An interview with Professor Donald Elder: George Rogers Clark and his role in the American Revolution

Jul 20, 2020 by

George Rogers Clark - Wikipedia
General George Rogers Clark

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. George Rogers Clark was a very famous general who actually had a stamp created to commemorate his victory at Vincennes. Where and when was he born?

George Rogers Clark was born on a plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia on November 19, 1752. His family did not remain there for very long after his birth, however. When hostilities between Virginia and the French and their Native American allies began in 1754, Clark’s father moved his family further east to Caroline County to escape the danger of a raid on their property. George Rogers Clark then grew to manhood in that more eastern part of the colony.

  1. On an interesting historical note, where did he go to school, and who did he go to school with?

Since Caroline County did not have a public school, Clark’s father arranged for him to live with his grandfather in King and Queen County, Virginia, where one did exist. A Scotsman named Donald Robertson had moved to that county in 1758, and opened a school.

George Rogers Clark attended that school, and had a classmate who would become famous after the American Revolution—the future US President James Madison.

  1. What do we know of his early forays into battle as part of the militia?

In addition to the education he received at Donald Robertson’s school, George Rogers Clark also received instruction in the art of surveying from his grandfather. He began to put that skill to use at the age of 19 in the area now known as West Virginia.

A year later, he journeyed further west into present-day Kentucky to survey land there. Many colonists moved to this region during that time frame, and this migration angered the Native Americans who hunted there. This animus led to the Native Americans killing a number of settlers. Retaliatory attacks by colonists soon followed, and in May of 1774 Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, called upon the colonial legislature to declare war on the tribes responsible for the initial attacks. These events happened as George Rogers Clark stood poised to lead a party of settlers into Kentucky. At the start of the conflict, soon named Lord Dunmore’s War, Clark entered the Virginia militia as a captain.

He saw no actual combat before the war ended in October of 1774, but learned valuable lessons about military affairs during his service.

  1. Kaskaskia and July 4 are almost synonymous with his name. Why? When Lord Dunmore’s War ended, George Rogers Clark followed through on his plan to help settlers reach Kentucky. Once he arrived there, however, he found that a jurisdictional dispute had developed regarding who had the authority to govern Kentucky.

By the spring of 1776, a number of the residents decided that they wanted to become a part of Virginia. This group convinced Clark and a man named John Gabriel Jones to go to Williamsburg to ask the Virginia legislature to make Kentucky a county. When they arrived, they accomplished their goal, but also received a new responsibility. By then, hostilities between Great Britain and the thirteen colonies had commenced, and Virginia had committed most of its troops to that fight. Patrick Henry, the governor of Virginia, told Clark and Jones that meant that he could not supply troops to help defend the frontier if trouble with Native Americans developed. Instead, the residents of Kentucky would have to defend themselves.

To help in that regard, Henry gave Clark a commission as a major in the militia, and gave him a supply of gunpowder to take back with him. Arriving back in Kentucky, Clark soon had good reason to appreciate that gift, as Native Americans allied with the British began attacking settlers throughout the region. Clark spent a year fending off the Native Americans.

As he did, he realized that to end the incessant raids he would need to capture three British forts north of the Ohio River where the Native Americans received muskets and ammunition for their incursions. During a lull in the fighting in December of 1777, Clark went back to Williamsburg to ask Governor Henry for permission to launch a campaign to accomplish his goal.

Obtaining Henry’s consent and a promotion to lieutenant colonel, Clark then recruited a force of approximately 200 men to accompany him. In July of 1778, Clark took his men into present-day Indiana, with the goal of capturing a British fort at Kaskaskia.

Arriving on July 4th, Clark convinced the British that they could not possibly hold the fort against a determined American assault. Recognizing the hopelessness of their situation, the British therefore surrendered that night without offering any resistance. Just as General Ulysses S. Grant would do with his capture of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, George Rogers Clark thus gave the nation a fitting birthday present by taking Kaskaskia on Independence Day in 1778.

  1. Some credit him with greatly expanding the 13 colonies. What endeavors of his led to this?

A day after Clark captured Kaskaskia, a portion of his expeditionary force compelled Cahokia, a British fort located in present-day Illinois, to surrender. With the capitulation of Fort Vincennes in Indiana later that summer, Clark had succeeded in accomplishing the goals of his campaign. His success proved short-lived, however, as the British and their Native American allies managed to retake Vincennes in December of 1778. Learning of this, Clark decided on a risky course of action.

Realizing that the British and Native Americans would undoubtedly remain at Vincennes until the spring, Clark marched his men through extremely inclement weather from Kaskaskia to Vincennes in order to make a surprise attack before they could move elsewhere. In spite of the perilous conditions, Clark and his men reached Vincennes in February of 1779 and laid siege to the outpost. At first, the British commander refused to surrender, hoping that Native American reinforcements could arrive in time to break the siege.

Clark thwarted this by defeating the relief force, capturing two Native American leaders in the process. Taking the two to a clearing near the fort, Clark had the two publicly executed. That night, many Native Americans inside Vincennes deserted, and the next day the British commander surrendered. At the end of the American Revolution, the Americans still held these three forts.

