August 18, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Catholic contributions to the Battle of Vincennes in 1779

John F. FinkCatholics played important roles in the Battle of Vincennes during the Revolutionary War when George Rogers Clark captured Fort Sackville. The victory resulted in adding the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota to the United States.

First there was Father Pierre Gibault. He was a Canadian missionary who served the French-speaking Catholics and Catholic Indians in a circuit of parishes that included Vincennes and Kaskaskia, now in Illinois. He was in Kaskaskia when Clark conquered that city in 1778. Father Gibault met with Clark on behalf of his French parishioners, and learned for the first time that the United States and France were allies in the war.

He convinced his parishioners in Kaskaskia to support the Americans. Then he traveled to Vincennes and convinced his parishioners there, too, to support the Americans. They raised an American flag over Fort Sackville, throwing the British flag, wrapped around a large rock, into the Wabash River.

At Fort Detroit, Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton learned about this. During Clark’s absence, Hamilton led about 500 British troops to Vincennes and recaptured the city.

Then there was Francis Vigo (actually Giuseppe Maria Francesco Vigo), an Italian who served with the Spanish Army in New Orleans before becoming a wealthy fur trader, first in St. Louis and then in Vincennes. He also became a spy for Clark. However, he was captured by some Indians loyal to the British and turned over to Hamilton after his forces had recaptured Fort Sackville.

Father Gibault learned that Vigo had been captured. After Sunday Mass, he led his entire congregation to Fort Sackville and informed Hamilton that the community would deny all supplies to the fort until Vigo was released. Hamilton released Vigo, but made him promise to return to St. Louis.

Vigo kept his promise, traveling down the Wabash, Ohio and Mississippi rivers to St. Louis. But then he immediately returned to Kaskaskia to inform Clark that the British controlled Vincennes.

Father Gibault also returned to Kaskaskia. When Clark formed his troops to retake Vincennes, about half of the 172 men were Father Gibault’s French parishioners. Father Gibault blessed the troops as they set out in February of 1779 to conquer Fort Sackville. The troops surprised Hamilton who didn’t expect a battle during the winter.

After the war, because of his services to the Americans, Father Gibault became persona non grata to his superior, the bishop of Quebec, who had remained loyal to the British. In 1788 Father Gibault asked to be allowed to return to Quebec, but the bishop refused. He eventually moved to New Madrid, Mo., where he died in 1802.

Vigo, besides his services as a spy, also became the foremost financier of the American army in the Northwest. The American dollar traded poorly among the French in Indiana and Illinois, so Vigo exchanged them for hard coin. He also funded Clark’s campaign to capture Fort Detroit, which was unsuccessful.

Vigo’s will included a bell for the courthouse in what is now Vigo County.

A statue of Father Gibault is in front of the Old Cathedral in Vincennes. †

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