening of the 14th, our vessel was finished, manned and sent to explore the drowned lands on the opposite side of the Little Wabash with private instructions what report to make, and, if possible, to find some spot of dry land. They found about half an acre and marked the trees from thence back to the camp, and made a very favorable report.
February 15, 1779.
Fortunately the 15th happened to be a warm, moist day for the season. The channel of the river where we lay was about thirty yards wide. A scaffold was built on the opposite shore which was about three feet under water, and our baggage ferried across and put on it; our horses swam across and received their loads at the scaffold, by which time the troops were also brought across, and we began our march through the water. Our vessel (was) loaded with those who were sickly, and we moved on cheerfully, every moment expecting to see dry land, which was not discovered until (we came) to the little dry spot mentioned. This being a smaller branch than the other, the troops immediately crossed and marched on in the water, as usual, to gain and take possession of the nighest height they could discover. Our horses and baggage crossed as they had done at the former river, and proceeded on, following the marked trail of the troops. As tracks could not be seen in the water, the trees were marked.
The Wabash, through Wilderness and Flood, is one of seven murals by Ezra Winter installed in December 1934 in the George Rogers Clark Memorial in Vincennes.
Courtesy Indiana State Library and George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.
By evening we found ourselves encamped on a pretty height in high spirits, each party laughing at the other in consequence of something that had happened in the course of this ferrying business, as they called it. A little antic drummer afforded them great diversion by floating on his drum, etc. All this was greatly encouraging, and they really began to think themselves superior to other men, and that neither the rivers nor the seasons could stop their progress. Their whole conversation now was concerning what they would do when they got about the enemy. They now began to view the main Wabash as a creek, and made no doubt but such men as they were could find a way across it. They wound themselves up to such a pitch that they soon took St. Vincent, divided the spoil, and before bedtime were far advanced on their route to Detroit.
All this was no doubt pleasing to those of us who had more serious thoughts. We were now, as it were, in the enemy's country-no possibility of a retreat if the enemy should discover and overpower us, except by the means of our galley, if we should fall in with her.
We were now convinced that the whole of the low country on the Wabash was drowned, and that the enemy could easily get to us, if they discovered us and wished to risk an action; if they did not, we made no doubt of crossing the river by some means or other. Supposing Captain Rogers had not got to his station, agreeable to his appointment, that we would, if possible, steal some vessels from houses opposite the town, etc. We flattered ourselves that all would be well, and marched on in high spirits.
February 17, 1779.
On the 17th, dispatched Mr. Kennedy and three men off to cross the river Embarrass (this river is six miles from St. Vincennes), and, if possible, to get some vessels in the vicinity of the town, but principally if he could get some intelligence. He proceeded on, and getting to the river found that the country between that and the Wabash overflowed. We marched down below the mouth of the Embarrass, attempting, in vain, to get to the banks of the Wabash. Late in the night, finding a dog shot, we encamped, and were aroused, for the first time, by the morning gun from the garrison. We continued our march, and about two o'clock, 18th, gained the banks of the Wabash, three leagues below the town, where we encamped; dispatched four men across the river on a raft to find land, if possible, march to the town, if possible, and get same canoes. Captain W. McCarty with a few (men) set out privately the next (day) in a little canoe he had made, for the same purpose. Both parties returned without success. The first could not get to land, and the captain was driven back by the appearance of a camp. The canoe was immediately dispatched down the river to meet the galley, with orders to proceed day and night; but, determined to have every string to my bow I possibly could, I ordered canoes to be built in a private place, not yet out of hopes of our boat arriving - if she did, those canoes would augment our fleet; if she did not before they were ready they would answer our purpose without her.
Many of our volunteers began, for the first time, to despair. Some talked of returning, but my situation now was such that I was past all uneasiness. I laughed at them, without persuading or ordering them to desist from any such attempt, but told them that I should be glad they would go out and kill some deer. They went, confused with such conduct. My own troops I knew had no idea of abandoning an enterprise from the want of provisions, while there was plenty of good horses in their possession; and I knew that, without any violence, the volunteers could be detained for a few days, in the course of which time our fate would be known. 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.
February 21, 1779.
