In the town of Vincennes, Indiana, stands the largest Beaux-Arts style monument on an American battlefield and outside of Washington, DC. This monument, within George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, sits on the former site of Fort Sackville to commemorate a little known battle with tremendous stakes.
In February 1779, Colonel George Rogers Clark made a bold military maneuver that would have far-reaching impacts on the settlement of the Old Northwest Territory. After taking British-held garrisons at Cahokia and Kaskaskia, Clark received word that Lt. Governor Henry Hamilton had taken control of Fort Sackville in the French town of Vincennes in present-day Indiana. If Clark had waited until spring, meeting a larger British force in the open could have spelled disaster for his mission.
Taking initiative, Clark marched approximately 175 American frontiersman through the Illinois country and the flooded Wabash River. Upon arriving at Fort Sackville, the hungry and cold frontiersman made contact with French allies. The battle and siege of the fort proved successful for the Americans. This “winter surprise” was Colonel Clark’s largest military success and among the most important Revolutionary War battles west of the Appalachians.
The violence on the frontier eased for time during the Revolution because of Clark’s action, and an area one-third the size of the original 13 colonies went to the United States at the end of the war. This area, known as the Old Northwest Territory, eventually became the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and the eastern parts of Minnesota. This was a first step to America’s move west and a forecast for the larger territory that George’s little brother William Clark would explore with Merriweather Lewis 25 years later.
While nothing remains of the original fort, the people of Indiana (Hoosiers) petitioned the government to build the monument on the former site of the fort along the Wabash River in the 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt attended the grand opening of the memorial in 1936, and a visit from President Lyndon Johnson welcomed the site into the National Park Service in 1966.
The interior rotunda includes a statue of George Rogers Clark by Hermon MacNeil and seven 28-foot tall murals by Ezra Winter. These art pieces tell the story of Clark and his men and are explored either by audio tour or self-tour.
Before visiting the George Rogers Clark Memorial, come by the park visitor center. Exhibits and the film Longknives help set up the story portrayed in the historic murals. Junior Ranger booklets are a great chance for kids to explore the park and learn about this little-known chapter of American history.
George Rogers Clark National Historical Park is part of a community of historical sites and museums that tell stories spanning over 250 years. One of the best times to visit is during the Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous on Memorial Day weekend. Over 400 living history demonstrators camp at or near the park. The demonstrations and talks allow visitors of all ages the chance to step back to the Indiana frontier during the late 18th century. The sights and sounds of Rendezvous offer a unique atmosphere for those who want to connect to the past.
Last updated: September 2, 2019