Transcript of The Revolutions of George Rogers Clark
Written by Lindsey Beckley from research by Peter DeCarlo
Produced by Lindsey Beckley and Jill Weiss Simins
Recording of man speaking: “An American general named George Rogers Clark has taken Kaskaskia and Cahokia, and I would expect by now that he also controls Vincennes…”
Recording of Second man: “George Rogers Clark? Who is he? How large is this fort?”
First man Speaking: A Virginian, I believe…
Lindsey Beckley: So, sometimes these episodes come really naturally to me. We decide what the topic is going to be, I read as much as I can on it, and I write and record the episode. Of course, there are revisions and discussions along the way, but generally, I just kind of write. That’s not how this one has been. I knew for a while that a George Rogers Clark episode was on my horizon, and, I’m not going to lie, I was kind of dreading it. Not because I particularly disliked the topic, I didn’t really have any strong feelings about it at all. No, I dreaded it because I knew I was going to be out of my element. Eighteenth century military history is far out of my area of expertise. My area of expertise is, obviously, Indiana history. And here I was, tasked with doing an episode about George Rogers Clark, a Revolutionary War hero whose life, from his first commission in 1774 to his military funeral 44 years later, consisted of a string of military campaigns. And while Indiana is the only state to celebrate George Rogers Clark day every year, most of his story takes place outside of the Hoosier state. To say I was out of my element is an understatement.
So, I read several summaries of his life. Then a few articles. Then a book. And then a thesis. And against all odds, I genuinely enjoyed all of it. But I just couldn’t figure out a good way to tell the story. I tried again and again to start the writing process. I even wrote a whole script and then scrapped it the same day. I thought about George Rogers Clark constantly, and I talked about him nearly as much. My poor husband and friends kindly listened as I rambled about the exploits of a man 200 years dead. My coworkers listened to pitch after pitch of the episode. And through all this, I realized that I kept coming back to the same question: why is this important? And the answer to that question always came in the form of another question: what if? What if things had gone differently? So, on this episode of Talking Hoosier History, we’ll be asking just that.
[Talking Hoosier History theme music]
Beckley: Hello, and welcome to Talking Hoosier History, brought to you by the Indiana Historical Bureau. For over a century, we’ve been marking Hoosier history. Now, it’s time to start Talking Hoosier History. I’m Lindsey Beckley and I’ll be your host.
Beckley: Before we get to my main man, George Rogers Clark, let’s talk about something called Historical Contingency.
Voice of a man on the television: The American ideals of Freedom and equality became beacons of hope.
This is a concept often used by historians to explore historic happenings. Basically, the world we live in today was not inevitable. It’s the result of a series of events, each of which could have had multiple outcomes.
Beckley: For example, some people would argue that during the Civil War, the succession of the Southern states was on the election of Abraham Lincoln. What if someone else had become president? Maybe the Civil War wouldn’t even have happened. And was World War II contingent on Hitler’s rise to power? I mean, what if he had been accepted to art school? Maybe there wouldn’t have been a World War II. Of course, both of those things could have happened regardless. The thing to keep in mind here is that history isn’t linear – it’s a web with one small event leading to another one and that event leading to two more. I’ll be talking about a few historical contingencies. And you may not agree with my conclusions. And that’s alright. That’s what makes historical theorizing fun – there is no one right answer (although there are some wrong ones.)
Voice of a man on the television: Hamilton is sitting in Vincennes dreaming about spring time, thinking that nobody can cross these flooded plains to get to him. I say we treat those British to an early spring.
Voice of second man on television: On a rainy day in February 27….(fades out slowly)
Beckley fading in: … 1779, George Rogers Clark was 27 years old the leader of 175 men on a mission. He led his troops through the neck deep waters flooding the Wabash River valley in present day southern Indiana. They had left the town of Kaskaskia over 2 weeks before with only the most necessary supplies – the clothes on their backs, food, guns, and ammunition. Their sole mission was to retake Fort Sackville in Vincennes from the British.
This wasn’t the men’s first time trekking to Vincennes to take the fort from the British – they had taken the fort just 6 months ago but were unable to hold it after spreading their forces too thin. No, it wasn’t their first time taking the fort. But it would be their last.
Beckley: When Clark heard that the British had come down from Detroit and walked back into the fort with little fight, he had a choice to make – wait until the spring campaigning season to march on the fort, which would the British gathering reinforcements in the meantime, or march immediately and risk the unpredictable Midwestern weather in the middle of February. He decided on the latter option and before setting off, wrote to his superior:
Voice actor reading from Clark: I know the case is desperate, but, sire, we must either quit the country or attack Mr. Hamilton. No time is to be lost… Who knows what fortune will do for us? Great things have been effected by a few men well conducted.
Beckley: Those few men might have been wet and tired. And they definitely hadn’t eaten a decent meal in days. But they had one thing on their side – the element of surprise – and they would indeed affect great things.
