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This Day in History: The British surrender to George Rogers Clark

On this day in 1779, the British surrender a fort in modern-day Indiana to George Rogers Clark. Wait. Indiana? A portion of the Revolutionary War was fought in Indiana?!

You are used to hearing about Revolutionary War battles in the east, but there were conflicts on the western frontier, too. The British lacked manpower to defend both areas, so they fostered alliances with Indian tribes to help their efforts in the west. Thus, the problem of British-funded Indian raids got worse and worse for American pioneers over time.

March to Vincennes, by Frederick C. Yohn

Colonel George Rogers Clark wanted to solve this problem. He gained the support of Virginia Governor Patrick Henry and recruited militia for his mission. They went to the area north of the Ohio River, seeking to undermine British alliances with Indian tribes and French settlers in the area. They gained control of a few British forts, including Fort Sackville in present-day Indiana.

Unfortunately, the British Lt. Governor in Detroit, Henry Hamilton, took back Fort Sackville in late 1778 with the help of about 400 American Indians. He then made a fatal mistake: He let many of his forces leave for the winter, expecting more reinforcements to arrive in the spring.

Clark had a decision to make. “We now viewed ourselves in a very critical situation,” he later wrote. “We knew that Governor Hamilton, in the spring . . . would be at the head of such a force that nothing in this quarter could withstand his arms; that Kentucky must immediately fall, and well if the desolation would end there.” Clark had no choice. He decided to make a difficult winter journey to Fort Sackville.

Perhaps he could take the British by surprise.

“[T]he 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,” he wrote.

The journey took more than two weeks. Clark’s men sometimes had to ford freezing rivers that were waist or neck high. One particularly tough crossing was made where the ice was “one-half to three-quarters of an inch thick near the shores and in still waters.”

And yet they made it! Clark had less than 200 men with him, but he set out to convince Hamilton that he had even more than that.

As he and his men approached the fort, they “marched and countermarched in such a manner that we appeared numerous.” Clark also had his men hold up many extra flags to make it appear that he had several regiments with him. He asked his men to be noisy and to fire at a faster rate than usual, mimicking the actions of a larger group of men. These tricks worked. As the American siege began, Hamilton thought he was badly outnumbered.

Capture of Fort Sackville by George Rogers Clark, by Frederick C. Yohn

On the morning of February 24, Clark sent a demand for unconditional surrender. Hamilton refused. But Clark was worried about Hamilton’s reinforcements. He needed a quick surrender.

Clark’s actions at this juncture were a bit controversial. He’d captured several Indian warriors who had been part of a scalping raid. He had these men tomahawked, purposefully within view of the fort, as an intimidation tactic. Upon seeing this, Hamilton soon decided to surrender.

The victory would have far-reaching consequences. Ultimately, it gave Americans grounds to claim lands north of the Ohio River after the Revolution was over.

But for the British surrender of Fort Sackville, what would have happened to modern-day northern states such as Indiana, Illinois and Ohio?

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