Everything being ready on the 5th of February, after receiving a lecture and absolution from a priest, we crossed 1 the Kaskaskia Rivera with 170 men and at a distance of about •three miles encamped until February 8. When we again resumed the advance the weather was wet and a part of the country was covered with several inches of water. Progress under these conditions was difficult and fatiguing although, fortunately, it was not very cold considering the time of year. My object now was to keep the men in good spirits. I permitted them to shoot game on all occasions and to feast on it like Indians at a war dance, each company taking turns in inviting the other to its feast. A feast was held every night, the company that was to give it being always supplied with horses for laying in a sufficient store of meat in the course of the day. I myself and my principal officers conducted ourselves p117 like woodsmen, shouting now and then and running through the mud and water the same as the men themselves.
Thus, insensible of their hardships and without complaining, our men were conducted through difficulties far surpassing anything we had ever experienced before this to the banks of the Little Wabash, which we reached on February 13. There are here two streams •three miles apart, and the distance from the bank of one to the opposite bank of the other is five miles. This whole distance we found covered with some three feet of water, being never less than two, and frequently four feet in depth. I went into camp on an elevation at the bank of the river and gave the troops permission to amuse themselves. For some time I viewed with consternation this expanse of water; then accusing myself of irresolution, without holding any consultation over the situation or permitting anyone else to do so in my presence, I immediately set to work. I ordered a perogue to be constructed at once and acted as though crossing the water would be only a bit of diversion. Since but few of the men could find employment at a time, pains were taken to devise amusement for the rest in order to keep up their spirits. However, the men were well prepared for the undertaking before us as they had frequently waded farther than we must now, although seldom in water more than half-leg deep.
p118 My eagerness to cross steadily increased, since I perceived that to do so would precipitate us into a forlorn hope; if after this was accomplished the men should begin to think seriously of what they had undergone they would abandon all thought of retreat, preferring to undergo any difficulty which offered a prospect of success, rather than to attempt a retreat involving the certainty of encountering all they had already endured, while in the event of freezing weather retreat would be altogether impracticable until the ice should become firm enough to support them. On the evening of the 14th our boat was completed and I sent a crew of men to explore the drowned lands and find if possible some spot of dry land on the bank of the second little river. They found a place about half an acre in extent and marked the trees from it back to the camp. They returned with a very favorable report, having received private instructions from me in advance as to what they should say.
Fortunately for us the 15th chanced to be a warm, moist day considering the season. The channel of the river where we were encamped was about thirty yards wide and the opposite bank was under three feet of water. Here we built a scaffold and the baggage was put upon it and ferried across, while our horses swam the channel and at the scaffold were again loaded with the baggage. By this time the soldiers had also been brought across and p119 we took up our march, our boat being loaded with men who were sick. We moved on cheerfully, expecting every moment to see dry land, but none was discovered until we came to the small spots already mentioned. The river channel here being smaller than the first one, the troops immediately crossed it and marched on in the water as before in order to gain the nearest height they could discover. Our horses and baggage crossed the second river in the same manner as the first and followed in the trail of the troops (since their tracks could not be seen in the water they marked the trees as they proceeded). Evening found us encamped on a handsome elevation, the men in high spirits, each one laughing at some one else over some mishap that had occurred in the course of this ferrying business, as they called it, and all together over the great exploit they had performed. A comical little drummer had afforded them great diversion by floating on his drum and other tricks. Such incidents greatly encouraged them and they really began to regard themselves as superior to other men and as persons whom neither floods nor seasons could stop. All their conversation was now about what they would do when they could charge the enemy and they began to talk about the main Wabash as a creek, not doubting but such men as they were would find a way to cross it. Their spirits rose to such a pitch that they p120 soon took Vincennes and divided the spoil, and before bed time were far advanced on the road to Detroit.
This optimism was of course gratifying to those of us who were indulging in more serious reflections. We were now in the enemy's country, as it were, with no possibility of retreating in case the enemy should discover and overpower us (except by means of our galley if we should fall in with her). We were now convinced that all of the low country along the Wabash was flooded, and that the enemy could easily come to us if they should discover us and care to risk an action. Should they not do this we entertained no doubt of crossing the river by some means or other. In case Captain Rogers had not reached his station according to his appointment we would endeavor to steal some boats from the houses opposite the town, and we flattered ourselves that all would be well and we would march on in high spirits.
On the seventeenth I despatched Mr. Kennedy with three men to cross the River Embarras,º which is six miles from Vincennes, charging him to procure, if possible, some boats in the neighborhood of the town, but chiefly to obtain some information if he could do so in safety. He went and on reaching the river found that the country between it and the Wabash was flooded. We proceeded down below the mouth of the Embarrass, vainly p121 attempting to reach the banks of the Wabash. Finding a dry spot we encamped late at night and in the morning were gratified at hearing for the first time the morning gun of the British garrison. We resumed our march and about two o'clock in the afternoon of the eighteenth gained the banks of the Wabash three leagues below the town and went into camp.