Eighteen days and 180 miles later, they arrived in Vincennes on February 23 and laid siege to the fort that night. Clark ordered every banner and flag they had to be unfurled in an attempt to make their numbers look larger than they were. They fired so relentlessly on the fort that the British forces inside hardly dared poke their heads over the battlements. Just 2 days later, on February 25, 1777, the British forces surrendered. The fort was in American hands once again and would stay that way through the end of the war.
And here, we come to our first “what if?” What if George Rogers Clark hadn’t made this march? What if he hadn’t taken fort Sackville?
Beckley: First and foremost, if he had not made this march and taken the fort, we probably wouldn’t be talking about him today. While he did have other military accomplishments, the Vincennes campaign was by far his most famous achievement. When his story is taught in Indiana History classrooms, this is the story that is told. The George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, one of Indiana’s 3 National Parks, is located in Vincennes near the site of the old fort and it was established solely to commemorate this action.
But it’s more than that. If George Rogers Clark had not made his march – if the fort had stayed in British hands – the boundary lines agreed upon after the Revolutionary War may have looked much different. The British wanted to use the Ohio River to serve as the northern American boundary. But because fort Vincennes had been held by the Americans for nearly 5 years, the United States had a legitimate claim to the land. Partially because of this, the boundary line was moved to the next natural boundary to the north – the Great Lakes. So, if he hadn’t marched, or if the march had failed, if he hadn’t inspired those tired, hungry men to march on the fort, Indiana and the rest of the Northwest Territories may have become part of Canada, not the United States. I never really realized this importance until it was phrased as a “what if” so I decided to look at another chapter of George Rogers Clark’s life in the same way.
Beckley: For this story, we jump from 1778 and the end of the American Revolution to 1794, and to a totally different revolution.
Beckley: George Rogers Clark was just days away from enacting an elaborate plan that was over a year in the making. This plan involved a representative of the French government stationed in Philadelphia, Frenchmen living in Spanish Louisiana, and Americans from Kentucky and the Northwest Territory, including what would become Indiana.
Simply put, the plan was for Clark and around 1,500 Americans, to gather around the Falls of the Ohio river, near present day Louisville. Once gathered, the men would expatriate themselves, renouncing their allegiance to the U.S. They would then declare French citizenship and head south, from the Ohio River to the Mississippi, attacking and capturing any Spanish settlement they encountered on their way. After taking a settlement, they would commandeer any weapons and ammunition they found, recruit as many new men as they could, and set off towards the next settlement.
In this way, both their manpower and their firepower would grow as they moved towards their main goal, Spanish held Louisiana. Clark expected no less than 5,000 men to be at his back when he reached the capital, New Orleans. Once he reached the city, the French residents living there would join forces with him and overthrow the Spanish in a revolution. At this point, they would proceed all the way east to Sarasota and overthrow the Spanish there. If things were still looking good, they would then march back west to Santa Fe, conquering as they went. Their end goal was the formation of a new republic, separate from both the United States and France, but allied with both.
Beckley: Of course, if all of this had actually happened, we probably would hear more about it. So, obviously, it failed. Or rather, it never really got going in the first place. At the same time that George Rogers Clark was laying his plans and gathering his forces, the French government was overthrown and the minister in Philadelphia replaced. This change of administration meant that the money Clark needed for this so-called expedition would never make it to his camp on the Ohio.
Now, If you’re anything like me, you’ve never heard that part of George Rogers Clark’s story. And if you’re anything like me, you might be thinking, “Wow, George Rogers Clark was a traitor?” And by modern terms, he may have been. I mean, he allied with a foreign nation and renounced his US citizenship in order to lead an army comprised mostly of Americans against a nation which the US Government was not at war with. However, Clark and his western brethren wouldn’t have seen it in the same light.
Most people in the early republic believed that every man had the right to expatriate themselves at any time. And most westerners believed that, as the only other republic in the world, they were obligated to help the budding republic of France in any way they could. While this was definitely something Clark was thinking about when concocting his plan, there were three other main motives behind his decision to pursue such an extreme course of action.
First, he and many other westerners were outraged that the Spanish did not allow US citizen’s to freely navigate the Mississippi. Most Americans were flat out not allowed to ship goods down the Mississippi river. Those that were allowed to faced hefty fees. And those that chose to do it without Spanish consent faced the possible confiscation of their goods and punishment by Spanish government. This was a huge deal because the farmers of the west needed a way to get their products to the east, and in a time before cars and trains, river navigation was the name of the game and if you couldn’t ship your goods, you couldn’t make a living.
