19th Century Articles
British strategy in the First Anglo-Afghan Wars
From Slave to Congressman
Battle of Omdurman
French vs. German Strategy of Warfare 1871
Invention of Counter-Insurgency
Alfred Mahan: Advocate for Seapower
Americans in the Boer War
Marching to Timbuktu
Charge of the Polish Light Horse
The Failures at Spion Kop
Combatants in Black Hawk War
The Fenian Raids
The French Intervention in Mexico

Robert Daniels Articles
The 1712-1736 Fox Wars
WWII Veteran Interview
Hell Ship - Philippines to Japan
MacArthur's Failures in the Philippines
WWII Veteran Interview
The Spanish Civil War
Hitler, Germany's Worst General
Muslim Invasion of Iberia
The Failures at Spion Kop
Combatants in Black Hawk War

Books by Robert Daniels

World War II in Mid-America: Experiences from rural mid-America during the Second World War

1220 Days: The Story Of U.S. Marine Edmond Babler And His Experiences In Japanese Prisoner Of War Camps During World War II

The Quality of the Combatants in the Black Hawk War 
By Robert C. Daniels

As with so many of the Indian wars fought between the United States and the many separate tribes of Native Americans, the 1832 Black Hawk War, named after the Sac [1] Indian Mà-ka-tai-me-she-kià-kiàk,[2] meaning Black Hawk in English and the leading Indian antagonist of the war, was a direct result of the white man's encroachment upon Indian lands. In as much, like many of these wars, it was a war that need not have taken place.

The Sac and Fox Indians[3] were angry over losing their lands east of the Mississippi, especially their century old city of Saukenuk, three miles up the Rock River from the Mississippi River, and its surrounding fertile farmland. This land had been taken from them by a treaty unwittingly signed by four of their rather unimportant chiefs in 1804, and although the treaty stated that the tribes could remain on the land until it was sold by the government, by 1832 much of this land had been sold, and the preceding year the Indians had been compelled by threat of force to move to the west side of the Mississippi.[4]

Since this original treaty was not sanctioned by the combined tribes, nor even signed by any of their principle chiefs, it was held by many in the tribes, none the least of which was Black Hawk, to be an unbinding treaty. Therefore, on 5 April 1832, as he later related, Black Hawk lead his "British Band"[5] back across the Mississippi River not to seek "honor, horses, captives, and scalps, but freedom and peace"[6] on the lands promised to them by the Winnebago Prophet.[7] The British Band crossing the Mississippi River that day consisted of approximately 350 Sac and Fox as well as 32 Kickapoo warriors, and over six hundred Sac and Fox women, children, and elderly with all their worldly possessions.[8] In the crossing, Black Hawk and his warriors were "mounted on horses whose manes and tails were decorated with dyed feathers and numerous strands of bows of colored yarns."[9]

Once word spread among the white settlers of Illinois and what would soon become Wisconsin (southwestern Michigan Territory) of the crossing of Black Hawk's band, citizens became alarmed that war was at hand. Brigadier General Henry Atkinson, commander of the right wing of the Army's Western Department,[10] already at Fort Armstrong, located on Rock Island at the junction of the Rock and the Mississippi Rivers, realized that his force of Regulars, all infantry, would be neither strong enough nor mobile enough to force Black Hawk and his band back west of the Mississippi. Mounted as they were, Black Hawk's warriors were extremely mobile and could travel fast and nearly unencumbered when necessary. Atkinson was, therefore, forced to call out the militia for help. This drawing up of the militia would, as we shall see, eventually lead to the actual outbreak of hostilities in the Black Hawk War. Once open hostilities began, the struggle quickly escalated into an all out fight to the death, with Black Hawk's Indians first fighting only to protect their right to their land, then desperately fighting just to stay alive long enough to flee back across the Mississippi. As Black Hawk was reported to have initially said upon crossing the Mississippi, "We have come home…We will not, for now, bother the whites who are here, but neither will we allow them to bother us."[11]

As other wars fought between the United States and the Indians, both before and afterward, the Black Hawk War consisted of a conglomerate of forces on both sides, each engaging in the war for their own various reasons. Regular troops led by Regular officers, militia troops led my militia officers, and Indian Allies led by a combination of Regular officers, Indian agents, and their own Indian Chiefs fought on the side of the United States, while the Sac and Fox, as well as members of other Indian tribes, singly or in groups, fought on the side of Black Hawk. Some of these forces, on both sides, fought well and with distinction; some did not. Some fought and acted with honor, while others did not. Not only was this war to amount to a war fought among many different forces for different reasons, it was also a war that would see the beginning of the road to fame for many of the whites involved as well as the destruction of many of the Indians who fought on both sides. Let us then take a holistic look at not only the war itself, but how well, or in some cases, how poorly those involved in fighting the war conducted themselves.