I now sent four men across the river on a raft to find land if possible, proceed to the town, and purloin some canoes. Captain McCarty set out with a few men the next morning with a little canoe he had made for the same purpose. Both parties returned unsuccessful; the first was unable to make land, and the Captain was driven back by the appearance of a camp. I immediately despatched the canoe down the river to meet the galley, carrying orders for it to proceed day and night. Meanwhile, determined to have as many strings to my bow as possible I directed the men to build canoes in a sheltered place. I had not yet given up hope of our boat arriving; in case she should, these canoes would augment our fleet; should she not come before they were ready, they would answer our purpose without her.
Many of our volunteers began for the first time to despair and some to talk of returning but our situation was now such that I was past all uneasiness. I merely laughed at them; without persuading or ordering them to desist from such an attempt I told them I would be p122 glad if they would go out and kill some deer. They departed puzzled over my conduct. My own men knew that I had no idea of abandoning an enterprise for want of provisions so long as there were plenty of good horses in our possession and I knew that our volunteers could be detained without the use of force for a few days, by which time our fate would be determined. I conducted myself in such a manner as to lead everyone to believe I had no doubt of success. This kept up their spirits, and the hunters being out, they had hope of momentarily obtaining a supply of food, besides the expectation of the arrival of the galley. I perceived that if we should not be discovered for two days we would effect the passage of the river.
On the twentieth the water guard decoyed a boat ashore having five Frenchmen and some provisions on board. These men were on their way down river to join a party of hunters. They informed us that we had been discovered and that the inhabitants were well disposed toward us. They said the fort had been completed and greatly strengthened, and that the number of men in it was about the same as when Mr. Vigo left Vincennes. In short, they gave us all the information we desired, even telling us of two boats that were adrift up the river, one of which Captain Worthington recovered.
Having now two small boats, early on the morning of the twenty-first, abandoning our baggage, we began crossing over the troops p123 and landing them on a small elevation called the Mamel.b While engaged in searching for a passage Captain J. Williams gave chase to a canoe but could not take it. The men we had captured said it was impossible for us to make the town that night or at all with our boats. Recalling what we had done, however, we thought otherwise, and pushing into the water marched a league, frequently in water to our arm pits, to what is called the upper Mamel. Here we encamped our men. Still in good spirits from the hope of soon putting an end to their fatigue and realizing their desire to come into contact with the enemy.
This last march through the water was so far superior to anything our prisoners had conceived of that they were backward about saying anything further. They told us the nearest land was the Sugar Camp, a small league away on the bank of the river. A canoe was sent off to it and returned with the report that we could not pass. I now went myself and sounding the water found it as deep as my neck. I returned with the thought of having the men transported to the Sugar Camp in the canoes, which I knew would consume the entire day and the ensuing night since the boats would pass but slowly through the bushes. To men half starved the loss of so much time was a serious matter and I would now have given a good deal for a day's provisions or for one of our horses.
p124 I returned but slowly to the troops in order to gain time for reflection. On our arrival all ran to hear our report and every eye was fixed on me. Unfortunately I spoke in a serious manner to one of the officers and without knowing what I had said all were thrown into a state of alarm, running from one to another and bewailing their situation. For about a minute I stood looking upon their confusion and then, whispering to those close by to do as I did I wish scooped up some water with my hand, poured some powder into it, and blacking my face, raised the war whoop. I marched into the water. The party gazed at me for an instant and then like a flock of sheep fell in, one behind the other, without saying a word. I ordered the men who were near me to strike up one of their favorite songs. It soon passed down the line and all went on cheerfully. I now intended to have them ferried across the deepest part of the water but when we continued out about waist deep one of the men told me he thought he felt a path. We found it to be so and concluded that it kept to the highest ground. This proved to be the case, and by taking pains to follow it we reached the Sugar Camp without the least difficulty. Here we found about half an acre of dry ground, or at any rate ground not under water, and on it we took up our lodging.
The Frenchmen whom we had captured on the river appeared to be uneasy about our situation. p125 They begged that they might be permitted to go to town by night in two canoes, saying they would bring us provisions from their own homes without the possibility of any one finding it out. They asked that some of our men should go with them as a pledge of their good conduct. It was impossible, they said, for us to march from this place until the water should fall. This would require several days, since the plain in front of us for a distance of •three miles was covered too deep to march over. Some of our men urged that this be done, but I refused to permit it. I have never been able to account satisfactorily either to myself or anyone else for thus refusing a proposition which was apparently so easy to execute and of such great advantage to us, but something seemed to tell me it should not be done and it was not.