The second thing spurring Clark on to action was the American government. After the American Revolution, Clark felt that the government was falling far short of his revolutionary ideals. He thought the Federalists, who held most of the power in government at the time, were leading the country back to monarchy or creating an oligarchy, which is rule by a powerful few. He also felt wronged by the government. He had financed much of his American Revolutionary activities himself and was in massive amounts of debt because of that. After years of petitioning for repayment, it was clear that he was not going to get the money. His disagreements with the American government were so strong that he no longer felt an allegiance to them. Just before he started on the plans for the Revolution on the Mississippi, he had written:
Voice actor reading from Clark: My Country has proved notoriously ungrateful, for my services, and so forgetful of those successful and almost unexampled enterprises which gave it the whole of its territory on this side of the great mountains, as in this my prime of life, to have neglected me.
Beckley: To him, the government had turned its back on him as much as he had on it. His third and final motivation for action, and probably the purest one, was a desire to help the French living under Spanish rule in Louisiana. After all, he himself had lived under unwanted British rule before the American Revolution. He looked to the South and saw basically the same situation. Here were a people, calling out for freedom from the oppressive yoke of foreign rule. All they needed was a hero, willing to risk it all to save them. And who better to do so than the Washington of the West, George Rogers Clark?
All of this brings us to our second “What if?” What if George Rogers Clark had gotten the funding for his expedition? What if he had set out on the Ohio with 1,500 men at his back and revolution in his heart?
Well, all evidence says that if he was well funded, he probably would have succeeded. I mean, he certainly thought so. Clark wrote to the French representative in Philadelphia saying:
Voice actor reading from Clark: There is no knowing where our career will stop. This kind of warfare is my element. I have served a long apprenticeship to it. I engage in it from the purest motives and have no doubt of success …you will ere long hear of a flame kindled on the Mississippi that will not be easily extinguished.
Beckley: But let’s not just take his word for it, though. Let’s look at the facts of the matter.
Clark expected to have at least 5,000 men at his back when he reached Spanish Louisiana, and the reports that were coming in from various places in the west seemed to back that up. On the other hand, the Spanish Regiment of Louisiana consisted of approximately 1,500 troops, and that was spread throughout the region. New Orleans, the capital, only had about 300 troops for its defense. So, even conservatively, Clark would have had a 10 to 1 advantage in any attack on Spanish held settlements. The only thing the Spanish had to their advantage was a fleet of boats that was dominant enough to control the Mississippi, but Clark had begun building a fleet of his own before funding fell through, so that threat as well very well may have been nullified. Add to all of this the rising discontent of the Frenchmen who were under Spanish rule and it seems fairly clear that Clark had a good shot at leading a successful revolution. Which brings me to my last “What if?”
What if he had succeeded? Simply enough, if George Rogers Clark had succeeded…there would have been, there might still be, an independent nation stretching from Florida in the east, to New Mexico in the west, and stretching all the way down into Mexico. And if that nation had been established but no longer existed, we would have yet another war to learn about in our history classes, a war which pitted republic against republic. George Rogers Clark vs. George Washington. It’s impossible to know all the various ways this revolution on the Mississippi could have changed the course of history, just as it was impossible for George Rogers Clark to know all the various ways the American Revolution would change the course of history as he led the march on Vincennes and became the Father of the Old Northwest.
[Talking Hoosier History theme music]
Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. A special thank you to Peter DeCarlo, a Historian with the Minnesota Historical Society. I used his thesis extensively in preparing for this episode. As always, thanks to Jill Weiss Simins, my sound engineer extraordinaire, for bringing her incredible skills to the podcast. And for voiceing George Rogers Clark, we want to thank Justin Clark, no relation. Keep up with us on Facebook at Talking Hoosier History or on Twitter at @TalkHoosierHist. And please, subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts…it helps more than you can know. Thanks for listening!
Show Notes for The Revolutions of George Rogers Clark
Episode Eleven Show Notes
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Schlessinger, Arthur. Robert Kennedy and His Times, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978.
The Indiana Historical Bureau. “Robert F. Kennedy on Death of Martin L. King” Historical marker file.
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Dr. Frank Thomas, director of the PhD in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric program at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, joined us on this episode for a discussion of his book “Preaching a Dangerous Sermon.”
Jill is the sound engineer for Talking Hoosier History. She does everything from set up the recording equipment to selecting the music featured in each episode as well as actually mixing.
Justin Clark, project assistant with the Hoosier State Chronicles newspaper digitization project, voiced all newspaper clips in this episode.
The Talking Hoosier History Theme Song is “Rock and Gravel” by Indianapolis band Syd Valentine’s Patent Leather Kids. The trio recorded this song in Richmond, Indiana, in 1929. Used courtesy PublicDomain4U, accessed publicdomain4u.com.
Several samples were taken from the 1970 documentary “A Few Men Well Conducted,” created by the Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Harpers Ferry Center. The film is housed in the National Archives at College Park, and was accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgMpUFY9EoA.
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Kevin MacLeod, “Sneaky Snitch,” Audio Library, No Copyright Music, accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-rXQALDv-4
Uniq, “Art of Silence,” No Copyright, Royalty Free, accessed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3V-pYCGx0C4.