This last day's march (February 21st) through the water was far superior to anything the Frenchmen had an idea of. They were backward in speaking, said that the nearest land to us was a small league called the sugar camp, on the bank of the river. A canoe was sent off and returned without finding that we could pass. I went in her myself and sounded the water; found it deep as to my neck.
I returned with a design to have the men transported on board the canoes to the sugar camp, which I knew would spend the whole day and ensuing night, as the vessels would pass but slowly through the bushes. The loss of so much time to men half starved was a matter of consequence. I would have given now a great deal for a day's provision or for one of our horses. I returned but slowly to the troops, giving myself time to think. On our arrival all ran to hear what was the report. Every eye was fixed on me. I unfortunately spoke in a serious manner to one of the officers. The whole were alarmed without knowing what I said. They ran from one to another, bewailing their situation. I viewed their confusion for about one minute, whispered to those near me to do as I did immediately put some water in my hand, poured on powder, blackened my face, gave the warwhoop and marched into the water, without saying a word. The party gazed and fell in, one after another without saying a word, like a flock of sheep. I ordered those near me to begin a favorite song of theirs. It soon passed through the line and the whole went on cheerfully.
I now intended to have them transported across the deepest part of the water, but when about waist deep one of the men informed me that he thought he felt a path-a path is very easily discovered under water by the feet. We examined and found it so, and concluded that it kept on the highest ground, which it did, and, by taking pains to follow it, we got to the sugar camp without the least difficulty (and what gave the alarm at the former proved fortunate), where there was about half an acre of dry ground, at least not under water, where we took up our lodging.
The Frenchmen we had taken on the river appeared to be uneasy at our situation. They begged that they might be permitted to go in the two canoes to town in the night. They said that they would bring from their own houses provisions without a possibility of any person knowing it; that some of our men should go with them, as a surety of their good conduct; that it was impossible that we could march from the place until the water fell; that (would not be) for a few days, for the plain, for upward of three miles, was covered two (feet) deep.
Some of the selected believed that it might be done. I would not suffer it. I never could well account for this piece of obstinacy and give satisfactory reasons to myself or anybody else why I denied a proposition apparently so easy to execute and of so much advantage, but something seemed to tell me that it should not be done, and it was not.
February 23, 1779.
The most of the weather that we had on this march was moist and warm for the season. This was the coldest night we had. The ice, in the morning, was from one-half to three-quarters of an inch thick near the shores and in still waters. The morning was the finest we had on our march. A little after sunrise I lectured the whole. What I said to them I forget, but it may be easily imagined by a person who could possess my affections for them at that time. I concluded by informing them that surmounting the plain, that was then in full view, and reaching the opposite woods, would put an end to their fatigue; that in a few hours they would have a sight of their long wished for object, and immediately stepped into the water without waiting for any reply. A huzza took place. We generally marched through the water in a line, it was much easiest. Before a third entered, I halted, and, further to prove the men, having some suspicion of three or four, I hallooed to Major Bowman, ordering him to fall in the rear with twenty-five men and put to death any man who refused to march, as we wished to have no such person among us. The whole gave a cry of approbation that it was right, and on we went. This was the most trying of all the difficulties we had experienced. I generally kept fifteen or twenty of the strongest men next myself, and judging from my own feelings what must be that of others. Getting about the middle of the plain, the water about knee deep, I found myself sensibly failing, and as there were (here) no trees nor bushes for the men to support themselves by, I doubted that many of the most weak would be drowned. I ordered the canoes to make the land, discharge their loading, and play backward and forward, with all diligence, and pick up the men, and to encourage the party; sent some of the strongest men forward with orders when they got to a certain distance to pass the word back that the water was getting shallow, and when getting near the woods to cry out "land." This stratagem had its desired effect. The men, encouraged by it, exerted themselves almost beyond their abilities-the weak holding by the stronger, and frequently one with two others' help, and this was of infinite advantage to the weak. The water never got shallower, but continued deepening-even (when) getting to the woods, where the men expected land. The water was up to my shoulders, but gaining the woods was of great consequence. All the Iow men, and the weakly, hung to the trees and floated on the old logs until they were taken off by the canoes. The strong and tall got ashore and built fires. Many would reach the shore, and fall with their bodies half in the water, not being able to support themselves without it.