During most of this march the weather was warm and moist for the season. This was the coldest night we had and in the morning the ice was one-half or three-fourths of an inch deep in still water and close to shore. The morning was the finest we had had on our entire march. Shortly after sunrise I addressed the men. What I said to them I do not now remember, but it may be easily imagined by anyone who can understand my affection for them at that time. I concluded by informing them that by surmounting the plain, now in full view, and reaching the woods opposite they would put p126 an end to their suffering and in a few hours would have sight of their long-wished‑for goal. Without waiting for any reply I stepped into the water and a hurrah was raised. We commonly marched through the water in single file as it was much easier to advance in this way. When about a third of the men had entered I halted them and further to prove the men, and because I had some suspicion of three or four of them, I called to Major Bowman to fall into the rear with twenty-five men and to put to death any of the men who refused to march, saying that we wished to have no such person among us. The whole force raised a cry of approbation and on we went. This was the most trying difficulty of all we had experienced. I had fifteen or twenty of the strongest men follow after me and, judging from my own sensations what must be those of the men, on reaching the middle of the plain where the water was about knee deep I realized that I was failing. There being no trees or bushes here for the men to support themselves by, I did not doubt but that many of the weaker ones would be drowned. I therefore ordered the canoes to make the land, discharge their loads, and then ply backwards and forwards with all possible diligence, picking up the men. To encourage the party I sent some of the strongest men ahead with orders to pass the word back when they reached a certain distance that the water was getting shallower, and on p127 approaching the woods to cry out "Land." This stratagem produced the desired effect. Encouraged by it the men exerted themselves to the limit of their ability, the weaker holding on to the stronger ones and frequently one man being upheld by two. This was a great advantage to the weak, but the water, instead of getting shallower, became continually deeper. On reaching the woods, where they expected land, the water was up to my shoulders. Nevertheless, gaining these woods was a matter of great importance. All the weak and short men clung to the trees and floated on logs until they were taken off by the canoes. The strong and tall men got ashore and started fires. Many would reach the bank and fall with their bodies half in the water, not being able to support themselves outside it. This was a delightful spot of dry ground about ten acres in extent. We soon found, however, that the fires did us no good and that the only way to restore the men was for two strong ones to take a weak one by the arms and exercise him. The day was delightful and by this means they soon recovered.
A piece of fortune now befell us which seemed to be designed by Providence. Some Indian Squaws and children, coming up to the town in a canoe, took a short cut through this part of the plain and were discovered by our canoes while they were out after the men. Our boats gave chase to the canoe and captured p128 it, finding on board nearly half a quarter of buffalo besides some corn, tallow, and kettles. This was an invaluable prize to us. We immediately made some broth and served it to the weaker men. By the exercise of great care most of the men obtained a little, but many of them would not taste it, giving it instead to the weaker ones and saying something encouraging to their comrades. By afternoon this little refreshment, with the addition of fine weather, gave new life to the troops. Crossing a deep narrow lake in the canoes and marching some distance we came to a copse of timber called Warriors Island. We were now in full view of the fort and town which were distant about two miles and with not a shrub between us and the place. Every one feasted his eyes and forgot that he had suffered anything. All that had passed was attributed to good policy and was nothing that a man could not bear and a soldier had no right to think, etc. Thus they passed from one extreme to another, as commonly under such circumstances.
Now came the real test of our ability. The plain between us and the town was not a perfect level, and the sunken ground was covered with water full of ducks. We observed several men out on horseback shooting ducks about half a mile away and sent off several of our active young men to decoy and capture them in such a manner as not to alarm the rest. The information we obtained from this p129 person was similar to that received from those we had taken on the river, with the exception of the news that the British had that evening completed the wall of the fort and that there were a large number of Indians in the town. Our situation was now sufficiently critical. We were within full view of the town which contained upwards of six hundred men, counting soldiers, inhabitants, and Indians, with no possibility of retreat open to us in case of defeat. The crew of the galley, although numbering less than fifty men, would have constituted a reinforcement of great importance to our little army. But we would not permit ourselves to dwell on this. We were now in the situation I had been laboring to attain. The idea of being taken prisoner was foreign to almost all of our men. In the event of capture they looked forward to being tortured by the savages. Our fate was now to be determined, probably within the next few hours, and we knew that nothing but the boldest conduct would insure success. I knew that some of the inhabitants wished us well, while many more were lukewarm to the interest of the British and Americans alike. I also learned that the Grand Chief, the son of Tobacco, had within a few days openly declared in council with the British that he was a brother and friend of the Big Knives. These circumstances were in our favor. Many hunters were going back and forth and there was little probability p130 of our remaining undiscovered until dark. Accordingly I determined to bring matters to an issue at once, and writing the following address to the inhabitants sent it off by the prisoner we had just taken:
To the inhabitants of 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 am taking the measure of requesting such of you as are true citizens and desirous of enjoying the liberty I bring you to remain quietly in your houses. If there are any that are friends of the King of England I desire them instantly to repair to the fort and there join his troops and fight like men; and if any that do not repair to the garrison shall hereafter be discovered they may depend upon being severely punished. Those, on the other hand, who are true friends to Liberty may expect to be well treated. I once more request that they keep out of the streets, for every person found under arms upon my arrival will be treated as an enemy.
