Friday, March 12, 2010

G is for...

George Rogers Clark, as featured in Long Knife by James Alexander Thom (Response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

First off, I have to confess--of all the personages in history, Clark is one of my favorites. There are a few factors feeding into this. First, he's one of Indiana's only Revolutionary War heroes--though I'm sure there are other connections between my home state and our nation's founding, Clark fought the only battle to actually take place here. That leads to point two of why I heart GRC--I would be surprised if I didn't get at least one "I didn't know there was a guy named George Rogers Clark who fought a battle in Indiana--there was a Revolutionary War battle in Indiana?" in the comments. I have a soft spot for the unsung hero, and given that Clark is not only largely forgotten today but was also brushed aside by the government of his own time, that soft spot turns to mush. I joke (sort of) that Clark may have the title of First Person to Officially Get Screwed Over by the US Government. Finally, I grew up on Clark, reenacting with the recreated Illinois Regiment of Virginia (IRV). My husband calls us the GRC fan club. We call ourselves IRV and the IRVettes.

Regardless of your opinions on Clark (and they vary--some consider him an Indian-hater, which I think, according to his memoir, is utter nonesense given the respect with which he interacted with tribal leaders; some think he was an alcoholic, which is plausible, given the fact that the end of his life was as an impoverished permanent guest in his sister's home, but it is more likely he suffered strokes), Thom's book does, for the most part, a marvelous job of creating an accurate, yet gripping, fictionalized account of Clark's campaign. The gist:

Prior to the Revolution, the Proclamation of 1763 barred colonists from settling on the west side of the Appalachian mountains. After the Declaration of Independence and commencement of the war, some colonists began to settle in the fertile Ohio River Valley that later became Kentucky. Understandably, the British who still technically controlled that region from their post in Detroit, didn't want the interlopers, and negotiated with their Shawnee allies to conduct raiding parties to "discourage" the settlement. Lt. Governor Henry Hamilton of Detroit earned the nickname "Hairbuyer" for rewarding the war parties who brought him scalps. (For the record, he paid more for prisoners, but who wants to haul whiny settlers to Detroit? I don't.)

This was where Clark came in--he petitioned then-governor of Virgina, the far-more famous Patrick Henry, to be allowed to take a military force into Kentucky to protect the settlements. Implicit in this request was that he would also seize control of the supply posts in now-southern Illinois, and ultimately, hopefully, seize Detroit and gain control of the Northwest Territory from the British. And this is where Thom's book comes in, as well. The novel follows the campaign from recruiting efforts moving west, to the clever initial captures of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes, and the brutal, intrepid march through February floodplains to retake Vincennes from the British and earn the Northwest Territory for the fledgling United States.

Admittedly, Thom has a great story and wonderful sources to work with. I would even go so far as to recommend reading Clark's own account over Thom's fictionalized one. I promise, once you get past the descriptions of surveying, it is every bit as gripping and perhaps more so given Clark's undeniable charisma, which adds humor and personality to the account. You can read Clark's memoir online here. A quick clip--Clark and his men have just marched through frigid water for days, and things are beginning to look bleak:

The loss of so much time to men half starved was a matter of consequence. I would have given now a great deal for a day's provision or for one of our horses. I returned but slowly to the troops, giving myself time to think. On our arrival all ran to hear what was the report. Every eye was fixed on me. I unfortunately spoke in a serious manner to one of the officers. The whole were alarmed without knowing what I said. They ran from one to another, bewailing their situation. I viewed their confusion for about one minute, whispered to those near me to do as I did immediately put some water in my hand, poured on powder, blackened my face, gave the warwhoop and marched into the water, without saying a word. The party gazed and fell in, one after another without saying a word, like a flock of sheep. I ordered those near me to begin a favorite song of theirs. It soon passed through the line and the whole went on cheerfully.

The strength in Thom's story is how closely he sticks to the original. In fact, the areas in which he embellishes (most notably, the unnecessary and in my opinion intrusive romance created between Clark and a Spanish woman) serve as the only weaknesses to the plot. Thom's writing is fluid and doesn't interupt the story. He bookends the piece with scenes from the end of Clark's life, which serve to capture the tragedy of his life's less than illustrious closing quite beautifully. (So does the portrait at left--I don't know about you, but I can see the sadness in his eyes.)

Apologies for the extreme length of this post--once I get going on old George, it's hard to rein in. His is a story of triumph and tragedy that could not have been plotted any better than it was by his own life.


Sarah said...

This sounds like an excellent book, and given the excerpt you provided, Clark must have been quite a dynamic character! I just finished a book (Frances Hunter's The Fairest Portion of the Globe) in which Clark played a major role, and I'm eager to read more about him. It's true, you don't hear much about the Revolutionary War battles that occurred here in the Midwest.

Carrie C said...

This is great! I've never heard of Clark before, but I will definitely bookmark the memoir. What a character. It's always invigorating to discover new heros.

missbluestocking said...

In the statue, at least, this gentleman looks gorgeous.

....ah, what a very un-scholarly review.

Lua said...

Thanks for the great review… Ok, confession time- I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never heard of Clark before but the book sounds really good and June is right, in the statue, the gentleman looks gorgeous :)

Kathleen Wall said...

My first reaction as I started reading was "I didn't know there was a Revolutionary War battle in Indiana." Too funny that you anticipated that response! It sounds fascinating.

Rowenna said...

June and Lua--we only have the portrait of "Old George," but I think someone did an age-regression of it at some point. Plus contemporaries describe him as tall and dashing, so I say go with it!

To anyone reading his memoir--enjoy! And if it's really fascinating, consider accessing British Lt. Governor Henry Hamilton's journal and Clark's officer Bowman's journal on the same website for different perspectives on the same events.