This was a delightful, dry spot of ground, of about ten acres. We soon found that the fires answered no purpose, but that two strong men taking a weaker one by the arms was the only way to recover him, and, being a delightful day, it soon did. But fortunately, as if designed by Providence, a canoe of Indian squaws and children was coming up to town, and took through part of this plain as a nigh way. It was discovered by our canoes as they were out after the men. They gave chase and took the Indian canoe, on board of which was near half a quarter of a buffalo, some corn, tallow, kettles, etc. This was a grand prize and was invaluable. Broth was immediately made and served out to the most weakly with great care; most of the whole got a little, but a great many gave their part to the weakly, jocosely saying something cheering to their comrades. This little refreshment and fine weather, by the afternoon, gave new life to the whole.
Crossing a narrow, deep lake in the canoes and marching some distance, we came to a copse of timber called the Warrior's Island. We were now in full view of the fort and town, not a shrub between us, at about two miles' distance. Every man now feasted his eyes and forgot that he had suffered anything, saying that all that had passed was owing to good policy and nothing but what a man could bear, and that a soldier had no right to think, etc., passing from one extreme to another, which is common in such cases. It was now we had to display our abilities. The plain between us and the town was not a perfect level. The sunken grounds were covered with water full of ducks. We observed several men out on horseback, shooting of them, within a half mile of us, and sent out as many of our active young Frenchmen to decoy and take one of these men prisoner in such a manner as not to alarm the others, which they did. The information we got from this person was similar to that which we got from those we took on the river, except that of the British having that evening completed the wall of the fort, etc., and that there were a good many Indians in town.
Our situation was now truly critical-no possibility of retreating in case of defeat-and in full view of a town that had, at this time, upward of six hundred men in it, troops, inhabitants and Indians. The crew of the galley, though not fifty men, would have been now a reinforcement of immense magnitude to our little army (if I may so call it), but we would not think of them. We were now in the situation that I had labored to get ourselves in. The idea of being made prisoner was foreign to almost every man, as they expected nothing but torture from the savages if they fell into their hands. Our fate was now to be determined, probably in a few hours. We knew that nothing but the most daring conduct would insure success. I knew that a number of the inhabitants wished us well; that many were lukewarm to the interest of either; and I also learned that the grand chief, the Tobacco's Son, had, but a few days before, openly declared, in council with the British, that he was a brother and friend to the big knives. These were favorable circumstances, and as there was but little probability of our remaining until dark undiscovered, as great numbers of fowlers go out in the day, and that we now see and hear (them) through the plains around us, I determined to begin the career immediately, and wrote the following placard to the inhabitants and sent it off by the prisoner just taken, who was not permitted to see our numbers:
Placard to residents of Vincennes.
To the Inhabitants of Post Vincennes:
GENTLEMEN-Being now within two miles of your village with my army, determined to take your fort this night, and not being willing to surprise you, I take this method to request such of you as are true citizens and willing to enjoy the liberty I bring you, to remain still in your houses; and that those, if any there be, that are friends to the king of England, will instantly repair to the fort and join his troops and fight like men. And if any such as do not go to the fort should hereafter be discovered that did not repair to the garrison, they may depend on severe punishment. On the contrary, those who are true friends to liberty may expect to be well treated as such, and I once more request that they may keep out of the streets, for every person found under arms, on my arrival, will be treated as an enemy.
G. R. CLARK.
I had various ideas on the supposed results of this letter. I knew that it could do us no damage, but that it would cause the lukewarm to be decided, encourage our friends and astonish our enemies; that they would, of course, suppose our information good, and our forces so numerous that we were sure of success-and this was only a piece of parade; that the army was from Kentucky and not from the Illinois, as it would be thought quite impossible to march from thence, and that my name was only made use of. This they firmly believed until the next morning, when I was shown to them by a person in the fort who knew me well-or that we were a flying party that only made use of this stratagem to give ourselves (a chance) to retreat. This latter idea I knew would soon be done away with. Several gentlemen sent their compliments to their friends, under borrowed names, well known at St. Vincent, and the persons supposed to be at Kentucky. The soldiers all had instructions that their common conversation, when speaking of our numbers, should be such that a stranger overhearing must suppose that there were near one thousand of us.
