The Long Knives Campaign

One of the great campaigns of the Revolution began late in June of 1778 when a band of Kentucky “Long Knives” under George Rogers Clark set off down the Ohio River in a string of flatboats, bound for Kaskaskia. Clark’s mission was the conquest of the entire “Illinois country,” that huge area included in the present states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, which was held by the British and their allies, the Shawnees, Delawares, Miamis and Ottawas. For this task, Clark had just under 200 men.
Leaving their boats below the mouth of the Tennessee River, Clark’s frontiersmen headed off through prairies and trackless forests, their only food and equipment what they carried on their backs. Kaskaskia was taken completely by surprise, and Prairies du Rocher, Cahokia, and Vincennes fell quickly into Clark’s hands. These successes were an imminent threat to Detroit, and on October 7, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Hamilton led some 200 whites and Indians south against Vincennes, taking it easily from the few men Clark had there.

His men covered the 180 miles form Kaskaskia to Vincennes in 18 days, often without food, and marching through icy water. Henry Hamilton called it a military feat “unequalled perhaps in History.”

Describing the fearful march to Vincennes, one of Clark’s men wrote:

“Having no other resource but wading this … lake of water, we plunged into it with courage, Col. Clark being first.”
The inspired leadership of Clark gave the U.S. control of a vast territory in 1779.

Two months later the audacious Clark was moving against Hamilton, this time with about 180 men. By February 13 Vincennes was only twenty miles away, but floods had driven off all the game and the hungry men had to push on through icy water that was often shoulder-deep. Always out in front, Clark inspired and drove his half-starved, frozen troops until they reach a point, two miles from Vincennes, where they could build fires and dry their clothes. A captured Frenchman brought news that Clark’s approach was still unknown in the town, but he added the sobering note that 200 Indians had just joined Hamilton’s force.

Although his ammunition was nearly exhausted, Clark resolved to attack that very night. At dusk he had 20 American flags attached to poles, spaced them at wide intervals along his line of march, and started his little army off on a zigzag course toward the town. The defenders, believing they were attacked by twenty companies, held out through the night, but the next morning Clark received Hamilton’s offer to surrender.

Few campaigns in history on which so much depended have been conducted with more resourcefulness and daring. Clark’s magnificent victory gave the United States complete control of the Old Northwest for the rest of the war.


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