That allowed the Americans negotiating the treaty to end the war to claim all the territory from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River by right of possession. Thus, Clark and his small force secured a huge expanse of territory for the new nation that it otherwise could never have asked for.

  1. It was Thomas Jefferson who appointed him brigadier general. What did he do to deserve such an honor?

Although the British posed no serious threat to Kentucky after the capture of Vincennes, Kaskaskia, and Cahokia, Native Americans continued to attack settlers there. Given the task of defending Kentucky, Clark decided to strike the Native Americans north of the Ohio River before they could reach their target destinations.

Meeting a sizable force of Native Americans near present-day Springfield, Ohio, Clark won a decisive victory in August of 1780. Although his triumph did not end violence on the frontier, it did give Kentucky temporary respite from the dangers it had hitherto faced. In recognition of his contributions to the pacification of the frontier, in 1781 Thomas Jefferson, by then the governor of Virginia, promoted George Rogers Clark to the rank of brigadier general. Until the American Revolution ended in 1783, with that rank Clark continued to lead campaigns against Native American tribes on the frontier.

7) Apparently he received a number of nicknames during the American Revolution. Some of them were:

Conqueror of the Old Northwest, Father of Louisville, Hannibal of the West, Washington of the West. How did all these names come about and what did he do to deserve such recognition?

As we have seen, Clark won a series of victories against British and Native American forces during the American Revolution. These achievements earned him the nicknames associated with military endeavors. In passing, it could be noted that comparing Clark with Hannibal does not do the American justice, as the Carthaginian general ultimately suffered defeat and death in the Second Punic War. Clark had no such major setback during the American Revolution.

As it turns out, the nickname “Father of Louisville” also resulted from the American Revolution. This came about because when Clark began his campaign in 1778 to subdue the British forts, 80 settlers traveled with him as far as the Falls of the Ohio River. Recognizing the advantages offered by the topography there, Clark suggested that the settlers start a community at that location.

Because France had become the ally of the United States in 1778, the settlers named their new town after King Louis XVI. Clark thus deserves the title of “Father of Louisville” just as much as he does the nickname “Conqueror of the Old Northwest.”

  1. Sadly, like many political and military leaders during the American Revolution, his later years were not kind to him. Can you summarize his later years?

Although hostilities with the British ended in 1783, conflict with Native American tribes lingered on for many years. In 1786, Clark (who had chosen to live on the frontier after the American Revolution) led a force into present-day Indiana to subdue the tribes that had refused to make peace with the United States. But unlike his campaigns against the British and Native Americans during the American Revolution, Clark proved unable to win a decisive victory.

A number of individuals suggested that Clark’s failure stemmed from his growing predilection for alcohol. Angered by these rumors, Clark asked for a chance to defend his honor through a hearing. Virginia’s governor refused his request, however, seemingly giving credence to the accusations of drunkenness. To make things worse for him, Clark soon found himself facing substantial debt.

To finance his campaigns during the American Revolution, Clark had signed personal notes, confident that Virginia and/or Congress would reimburse him for his expenses. But because Clark kept inadequate records, both Virginia and Congress refused most of his requests for recompense. Virginia did give him 150,000 acres of land, but Clark did not have the financial resources to improve his property. This made his holding essentially worthless. To pay off his creditors, Clark eventually had to cede much of his land to them.

Felled by a stroke in 1809, Clark soon thereafter lost his leg to amputation due to a severe burn he suffered after falling into his fireplace. He spent his last few years living with his sister and brother-in-law on a farm near Louisville. He died there in 1818.

  1. For historians and those who love American history, when I see the name George Rogers Clark I immediately think of the Lewis and Clark expeditions that I studied as a young man. Were these two related?

George Rogers Clark came from a large family, one that certainly help to shape the history of the United States.

First, four of Clark’s brothers also fought for the Patriot cause during the American Revolution. All of them served as officers. Born in 1770, Clark’s youngest brother was the only one that did not serve during the American Revolution, but he did receive a commission in the Kentucky militia in 1789. Three years later, he enlisted in the US Army, and received an appointment as a lieutenant.

After earning praise for his performance at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, he resigned his commission two years later. Up to that point in time, the youngest Clark had done nothing to surpass the fame earned by his older brother George, but all that changed in 1803 when his friend Merewether Lewis asked him to help command an expedition to explore the Louisiana Territory.

As many readers will have by this point in time no doubt guess, the youngest Clark son was William Clark, who because of the Lewis and Clark Expedition would become one of the most famous Americans of all time. William Clark’s success, coupled with the troubles that had befallen his older brother, led to George Rogers Clark falling into obscurity. Since his death in 1818, George Rogers Clark’s name has gradually reemerged in American History, especially in the area of the country that he helped wrest from British control during the American Revolution.

This resurrection of his stature is completely warranted, as the United States would have occupied a much smaller space in 1783 than it did without his remarkable campaign in 1778-1779. Hopefully, this article will aid the process of reestablishing his name in the panoply of Revolutionary War heroes.

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