We anxiously viewed this messenger until he entered the town, and in a few minutes could discover by our glasses some stir in every street that we could penetrate into, and great numbers running or riding out into the commons, we supposed to view us, which was the case. But what surprised us was, that nothing had yet happened that had the appearance of the garrison being alarmed-no drum nor gun.
We began to suppose that the information we got from our prisoners was false, and that the enemy already knew of us and were prepared. Every man had been impatient-the moment had now arrived. A little before sunset we moved and displayed ourselves in full view of the town, crowds gazing at us. We were flinging ourselves into certain destruction-or success; there was no midway thought of. We had but little to say to our men, except in calculating an idea of the necessity of obedience, etc. We knew they did not want encouraging, and that anything might be attempted with them that was possible for such a number-perfectly cool, under proper subordination, pleased with the prospect before them, and much attached to their officers. They all declared that they were convinced that an implicit obedience to orders was the only thing that would ensure success, and hoped that no mercy would be shown the person who should violate them, but should be immediately put to death. Such language as this from soldiers to persons in our station must have been exceedingly agreeable. We moved on slowly in full view of the town; but, as it was a point of some consequence to us to make ourselves appear as formidable (as possible), we, in leaving the covert that we were in, marched and countermarched in such a manner that we appeared numerous.
In raising volunteers in the Illinois, every person who set about the business had a set of colors given him, which they brought with them to the amount of ten or twelve pairs. These were displayed to the best advantage; and as the low plain we marched through was not a perfect level, but had frequent raisings in it seven or eight feet higher than the common level, which was covered with water, and as these raisings generally ran in an oblique direction to the town, we took the advantage of one of them, marching through the water under it, which completely prevented our men being numbered. But our colors showed considerably above the heights, as they were fixed on long poles procured for the purpose, and at a distance made no despicable appearance; and as our young Frenchmen had, while we lay on the Warrior's Island, decoyed and taken several fowlers, with their horses, officers were mounted on these horses and rode about, more completely to deceive the enemy. In this manner we moved, and directed our march in such a (manner) as to suffer it to be dark before we had advanced more than half way to the town. We then suddenly altered our direction, and crossed ponds where they could not have suspected us, and about eight o'clock gained the heights back of the town. As there was yet no hostile appearance, we were impatient to have the cause unriddled.
Fort Sackville fired upon.
Lieutenant Bailey was ordered, with fourteen men, to march and fire on the fort. The main body moved in a different direction and took possession of the strongest part of the town. The firing now commenced on the fort, but they did not believe it was an enemy until one of their men was shot down through a port as he was lighting his match, as drunken Indians frequently saluted the fort after night. The drums now sounded and the business fairly commenced on both aides. Reinforcements were sent to the attack of the garrison, while other arrangements were making in town, etc.
We now found that the garrison had known nothing of us; that, having finished the fort that evening, they had amused themselves at different games, and had retired just before my letter arrived, as it was near roll-call. The placard being made public, many of the inhabitants were afraid to show themselves out of the houses for fear of giving offense, and not one dare give information.
Our friends flew to the commons and other convenient places to view the pleasing sight, which was observed from the garrison and the reason asked, but a satisfactory excuse was given; and, as a part of the town lay between our line of march and the garrison, we could not be seen by the sentinels on the walls. Captain W. Shannon and another being some time before taken prisoner by one of their (raiding parties) and that evening brought in, the party had discovered at the sugar camp some signs of us.
They supposed it to be a party of observation that intended to land on the height some distance below the town. Captain Lamothe was sent to intercept them. It was at him the people said they were looking when they were asked the reason of their unusual stir. Several suspected persons had been taken to the garrison. Among them was Mr. Moses Henry. Mrs. Henry went, under the pretense of carrying him provisions, and whispered him the news and what she had seen. Mr. Henry conveyed it to the rest of his fellow-prisoners, which gave them much pleasure, particularly Captain Helm, who amused himself very much during the siege, and, I believe, did much damage.