I entertained conflicting ideas as to what would be the result of this letter. I knew, however, that it could do us no damage, but that it would encourage our friends, cause those who were lukewarm to take a decided stand, and astonish our enemies. I felt sure that they would suppose our information to be p131 valid and our forces so numerous that we were certain of success; that they would suppose our army to be from Kentucky, and not from the Illinois, as it would be deemed impossible for troops to march from the latter place; and would think that my name had been employed by way of subterfuge (this they firmly believed until the next morning, when I was pointed out to them by a person in the fort who knew me well) or that we were a reconnoitering party who only employed this stratagem in order to gain time to effect our retreat. This latter idea I knew would soon be done away. Several gentlemen sent their compliments to their friends under borrowed names which were well known at Vincennes and who were supposed to have been in Kentucky. The soldiers were all given instructions that when speaking of our numbers their common conversation should be of such character as to induce a stranger overhearing it to suppose that we had nearly a thousand men. We anxiously watched the messenger until he reached the town and in a few minutes we could perceive with the aid of our glasses a stirring about in every street and large numbers running or riding out into the commons, intent as we supposed upon viewing us. This proved to be the case, but to our great surprise nothing occurred to indicate that the garrison had been alarmed. Neither drum nor guns were heard. This led us to suppose that the information obtained from our p132 prisoner was false and that the enemy was already aware of our presence and prepared to meet us. Every man among us had been impatient for the moment which was now at hand. Shortly before sunset we advanced, displaying ourselves in full view of the crowds in the town. We were plunging headlong either to certain destruction or to success. No middle ground was even thought of. I said but little to the men, aside from emphasizing the necessity for obedience. I knew they did not need encouraging and that anything might be attempted with them that it was possible for such a number of men, perfectly cool, properly disciplined, pleased with the prospect before them, and greatly attached to their officers, to perform. All declared themselves convinced that implicit obedience to orders would alone insure success, and that they hoped anyone who should violate them would immediately be put to death. To a person in my situation such language as this from the soldiers was exceedingly agreeable.
We advanced slowly in full view of the town, but as it was a matter of some consequence to make ourselves appear as formidable as possible, on leaving our place of concealment we marched and countermarched in a fashion calculated to magnify our numbers. Every person who had undertaken to enroll volunteers in the Illinois had been presented with a stand of colors and these, ten or twelve in number, they had brought along with them. We now displayed p133 these to the best possible advantage, and since the plain through which we were marching was not perfectly level but was dotted with elevations rising seven or eight feet above the common level and running in an oblique direction to our line of march towards the town, we took advantage of one of these to march our men along the low ground so that only the colors (which had been fixed to long poles procured for the purpose) could be seen above the height. While we lay on Warriors' Island our young Frenchmen had decoyed and captured several hunters with their horses; I therefore caused our officers, mounted on these, to ride in and out in order more completely to deceive the enemy. In this manner we advanced, directing our march in such fashion that darkness fell before we had proceeded more than half way to the town. We then suddenly altered our direction and crossed some ponds where they could not suspect our presence. About eight o'clock we gained the heights in the rear of the town. There being still no enemy in sight, I became impatient to solve the mystery. I ordered Lieutenant Bailey with fourteen men to advance and open fire on the fort while the main body moved in a different direction and took possession of the strongest part of the town. The firing now commenced against the fort, but since drunken Indians often saluted it after nightfall, the garrison did not suppose it to be from an enemy until one of p134 the men, lighting his match, was shot down through a porthole. The drums now sounded and the conflict was fairly joined on both sides. I sent reinforcements to assist in the attack on the garrison, while other dispositions were being made in the town.
We now found that the garrison had known nothing of our approach. Having finished the fort that evening, they had indulged in games for a time and then retired just before the arrival of my letter. As it was almost time for roll call when its terms were made known many of the inhabitants were afraid to show themselves outside their houses and not one had dared to inform the garrison. Our friends, meanwhile, had rushed to the commons and other convenient places from which to view the pleasing sight afforded by our approach. The garrison had noticed this action and inquired the reason for it, but a satisfactory excuse had been offered and since a portion of the town lay between our line of march and the fort we had not been seen by the sentinels on the walls. Some time before this Captain W. Shannon41 and another man had been captured by one of their scouting parties and brought to the fort that same evening. This party had discovered some signs of us at the Sugar Camp and, supposing it to be a party of observation p135 which intended to land on the height some distance below the town, Captain La Mothe42 had been sent to intercept them. When the people were asked the reason of their unusual excitement they had said they were looking at him.