As already stated, the Regular troops available to General Atkinson when Black Hawk's band re-crossed the Mississippi on that fateful day in April of 1832 consisted of only infantry, with a spattering of artillery. Many of these troops were scattered around the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers in small forts: Fort Armstrong at the convergence of the Rock and Mississippi Rivers, Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien at the convergence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, and Fort Winnebago on the Wisconsin River at the portage of the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers. These forts were primarily designed to protect the local Indian agents and white population, as well as keep the many different Indian tribes living in the area from warring on each other. Each fort was generally garrisoned by only a few companies of Regulars. Therefore, drawing large amount of troops from these forts was not an option for the general, lest the peace and safety of all those living in the area, both white and Indian alike, be jeopardized. Although troops were siphoned from these forts as appropriate, others had to be brought up from Jefferson Barracks, located ten miles south of St Louis. This left only 250 regulars available to Atkinson to "keep the British Band in check"[12] at the outset of Black Hawk's crossing of the Mississippi, and none of these regulars were mounted.

The Regular Army in 1832 consisted of less than 10,000 officers and enlisted men, and was made up of only infantry and artillery units.[13] The first mounted Regular troops, to be called dragoons, were not commissioned until the following year, 1833.[14] Therefore, whenever mounted troops were required, up to and even years after the Black Hawk War, the Regular Army was dependent upon local mounted militias. Without the mobility of mounted troops, it was rightly feared that Black Hawk's Indians, mounted on fresh horses as they were, could outmaneuver, scatter, and hide from the Regulars; or worse, attack lone settlements and farms at will. What the general desperately needed then was the militia, his only source of mounted troops.

Upon being notified of General Atkinson's call for mounted militia, Governor John Reynolds of Illinois called for volunteers, and "Men rushed to offer their services, some out of patriotism, some out of long-cherished animosity toward the Indian, and some who knew that military service would aid their political careers."[15] One of these volunteers was Abraham Lincoln, who was quickly elected as a captain. Lincoln is quoted by one of his biographers as having stated in later life that being elected to this position was "a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since."[16]

With the "added inducement that the pay of a militiaman would be very welcome to a man with no other means of support," many volunteers stepped forward.[17] The pay for these militia volunteers amounted to $6.66 per month. It rose to nearly $20 per month if the volunteer was mounted.[18] Lincoln's pay for the war totaled approximately $110 in salary, and another $14 bounty for enlisting.[19] Therefore, the chance to earn some money was a strong inducement for many of those who volunteered.

The command that Lincoln became a member of was led by Brigadier General Samuel Whiteside of the Illinois Militia. General Whiteside's command consisted of 1,500 mounted volunteers.[20] Accompanying this force was Governor Reynolds, now as a major general in the Illinois Militia.[21] Reynolds had also ordered out an additional mounted ranger battalion of 200 men under militia Colonel David Bailey, in the capacity of a major, to scout in the area of Dixon's Ferry located along the Rock River a few miles north of the Prophet's town.[22] Earlier, Reynolds had ordered militia General Isaiah Stillman, also in the capacity of a major, to organize an additional battalion of mounted rangers (also 200 strong) and patrol the frontier to protect the settlers.[23]

Although these volunteers were mounted, as one historian points out:

It would be inaccurate to describe the Illinois militia as cavalry. They were mounted, of course, but there the image deteriorated, for this was an undisciplined, untrained and unsoldierly force of Americans…the Illinois militia would be a difficult force to control and supply.[24]

Overall, however, the Illinois Militia was not much different than most mid-nineteenth century militia companies, which were:

generally seen as poorly prepared, armed, and commanded. The regular militia muster days were often as important for their social functions as for any military training…The men practiced marching and firing in something approaching unison…Muster days generally ended with drinking, gambling, wrestling, and eating.[25]

The few days spent in readying the Illinois Militia prior to its movement against Black Hawk's band was geared more at gathering, organizing into units, and electing officers and non-commissioned officers. Little actual training went on. Captain Lincoln, it is said, "learned a little about close-order drill, but not enough to master the more complicated commands."[26] As an example, he reported that once while leading his men on a march they came across a gate in a fence; not knowing the proper command to get them through the fence, he called a halt, dismissed his troops, and told them to reform in two minutes on the other side of the fence.[27]

