Despite June 14, 1936 being a Sunday morning and well on its way toward 90 degrees, nearly 75,000 people waited at the George Rogers Clark Memorial in Vincennes as President Franklin Roosevelt, seated in a black Packard with his wife, Eleanor, and popular Indiana governor Paul McNutt, arrived from Union Depot.
Amid a re-election tour of the country, and in full campaign mood, Roosevelt was in the state to dedicate the gleaming monument, begun five years earlier on the banks of the Wabash River near the also new Lincoln Memorial Bridge that leads U.S. across the water to Illinois.
As was necessary due to the president’s limited mobility, the car was driven up a ramp onto the back of the yet-to-be-finished lower level of the memorial to a canopied dais that shielded him from an already fierce sun. Although he was back on his train within 90 minutes, Roosevelt’s stirring speech that day proved fitting to those who had worked so hard to see the monument built.
“Events of history take on their due proportions only when viewed in the light of time,” Roosevelt said. “With every passing year the capture of Vincennes, more than a century and a half ago when the Thirteen Colonies were seeking their independence, assumes greater and more permanent significance.”
Nearly a decade before the dedication, then-President Calvin Coolidge signed a resolution that created the George Rogers Clark Sesquicentennial Commission. Consisting of a 15-member panel, the Commission planned every detail for the monument — often called the largest of its kind outside of Washington D.C. — to be constructed on or near the site of Fort Sackville, the strategically important outpost that Clark captured in late January 1779. His triumph opened the way for the settlement of the “Old Northwest,” and as FDR related, the ordinance that declared, “… religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind …”
Although my own “light of time” hasn’t covered 150 years, I came to Vincennes this summer as well and was just as awed by the sight of the towering memorial as I was the first time I saw it from a bus window on a fourth-grade field trip more than a half century ago. As on the morning that FDR visited, it was uncomfortably warm, but there were no crowds or dignitaries on hand, no fanfare on the grounds to interrupt the thoughts my wife and I had as we wandered the impressive building that stands nearly 80 feet high and 180 feet across.
We were nearly lost in the shadows of the Memorial’s 16 Doric columns as a sullen and rain-swollen river ran a stone’s throw away, and just to our south sat the 10-ton granite statue of Francis Vigo, the Italian-born fur trader whose information and funding proved critical to Clark’s success. Sculptor John Angel created the work and saw it put in place a mere five weeks before FDR’s arrival. To the north and east, stands the statue of Father Pierre Gibault, who also played an important role in Clark’s story. Albin Polasek’s bronze stands, as it has since 1935, near the Basicila of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral a short walk away. Just to the northeast, the graceful white bridge, its original steel design vehemently protested by the Memorial’s planning commission, commemorates Lincoln’s leaving Indiana behind; it opened in 1933.
I was surprised to learn that an in-state contractor — W.E. Heath Construction from Greencastle — was the primary builder of the Memorial, that almost immediately there were problems keeping the structure dry and that those issues persisted for decades, that a “Hall of Pioneers” was originally planned for the basement level of the Memorial, and that, sadly, in this era of virtual learning there are fewer school-aged children visiting the site. Undeniably, however, is the sheer beauty and scope of the place.
“The size [of the monument] surprises most people when they see it the first time, and photos of the building rarely capture how big it is. It certainly surprised me,” says Joe Herron, who became Chief of Interpretation and Resource Management at the Memorial six years ago.
Indeed, it is big, and a remarkable treasure trove for those who appreciate the arts. Designed by English-born Frederick Hirons of the New York firm of Hirons and Mellor, the mixed Beaux Arts and classical structure boasts walls 2 feet thick, a ceiling and rotunda constructed of Indiana limestone, French marble wainscoting, and a single Italian blue marble step that runs the entirety of its interior; the floor is pink Tennessee marble. Around the inside of the spacious rotunda are seven murals (each measures 16 foot by 28 foot) painted by celebrated muralist Ezra Winter, whose work also appears in the Library of Congress and the United States Supreme Court building. The murals depict a variety of scenes from Clark’s campaign, from his taking of the forts at Cahokia and Kaskaskia, to crossing southern Illinois in miserable wintertime floods, to British commander Henry Hamilton’s surrender of Sackville; each are painted on single pieces of Belgium linen.
In the center of it all, and under a massive glass-paned skylight, stands a seven-and-one-half-foot tall bronze of Clark designed by Hermon Atkins MacNeil, best known for his statue in Columbus, Ohio of the assassinated William McKinley and for his “Justice, the Guardian of Liberty,” the figure that graces the face of the Standing Liberty quarter. The Clark statue is mounted on an Italian marble pedestal; together, they weigh 12 tons.
Anyone with an eye for detail can’t help but appreciate the memorial’s finer subtleties: the buffed bronze oak leaves that encircle Clark’s statue; the depiction above the entryway of Clark receiving his commission from Patrick Henry; the nearly oriental heating and cooling grates; the exquisite bronze images that greet visitors at the exterior doors; the carved Clark quotations around the interior crown; the trio of French, British and Clark campaign flags …
Yet, it is the history of the place that inspired the building’s existence, and it is to that point that Herron reminds visitors: “The way history is taught to us portrays the American Revolution as primarily being fought in the original 13 colonies. The land that makes up Indiana and Illinois was largely frontier with a few French settlements. There are British partisans and native peoples fighting American allies as far west as St. Louis and Arkansas Post. Clark and his men were trying to end violence that was spilling over into Kentucky, and ultimately his work in the area had larger outcomes for the entire region, even beyond Indiana’s borders. Anytime people can understand the complex layers that went into this local conflict, they can better connect to the larger story of America’s founding.”
Herron also notes that one of the most common questions he hears is about Clark himself: “‘Is this the same Clark from the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery?’ We then have a chance to share the connection with George Rogers and his little brother, William. The work George did 25 years before that expedition had to be an influence on William as he continued to make history,” he said.
Born on Nov. 19, 1752, Clark had already lived a life of adventure and danger before ever undertaking his famous mission. He had no way of knowing, however, that after his involvement in the Revolutionary cause he would struggle to extend his reputation and live a fulfilled life. With little formal education and trained as a surveyor by his grandfather, the Virginia-born militiaman became well-known as a tactician and fighter in defense of settlers in Kentucky, which prior to the war was claimed in turn by land speculators and the Virginia government.
Although he had some continued military success after his capture of Fort Sackville, Clark, at just 27 years of age, began to struggle with both his personal finances and alcohol. He eventually became the largest property owner in the Northwest Territory, but was never really free of the debts he incurred by personally financing his military campaigns. With some bitterness toward his beloved Virginia and after a failed romance with the sister of a Spanish aristocrat, Clark settled for a while on the banks of the Ohio in southern Indiana, wrote an autobiography that he never saw published, and was forced to sell off his land. Compelled in 1809 to move to Kentucky to live with a sister, his last years were spent in ill health; he died in 1818.
Midway through his dedication address, FDR called the George Rogers Clark Memorial a “noble monument.” It is that, and much more. It is a majestic tribute to our own history, one that is ignored more with each passing year. A visit there, perhaps, can help us all understand better what Clark himself said: “Great things have been effected by a few men well conducted.”