Several persons whose loyalty was under suspicion had been imprisoned in the fort, among them Mr. Moses Henry.43 Under the pretense of carrying some provisions to him Mrs. Henry went and whispered to him the news of our arrival and what she had seen. This Mr. Henry conveyed to his fellow prisoners. It gave them much pleasure, particularly Captain Helm, who amused himself greatly during the siege and I believe did much damage. We had a scanty supply of ammunition p136 since most of our stores had been put on board the galley. Though her crew were small such a reinforcement would have been invaluable to us at this juncture. Fortunately, however, at the time it had been announced that all the goods in the town were to be seized for the King's use (the owners were to receive bills of credit in return), Colonel Le Gras, Major Bosseron, and others had buried the greater part of their powder and ball. This ammunition was immediately produced and we found ourselves well supplied by these gentlemen. The Tobacco's son, being in town with a number of his warriors, immediately mustered them and indicated a desire to join us, saying that by morning he would have a hundred men. I thanked him for his friendly disposition but told him we were already strong enough and desired him to refrain. I said we would discuss the matter in the morning, but since we knew there were a number of Indians hostile to us in and about the town some confusion might result if our men should mix in the dark. I expressed the hope that we might be favored with his counsel and company during the night and this proved agreeable to him.
The garrison was now completely surrounded and the firing continued without intermission (except for about fifteen minutes shortly before dawn) until nine o'clock the following morning. Our entire force, with the exception of fifty men kept as a reserve in case of some p137 emergency, participated in the attack, being joined by a few young men. I had acquainted myself fully with the situation of the fort and town and had detailed information concerning each of them. The cannon were on the upper floors of strong blockhouses located at each angle of the fort eleven feet above the ground, and the portholes were so badly cut that our troops lay under their fire within twenty or thirty yards of the walls. The enemy did no damage except to the buildings of the town, some of which were badly shattered, while their musket fire in the dark was employed in vain against woodsmen who were sheltered behind the palings of the houses (the gardens of Vincennes were close to the fort and for about two-thirds of the way around them were fenced with good pickets firmly set in the ground and about six feet high. Where these were lacking breastworks for the troops were soon made by tearing down old houses and garden fences, so that the troops within the fort enjoyed but little advantage over those outside; and not knowing the number of the enemy, they thought they themselves in a worse situation than they actually were), river banks, and ditches, and did us no damage except for the wounding of a man or two.
Since we could not afford to lose any of our men, great pains were taken to keep them sufficiently sheltered and to maintain a hot fire against the fort in order to intimidate the enemy p138 as well as to destroy them. The embrasures for their cannon were frequently closed, for our riflemen finding the true direction would pour in such volleys when they were open that the artillerymen could not stand to the guns. Seven or eight of them were shot down in a short time. Our men frequently taunted the enemy in order to provoke them into opening the portholes and firing cannon so that they might have the pleasure of cutting them down with their rifles. Fifty rifles would be leveled the instant the port flew open, and had the garrison stood to their artillery most of them, I believe, would have been destroyed during the night as the greater part of our men, lying within thirty yards of the walls, and behind some houses, were as well sheltered as those within the fort and were much more expert in this mode of fighting. The enemy fired at the flash of our guns, but our men would change their positions the moment they had fired. On the instant of the least appearance at one of their loopholes a dozen guns would be fired at it. At times an irregular fire as hot as could be maintained was poured in from different directions for several minutes. This would be continually succeeded by a scattering fire at the portholes and a great uproar and laughter would be raised by the reserve parties in different parts of the town to give the impression that they had only fired on the fort for a few minutes for amusement, while those p139 who were keeping up a continuous fire were being regularly relieved.
Conduct such as this kept the garrison in a constant state of alarm. They did not know what moment they might be stormed or sapped as they could plainly see that we had thrown up entrenchments across the streets and we frequently appeared to be busily engaged on the bank of the river, which was within thirty feet of the wall. We knew the location of the magazine and Captain Bowman began some work designed to blow it up when our artillery should arrive. Knowing that we were daily liable to be overpowered by the numerous bands of Indians on the river in case they should again heartily join the enemy (as to the likelihood of which we were yet uninformed) we resolved to lose no time, but to gain possession of the fort as soon as possible. Unless the vessel should arrive sooner, we determined to undermine the fort the following night and fixed upon the spot and the plan of executing this work, which we intended to begin the next day.
