Researched by Albert Carlson based on "The Pioneer History of Illinois" by John Reynolds published in 1887
Strange as it may seem, one of the more important actions in the Revolutionary War was actually fought in the western part of the fledgling Colonial frontier - as far west as the Mississippi river. From the time that Europeans first came to North America, exploration was directed towards the center of the continent. The French originally traded well along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. But, by the end of the French and Indian War, the area that is now Illinois was firmly in the hands of the British. In fact, by 1778, about 2 ,000 Europeans and slaves resided in present day Illinois.
In 1778 Col. (and later General) George Rogers Clark led an expedition into the Ohio Territory (including Illinois). Just before his expedition, a war was raging in the area between the local Indians and European settlers. Indians objected to further encrochment on their lands and attempted to push back settlers from Georgia to Canada. It was during this time that Col. Clark first entered this area of the Continent. Clark served as the staff officer to the British Governor Dunmore. From 1774 until removed from the area, Governor Dunmore followed the instructions of the British Crown in making allies with the local Indians and preparing to enlist them against the Colonists, if the need should arise.
On the western frontier, the forts of Detroit, Vincennes, and Kaskaskia were key. It was here that the British furnished the Indians with supplies, weapons, and paid them for scalps of settlers in the area.
In January of 1778, the not yet thirty-year-old Clark was appointed a Lt. Col. and insturcted to take command of such forces that could be raised to take the western frontier from the British. Settlers in the area were not aligned with the British, due to the long history with the French and because of the Indian raids that were backed by the British. He was instructed to raise seven companies of men of 50 men each and was ordered to proceed to, and capture, Fort Kaskaskia, although his public orders were to defend Kentucky. If possible, he was to take the artillery and supplies at the post. The residents of the area taken were to take an oath of allegience to the United States or to be "visited with the miseries of war." Clark, and his force, left Virginia for Pittsburg on February 4. With him went the sum of 1200 pounds of currency to finance the entire trip. Unfortunately, Clark was only able to raise four companies under the command of Captains Mongomery, Bowman, Helm, and Herrod. At Corn Island he announced the final destination of the expedition and discharged the "faint hearted." After the discharge, only 153 men were left to fight.
It was on June 24, 1778 that Clark and his force left Corn Island on keel boats down river. The came out of the long trip about 40 miles from the mouth of the Ohio and there found a party of hunters from the town under the command of John Duff. They were in the area attempting to make contact with any Americans that might be in the area. They provided information to Clark that told him that the the Lt. Governor in the territory, a Canadian named Rocheblave, was in command and had a well drilled and disciplined militia to defend Ft. Gage (the official name of the fort at Kaskaskia).
Before leaving Corn Island, Clark was informed that the French had entered the war on the side of the Colonists, and that the British had told the local French that the "long knives", a name given to the soldiers from Virginia, were cannibals and worse than demons. Thsi was meant to strike fear into the inhabitants and keep them from collaborating with the enemy.
Clark took one of the Duff party, a John Saunders, as a guide and proceeded to Kaskaskia. The distance was about 120 miles, and Clark's party had no means of transportation other than their feet. For a time, the party became lost, and they suspected the guide of loosing them. However, Saunders successfully guided them the entire distance across very swampy and muddy land. Reaching the vacinity of the village on July 4, 1778, Clark and his mean concealed themselves and began to reconnoitre the area.
Captain Helm took a force and captured the ferry house about 3/4 mile above the town just after dark. Clark split his force into two parts and planned to attack the town from two sides. Two parties crossed the Kaskaskia River and one remained on the east side of the river. Boats and canoes were "procurred" to cross the river. Clark commanded the force on the east side of the river, while Captain Helm commanded the troops on the west side. At midnight, Clark addressed his troops and then sent them to enter the town. They quietly entered entered the town and took up positions. Once in place, they let out a terrific yell and those in the troops that spoke French informed the inhabitants that if they stayed indoors they would be spared, but if they came out, they would immediately be killed. Most of the people in the town were terrified, and by the time the troops had been in the town for two hours, the last weapons were surrendered.
Ft. Gage should have been much harder to take than it was. Clark decided to go right in, as no one seemed to be guarding. In fact, the Lt. Governor first knew about the attack when the Americans shook him awake at the end of the "attack". The only loss during the attack was some papers that the wife of the Lt. Governor put into her clothing. Being a gentleman, clark decided to allow her the "womanly perogative" and did not retrieve them.
In the morning, people in the town got their first look at the invaders, they discovered a ragged and dirty force. None of the men had anything more than they could carry, and clothes were too heavy. This reinforced the propoganda of the British and Clark played on this misconception. He allowed the townspeople to observe the withdrawl of his troops to the edge of town and appeared to be setting up for torture. Inhabitants of the town were so fightened that they sent the priest to Clark to ask them to allow one final worship session in the towns church prior to the anticipated massacre and torture. Clark took the opportunity to tell the town about the French had entered the conflict and that no harm would befall townspeople. He even offered to allow representatives to go back to civilization and verify the claim. Upon hearing that they were not to die, the locals were enormously relieved and they readily accepted the victors.
Col. Clark had successfully taken the capitol of the Illinois country
and captured significant artillery to be used later. The victory
also boosted morale among the troops and relieved pressure from a British
presence to the west.