America First - Lawton Evans
It was the evening of July 4, 1778, and a merry dance was taking place at Kaskaskia, in that region afterwards known as the state of Illinois. It was a gay party, for the people were light-hearted and, having little else to do, were passing the time in dance. All the village girls were there, and most of the citizens and soldiers as well. They were dancing away at a happy rate, to the music of a fiddle, played by a man who sat on a chair. An Indian lay on the floor, watching them with sleepy eyes.
Kaskaskia was a British fort, but most of the people who lived there were French. Though the war of the Revolution was going on in the East and South, the inhabitants of this wilderness fort of the West cared little for a conflict that was being waged a thousand miles off. They thought themselves secure from attack, for surely no one would attempt to travel so great a distance for so small a prize. In this, they were much mistaken, however, as we shall see.
As the dance went on, a tall young man stepped into the room, and leaned against the door, watching the dancers. He was dressed as a backwoodsman, and had evidently come a long and difficult way. It was plain that he was not French, and that he was a soldier. The Indian was the first to see him, and to raise the alarm. His yell broke up the dance, and every one gazed upon the stranger with fright. The women screamed, the men sprang for their guns. The stranger raised his hand, and said very quietly,
"Do not be alarmed. I shall not hurt you. Go on with your dance. But remember, you are dancing under the flag of Virginia, and not under the flag of England."
As he uttered these words, a crowd of Patriots, dressed as he was, stepped into the room, seized all the guns of the soldiers, and thus occupied the fort. The young man's name was John Rogers Clark. The fort had been captured without a blow or a shot.
This is how it happened. John Rogers Clark, who had been living for some time in Kentucky, saw plainly that the English were stirring up the Indians of the West for an attack on the American settlements. So he determined to put a stop to it. Besides, he wished to capture the western forts for his own country. He went to Virginia, and asked Patrick Henry, who was then Governor,
"Give me permission to raise a body of soldiers, and march West for the protection of Virginia and Kentucky."
Patrick Henry looked into the brave eyes of the young man, and said, "Go, my dear sir, raise your companies, and I will make you a Colonel. You will do this for the defense of Virginia and Kentucky."
It was not long before Clark had his soldiers, and was on his way. They floated down the Ohio River, landed fifty miles from Kaskaskia, marched through the woods, and entered, as we have described, the open and undefended fort.
This ends the first part of the story. There is a second part, however, not so easy as the first. Far to the South, on the Wabash River, in what is now Indiana, stood another fort, called Vincennes, one hundred and fifty miles away. This was also a French fort, held for the British. Colonel Clark wanted to capture Vincennes, as he had captured Kaskaskia. He did not have enough men to take it by force. So he sent a French priest to Vincennes to tell the people that the Americans were their best friends, after all, and to advise them to haul down the British flag, and raise the American flag in its place. Otherwise, Clark and his men would be down on them in short order.
The French agreed to do as they were ordered, and Vincennes became, for the time being, an American fort. Thereupon, Clark and his men went back to Kentucky, much pleased with the success of their expedition.
But the British were not to be dispossessed of their territory so easily. The British Commander at Detroit, Colonel Hamilton, marched down to Vincennes, took the fort back again, and threatened to march upon Kaskaskia and then even into Kentucky. When Clark heard of this, he resolved to go at once to Vincennes, recapture the place, and hold it!
It was a terrible task, for winter was at hand. The Wabash River had overflowed its banks and, for hundreds of square miles, the country was under water. Vincennes was in the center of a vast shallow lake, or swamp, of freezing water. Hamilton thought himself safe until the spring, anyhow.
Clark set out with his men, dressed in hunting shirts, with fur caps on their heads, which were ornamented with deer or raccoon tails, and carrying long rifles. Then came cold days and steady rains. Every night they had to build fires to warm by, and to dry their clothes. The trudged on through the cold water, glad of any little island to rest upon or any dry place to sleep. Sometimes the water was ankle-deep, then knee-deep, and then waist-deep. Still, they went on, knowing they must plunge ahead or go back.
At last, they came within four miles of the fort. The water was waist-deep and very cold. "Wade in," cried Clark, "and follow me!" Seizing a drummer-boy, he placed him on his shoulders and told him to beat his drum. Then the brave leader plunged into the ice-cold water. With a shout, the men followed him. After a few hours' hard riding, they crossed the flood, and were before the fort of Vincennes.
Colonel Hamilton was amazed when he saw Clark and his men at his very door. "They are mad, or else they had wings to cross at such a time," he said. But he resolved to defend his fort, and the fight began.
"WADE IN," CRIED CLARK, "AND FOLLOW ME!"
For hours the Kentucky and Virginia riflemen, with their unerring aim, poured shot into the loop-holes of the fort. They were deadly riflemen, and every shot told. At the end of the day, Hamilton surrendered, and the flag of England was again hauled down. In this way did all that great Northwest Territory pass into possession of the Americans. Out of it the great states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota were afterwards formed.