The Indians belonging to the different hostile tribes had left the town and neighborhood but Captain La Mothe still hovered about, waiting an opportunity to make good his way into the fort. Parties of our men attempted in vain to surprise him, although a few of his men were captured, among them one Maisonville, a famous Indian partisan. Two lads who had p140 captured him led him to a position in the street and fought from behind him as a breastwork, supposing the enemy would not fire at them for fear at killing him. An officer who discovered them at this amusement ordered them to untie him and take him away under guard. This they did, but were so inhuman as to remove part of his scalp on the way, but did him no other harm.44 Since almost all of those who were most active in the department of Detroit were either inside the fort or with Captain La Mothe I became uneasy for fear he would not fall into our hands since I knew he would retire if he could not effect his purpose in the course of the night. Perceiving that unless some unforeseen accident should occur the fort must inevitably be ours, and that a reinforcement of twenty men, although considerable to them, could not be of any great moment to us in the present posture of our affairs, and knowing that we had weakened them by killing or wounding many of their gunners, I concluded after some deliberation p141 to risk the reinforcement in preference to his going again among the Indians. I knew the garrison had at least a month's supply of provisions and if it could hold out he might in the course of this time do us great damage.
Shortly before dawn the troops were withdrawn from the fort, except for a few observation parties, and the firing totally ceased. Orders were given that in case La Mothe should approach not to alarm or fire on him without the certainly of killing or capturing the whole party. Within less than a quarter of an hour he passed within ten feet of an officer and small party of men who were lying concealed. Ladders were thrown over the walls of the fort and as they mounted them our party raised a shout. Many of them fell from the top of the wall, some inside and some outside the fort, but as we did not fire on them they all got over to the great joy of their friends. This was readily perceived by us but I had no doubt that on consideration they must be convinced that it was a stratagem of ours to let them into the fort and that we were so strong as to feel little concern for them.
While getting into the fort our men hallooed and made sport of them, at the same time withholding their fire, and our most blatant soldiers frequently told them of our stratagem and our reason for suffering them to enter the fort. This, on reflection, they must have believed; p142 but we knew that their knowledge of it could now do us no damage while it would serve to intimidate them. Notwithstanding, the garrison appeared much elated over the recovery of a valuable officer and party.
The firing immediately recommenced with redoubled vigor on both sides and I do not believe that more noise could possibly have been made by an equal number of men. Their shouting could not be heard amid the discharge of the muskets, and a continual line of fire around the garrison was maintained until shortly before daylight, when our troops were withdrawn to positions that had been prepared for them sixty to one hundred yards from the fort. Scarcely could a loophole be darkened by the garrison when a rifle ball would pass through it, and for them to have stood to their cannon would have entailed the useless destruction of their men. In this respect the situation of the two parties was much the same. It would have been imprudent in either to have wasted men unless some decisive stroke should require it.
Thus the attack continued until nine o'clock on the morning of the twenty-fourth. Learning that the two prisoners they had brought in the day before had a considerable number of letters with them I supposed it to be an express whose arrival we were expecting about this time and which I knew to be of the greatest importance to us as we had not received p143 any message since our arrival in this country. Not being fully acquainted with the character of our enemy I was afraid these papers might be destroyed. To prevent this I sent a flag of truce to the garrison to demand of Governor Hamilton that he should not destroy the papers, throwing out some threats in case he should do so in the event his garrison should fall into my hands. He answered that they were not disposed to be awed into anything unbecoming British subjects. The firing was warmly renewed for a considerable space of time and we were obliged to take pains to prevent our men from exposing themselves unduly. Having refreshed themselves during the flag of truce, they were greatly animated and frequently expressed the desire to storm the fort and put an end to the post at once. This, however, would have been at this time a piece of rashness. Our troops warmed to their work and poured a heavy fire into the fort through every crack that could be discovered. Several of the garrison were wounded and it was quite impossible to stand near the embrasures.
