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Indiana Historical Bureau

George Rogers Clark > Letter from George Rogers Clark to his Friend George Mason > Letter - Part Five Letter - Part Five

But on our arrival we found everything as calm as we could expect. The weather being bad, it was then thought the attack would not commence until it cleared up. But no person seemed to doubt of the enemy being at hand, and from many circumstances I could not but suppose it was the case; that they deferred the attack for some time in order to give us time to retreat, which I supposed they would rather choose by their proceedings. But I was determined that they should be disappointed, if that was their wish. There was no time lost during the night putting everything in as good order as possible. The priest, of all men, (was) the most afraid of Mr. Hamilton. He was in the greatest consternation, (but) determined to act agreeable to my instruction. I found, by his consternation, that he was sure the fort would be taken, except reinforced by the garrison at Cohos, which I did not choose to let him know would be the case; although I knew him to be a zealous friend. I pretended that I wanted him to go to the Spanish side with public papers and money. The proposition pleased him well. He immediately started, and, getting (on) an island, the ice passing so thick down the Mississippi that he was obliged to encamp three days in the most obscure part of the island, with only a servant to attend him.

I spent many serious reflections during the night. The inhabitants had always appeared to be attached to us, but I was convinced that I should, in the morning, have a sufficient trial of their fidelity (several of their young men had turned into the fort in order to defend it), but sensible, at the same time, that, in case they took arms to defend the town, the whole would probably be lost, as I should be obliged to give the enemy battle in the commons. I would have chosen to have had those without families to reinforce the garrison, and the rest to have lain neuter.

I resolved to burn part of the town that was near the fort and guard it, as I knew the greatest service we possibly could do was to sell the fort as dear as possible, there being no probability of escaping after attack, or expectation of reinforcements, as we were too far detached from the body of our country. The only possible chance of safety was Captain Bowman's joining me, which I expected the next evening down the Mississippi, to defend ourselves until Mr. Hamilton's Indians got tired and returned in four or five weeks, which I expected the greatest part would do if they had not that success that they expected. I had no occasion to consult the garrison in any resolution I should fix upon, as I knew they were all as spirited as I could wish them to be, and took pains to make them as desperate as possible. If you rightly consider our situation and circumstance, you must conceive it to be desperate. In the morning the first thing I did was to assemble all the inhabitants in order to know their resolutions. As they had been the night counseling with each other, they expected some orders issued, which I did not choose to do. At the assembly I asked them what they thought of doing---whether they would endeavor to defend the town or not; if they did, I would quit the fort, leaving a small guard, and head them with the troops; and if the enemy lay until the weather broke, we might, probably, in the meantime, discover their camp and get some advantage of them. They appeared to be in great confusion, and all my fear was that they would agree to defend themselves, and if the enemy was as numerous as was expected, the whole would be lost. But I need not to have been uneasy about that, for they had too maturely studied their own interest to think of fighting, which they certainly would have done if I had only as many troops as would have given any probability of success. They displayed their situation in such a manner as was really moving, and with great truth, but denied to act, either on one side or the other, and begged that I would believe them to be in the American interest. But my whole force, joined with them, would make but a poor figure against so considerable a party, and gave hints that they could with us take Spanish protection, as they could not conceive we could keep possession a single day, as the enemy would immediately set the adjacent houses on fire, which would fire the fort---not knowing that I intended to burn them myself as soon as the wind shifted. I very seldom found but I could govern my temper at pleasure, but this declaration of theirs, and some other circumstances, put me in the most violent rage, and as soon as I could curb my passion gave a lecture suitable for a set of traitors---although I could not conceive the whole of them to be such. I ordered them out of the garrison, and told them that I no longer thought they deserved favor from me; that I consequently must conceive them to be my secret enemies, and should treat them as such. They endeavored to soothe me into pity, but to have listened to them would have destroyed my intention. I determined to make myself appear to them as desperate as possible, that it might have a greater effect on the enemy. They asked me to issue an order for all the provisions, in the town to be brought into the fort immediately, by which I was convinced that it was their desire that I should be able to stand the siege as long as possible, and only wanted an excuse to the person they expected every moment to be their master for making the supplies. I told them that I would have all the provisions, and then burn the town to the enemy's hand; that they might send the provisions, if they chose it, and sent them out of the fort; and immediately had fire set to some outhouses. Never was a set of people in more distress. Their town set on fire by those they wished to be in friendship with, at the same time surrounded by the savages, as they expected, from whom they had but little else but destruction to expect. The houses being covered with snow, the fire had no effect only on those it was set to---the inhabitants looking on without daring to say a word. I told them that I intended to set fire to all those that had much provisions, for fear of the enemy's getting it. They were not in so great lethargy but they took the hint, and before night they brought in six months' provisions of all sorts, by which they were in hopes to come on better terms.