Toward evening a flag of truce appeared with the following proposals.45 I was greatly p144 at a loss to conceive what reason Governor Hamilton could have for wishing a truce of three days on such terms as he proposed. Many said it was a stratagem to obtain possession of me. I thought differently and had no idea that he entertained such a sentiment, as an act of that nature would infallibly ruin him. I was convinced he had some prospect of succor or of extricating himself from his predicament in some way. Although we had every reason to expect a reinforcement in less than three days that would at once put an end to the siege, I did not think it prudent to agree to the proposal and returned the following answer.46
We met at the church about eighty yards from the fort, Governor Hamilton, Major p145 Hay,47 superintendent of Indian Affairs, Captain Helm, who was his prisoner, Major Bowman, and myself, and the conference began. Governor Hamilton produced articles of capitulation containing various provisions, one of which was that the garrison should be surrendered on being permitted to go to Pensacola on parole. After deliberating on every article I rejected the whole proposal. Hamilton then desired me to make some proposition. I told him I had no offer to make other than I had already done, that they surrender themselves as prisoners unconditionally. I observed that his troops had behaved with spirit, and without viewing us as savages they could not suppose they would be treated the worse in consequence. If he chose to comply with my demand, the sooner he should do so the better, as it was in p146 vain for him to make any counter proposition. He must know by this time that the fort would fall and that both of us must regard all blood that might be spilled as murder on the part of the garrison. My troops were already impatient and begging for permission to storm the fort. If such a step were taken many of course would be cut down, and the consequences of an enraged body of woodsmen breaking into the fort must be obvious to him. It would be beyond the power of an American officer to save a single man.
Various arguments were exchanged for a considerable period of time. Captain Helm attempted to moderate my fixed determination, but I told him he was a British prisoner and it was doubtful whether he could with propriety speak on the subject. Governor Hamilton then said that Captain Helm was liberated from that moment and might act according to his pleasure. I told the Captain I would not receive him on such terms; that he must return to the fort and await his fate. I told the Governor we would not begin hostilities until a minute after the drums should give the alarm. We took leave of each other and parted, but I had gone only a few steps when the Governor stopped me and politely asked me if I would be kind enough to give him my reasons for refusing any other terms than those I had offered to the garrison. I told him I had no objection to giving him my real reason, which p147 simply was that I knew the greater part of the principal Indian partisans of Detroit were with him and I desired to be free to put them to death or treat them in any other way I might think proper. I said that the cries of the widows and the fatherless they had occasioned upon the frontiers now required their blood at my hands and I did not choose to be so timorous as to disobey the absolute command of their authority, which I regarded as next to divine. I said I would rather lose fifty men than to surrender the power properly to execute this piece of business. If he chose to risk the massacre of his garrison for their sakes it was his own affair and I might perhaps take it into my head to send for some of those widows to see it executed.
I had observed growing distrust in the countenance of Major Hay, who was paying close attention, and this in great measure influenced my conversation. Upon my concluding, "Pray, sir," said he, "who is it that you call Indian partisans?" "Sir," I replied, "I take Major Hay to be one of the principal ones." I never saw a man in the moment of execution so stricken as he appeared to be, pale and trembling, and scarcely able to stand. Governor Hamilton blushed and was, I observed, much affected at this behavior in my presence. Captain Bowman's countenance sufficiently disclosed his disdain for the one and his sorrow for the other. I viewed the p148 whole procedure with such sentiments as I suppose are natural to some men under such circumstances. Some moments passed without a word being exchanged on either side. From that moment my resolution respecting Governor Hamilton's situation changed. I told him we would return to our respective posts when I would reconsider the matter and let him know the result. If we should decide to make any other proposal than that of surrender at discretion he should be informed of it by a flag of truce. In the contrary event, he should be on his guard at the beat of the drum. In the meantime no offensive measures should be taken. This was agreed and we parted. On reporting to our officers what had passed at the conference it was agreed that we should modify our demands and the following articles were sent to the garrison and an answer was immediately returned. The affair being now nearly concluded troops were posted in several strong houses around the garrison and a patrol was kept up during the night to prevent any deception. The remainder of the troops not on duty lay on their arms and for the first time in many days obtained some rest.
While the conference was being held a party of about twenty warriors, who had been sent to the Falls of the Ohio for scalps and prisoners, were discovered returning. As no firing was going on at the time they entered the plain near the town, they had no suspicion of p149 the presence of an enemy. Captain John Williams was ordered to go out to meet them. The Indians, supposing it to be a party of their friends who had come to welcome them, gave the scalp and war whoop and came on with all the parade of successful warriors. Williams' party conducted itself in like fashion. Coming closer, the Indians fired a volley in the air, to which Captain Williams replied in kind. When they were within a few steps of each other the chief stopped as if suspicious of something wrong. Captain Williams seized him, whereupon the others, perceiving their mistake, turned in flight. Fifteen of them were killed or captured, however. Two British partisans attached to their party were killed and two men who proved to be American prisoners in their hands were released. The Indians who had been taken by the soldiers were tomahawked and their bodies thrown into the river. We afterward learned that but one man of the entire party ever returned to his tribe, so that in all seventeen must have been destroyed by us. We knew that nearly all of them were badly wounded, but as we had an enemy of more importance than they were to contend with we could spare no time for pursuit, and Captain Williams allowed his men but a few minutes for executing the business before recalling them. Under these circumstances those Indians who were not killed or taken immediately got off.
p150 One reason I had for not wishing to receive the garrison until the following morning was that it was late in the evening before the capitulation was signed, and in view of the number of prisoners we should have in comparison with our own small force I felt the need of daylight to arrange matters to our advantage. Knowing that we could now prevent any misfortune happening, as we could now dispose our troops so as to render the fort almost useless for defense, I thought it prudent to let the British troops remain in it until morning. We should not have been so suspicious as to take so much precaution, but I must confess I could not help but doubt the honor of men who could condescend to encourage the barbarity of the Indians. Although almost every man had conceived a very favorable opinion of Governor Hamilton (and I believed that what affected myself made some impression on the whole) I was happy to find that while he stayed with use he never deviated from that conduct that became an officer in his situation.