But a fresh circumstance alarmed them. One of the inhabitants, riding into the field, met a man who told him he saw a party of the enemy going on the island to take the priest; he, returning to town, met the priest's brother-in-law, and told him what he had heard, and begged of him not to tell me of it. The poor fellow, half scared to death about his brother, made all haste and told me. I took his evidence, sent for the citizen, who could not deny it. I immediately ordered him hanged. The town took the alarm, hastened about the walls of the fort, if possible to save their friend. The poor fellow (was) given up to the soldiers, who dragged him to the place of execution, each striving to be foremost in the execution, as if they thirsted after blood. Some were for tomahawking him, some for hanging, and other for burning; they got to quarreling about it, which at last saved his life, the inhabitants having time to supplicate in his favor; but nothing would have saved his life but the appearance of his wife and seven small children, which sight was too moving not to have granted them the life of their parent, on terms that put it out of his power to do any damage to me.

The weather clearing away, Captain Bowman arrived the following day with his own and a company of volunteers from Cohos. We now began to make a tolerable appearance and seemed to defy the enemy, and sent out spies on every quarter to make discovery of them, hoping we might get some advantage of them, choosing, for many important reasons, to attack them two to one in the field rather than suffer them to take possession of the town, which, by the form and manner of picketing the yards and gardens, was very strong. I was convinced that the inhabitants now wished they had behaved in another manner. I took the advantage of the favorable opportunity to attach them entirely in my interest, and instead of treating them more severe, as they expected on my being reinforced, I altered my conduct towards them and treated them with the greatest kindness, granting them every request. My influence among them, in a few hours, was greater then ever, they condemning themselves and thought that I had treated them as they deserved. And I believe had Mr. Hamilton appeared, we should have defeated him with a good deal of ease---not so numerous, but the men being much better. Our spies returning, and found the great army that gave the alarm consisted of only about forty whites and Indians, making their retreat as fast as possible to St. Vincent, sent for no other purpose, as we found after, than to take me.

We were now sensible that St. Vincent was in possession of the English, and, consequently, we might shortly expect an attack, though no danger at present, and had some time to make preparation for what we were certain of. I had reason to expect a reinforcement on the presumption that government ordered one on the receipt of my first letter. Still encouraged each other and hoped for the best, but suffered more uneasiness than when I was certain of an immediate attack, as I had more time to reflect, the results of which was that the Illinois in a few months would be in possession of the English, except the garrison which I knew would not be disposed to surrender without the greatest distress.

I sent off horsemen to St. Vincent to take a prisoner by which we might get intelligence, but found it impracticable on account of the high waters; but in the height of our anxiety, on the evening of the 29th of January, 1779, Mr. Vigo, a Spanish merchant, arrived from St. Vincent, and was there the time of its being taken, and gave me every intelligence that I could wish to have. Governor Hamilton's party consisted of about eight hundred when he took possession of that post on the 17th day of December past. Finding the season too far spent for his intention against Kaskaskia, had sent nearly the whole of his Indians out in different parties to war, but to embody as soon as the weather would permit and complete his design. He had also sent messengers to the southern Indians, five hundred of whom he expected to join him. Only eighty troops in garrison, our situation still appeared desperate. It was at this moment I would have bound myself seven years a slave to have had five hundred troops. I saw the only probability of our maintaining the country was to take the advantage of his present weakness. Perhaps we might be fortunate. I considered the inclemency of the season, the badness of the roads, etc., as an advantage to us, as they would be more off their guard on all quarters. I collected the officers, told them the probability I thought there was of turning the scale in our favor. I found it the sentiment of every one of them and eager for it. Our plans immediately concluded on and sent an express to Cohos for the return of Captain McCarty and his volunteers, and set about the necessary preparations in order to transport my artillery, stores, etc.

I had a large boat prepared and rigged, mounting two four-pounders, four large swivels, manned with a fine company commanded by Lieutenant Rogers. She set out in the evening of the 4th of January, (February) with orders to force her way, if possible, within ten leagues of St. Vincent, and lay until further orders. This vessel, when complete, was much admired by the inhabitants, as no such thing had been seen in the country before. I had great expectations from her. I conducted myself as though I was sure of taking Mr. Hamilton, instructed my officers to observe the same rule. In a day or two the country seemed to believe it, many, anxious to retrieve their characters, turned out. The ladies began, also, to be spirited, and interest themselves in the expedition, which had great effect on the young men.