On the morning of the twenty-fifth arrangements were made for receiving the garrison, and about ten o'clock it was surrendered with due formality and everything was immediately arranged by me to the best possible advantage. On first viewing the interior of the fort and its stores I was astonished at its being surrendered in the manner it had been. However, it was p151 a prudent and lucky circumstance which probably saved the lives of many men on both sides since on the preceding night we had inclined to attempt to undermine it and I found it would have required great diligence on the part of the garrison to have prevented us from succeeding. I found, too, on further examination, that our information concerning the interior arrangements was so good that in all probability the first hot shot after the arrival of our artillery would have blown up the magazine. This would at once have put an end to the siege since the situation of the magazine and the quantity of powder it contained were such that its explosion must have destroyed the greater part of the garrison.
41 Captain William Shannon was commissary and quartermaster of the Illinois battalion.
42 Guillaume La Mothe was a native of Canada who subsequent to the French and Indian War became a trader in the neighborhood of Detroit. In 1777 he became captain of a scouting party, and the following year accompanied Hamilton to Vincennes. With his chief he was sent prisoner by Clark to Virginia, where he was kept in close confinement until exchanged in 1781. He returned to the Northwest and from 1792 to 1796 served as interpreter at Mackinac. When the Americans took over the place in 1796, La Mothe retired with the British to St. Joseph, where he died in 1799.
43 Henry was a resident of Vincennes. Clark made him Indian agent and Henry shortly accompanied an expedition up the Wabash to capture a British convoy. In 1781 Henry was still living in Vincennes, where he died at some time prior to 1790, leaving a widow and children.
44 Governor Hamilton, in his official report, states that Maisonville was betrayed into Clark's hands by his cousin and that the scalping was committed by a soldier acting under Clark's orders to scalp him and that these were relaxed upon the appeal of a brother of Maisonville — who had attached himself to the Americans. Maisonville was sent with Hamilton to prison in Virginia. The hardships and ill treatment he endured there so wrought upon his mind that he finally sought escape from them by committing suicide.
45 Hamilton's proposal, as recorded in Major Bowman's journal, was as follows: "Lt. Gov. Hamilton proposes to Col. Clark a truce for three days during which time he promises there shall be no defensive works carried on in the Garrison on condition Col. Clark shall observe on his part a like cessation of any offensive work, that he wishes to confer with Col. Clark as soon as can be and further proposes that whatever may pass between them two and any other Person mutually agreed upon to be present, shall remain a secret till matters be finally concluded — as he wishes that whatever the result of their may be (it may redound) to the honor and credit of each party — If Col. Clark makes a difficulty of coming into the fort Lt. Gov. Hamilton will speak to him before the Gate."
Thayer's Note: Major Bowman's journal is a short document; it's online, in its entirety, in a single page at the Indiana Historical Bureau.
46 The answer is recorded in Major Bowman's journal as follows: "Col. Clark's compliments to Mr. Hamilton and begs leave to inform him that Col. Clark will not agree to any other terms than that of Mr. Hamilton's surrendering himself and Garrison Prisoners at discretion if Mr. Hamilton is desirous of a conference with Col. Clark he will meet him at the Church with Capt. Helm."
47 John Hay, the detestation of whom by the Americans is well shown in the following pages, was a native of Pennsylvania who enlisted in the sixtieth American Regiment during the French and Indian War and in 1762 was sent to the Detroit frontier. He served in Pontiac's War and thereafter entered the British Indian department. In 1776, he became deputy Indian agent and major of the Detroit militia. He was Governor Hamilton's chief assistant during the latter's contest with Clark which ended with the capture of Vincennes by the Americans. Hay went with Hamilton to a Virginia dungeon and toward the close of the war he was released, and making his way to Quebec was appointed lieutenant-governor at Detroit. He had performed the duties of this office only about a year, however, when his career was cut short by death in 1785.
a The expedition starts from the town of Kaskaskia (see the end of the previous section).
b Properly Mamelle: French for "teat, breast", often applied to rounded hills.
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The Conquest of The Illinois
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