As General Whiteside's undisciplined army, accompanied by Reynolds, moved to the appointed point of re-supply, many of the volunteers looted farms along the way for foodstuffs since they had discarded much of their own supplies prior to leaving their initial camp. This was not to be a lone incident, instead "This discarding of supplies later became an expensive habit of the Illinois volunteer in the field."[28]

Many of the outlaying settlements near the present day border of Wisconsin and Illinois also organized themselves into local militias and began fortifying their villages or making blockhouses. Among those organizing militias in this part of the area was Colonel Henry Dodge, the future first governor of Wisconsin. Dodge was well acquainted with many of the local Indians and their customs, and "felt that the whole thing could blow over very easily, or, if improperly handled, could evolve into a significant war."[29] After all, up to this time, no real violence had occurred. Black Hawk and his band had simply crossed the river and refused to return. As Black Hawk related several years later when he dictated his autobiography, upon being overtaken by an express from White Beaver (the name the Indians gave to General Atkinson) ordering Black Hawk's band to return back across the Mississippi, Black Hawk stated, "I would not, as I was acting peaceably, and intended to go to the prophet's village, at his [the Prophet's] request and make [plant] corn."[30]

By this time, General Atkinson had gathered 340 Regulars under the command of Colonel Zachary Taylor (the same Zachary Taylor who would become General Taylor of the Mexican War fame and the twelfth President of the United States), and with these Regulars had begun dragging supplies up the Rock River over several sets of rapids, a slow and toilsome job. Meanwhile, Generals Whiteside and Reynolds and their mounted militia, under the overall command of General Atkinson, were ordered up to the Prophet's village to scour the countryside and generally wait for Atkinson, Taylor, and their Regulars. Here it can be argued that "Atkinson erred grievously in permitting the volunteers to advance beyond his effective control."[31]

Once at the now deserted Prophet's village—the Prophet and his people having joined Black Hawk and moved further up the river with the British Band—the volunteers promptly burned the town and then moved up to Dixon's Ferry, essentially moving themselves out of range for any effective control by General Atkinson.[32] At that point, and after hearing from the settlers at Dixon's Ferry that the Indians had gone farther upstream, the volunteers became restless. In addition, both ranger battalions of Majors Stillman and Bailey had also arrived at Dixon's Ferry and were complaining of being "tired of doing nothing."[33] The two militia generals, Whiteside and Reynolds, conferred and differed. Whiteside was for waiting for orders from General Atkinson, while Reynolds wanted to send the rangers on. Without Whiteside's knowledge or authority, since in reality Whiteside was actually in command of the Illinois Militia forces, Reynolds had Major Nathanial Buckmuster sign an order as brigade major in Brigadier Samuel Whiteside's name dispatching the 341 mounted rangers of Stillman's and Bailey's combined battalions, under Stillman's overall command, on ahead.[34]

Black Hawk, having now been turned away by the Rock River Winnebago Indians, soon found that the other Winnebago tribes would also not support his people, nor allow them to live amongst them. So, still with hopes that other Indian tribes further up the Rock River would assist his band—both his close friend Neapope and the Winnebago Prophet had not only led Black Hawk to believe that the Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa Indian tribes would support and join Black Hawk's British Band in their quest, but also that the British had promised to send ammunition and other provisions to help [35] —he continued to lead his group up the river. On 14 May, however, after Black Hawk's hopes were finally dashed when the Potawatomi Indians in turn refused to give Black Hawk's band even food, much less support, for fear of reprisals by the whites, he realized that he had been duped by his friends and that the only alternative left was to surrender to the Americans and return back across the Mississippi River.[36]

It was at this point that Major Stillman's rabble of mounted rangers rolled into view of Black Hawk's rearguard. And it was now that the unruly, undisciplined, and poorly led volunteers made the ultimate display of ineptness, unchecked by their leaders. Along with the provisions brought with Stillman and his detachment was a barrel of rum. Once the volunteers went into camp for the evening along Sycamore Creek in north-central Illinois, the men began drinking in haste. It was at this time that Black Hawk's parley party of three young warriors arrived on the scene displaying a white flag—these three warriors were being watched by five other of Black Hawk's warriors at a distance. What soon was to happen became more than just a comedy of errors. Several of the drunken, undisciplined militia shot one of the messengers and grabbed another off his horse—the third young Indian was able to scramble away on foot in the confusion and dwindling light of dusk—while other militia members leapt on whatever horse they could find, saddled or not, and rode after the other five Indians at a wild gallop. As reported, "within minutes a substantial number of Stillman's command, all trace of organization gone, was streaming across the prairie."[37]

Two of the five Indians were killed before the remaining three reached Black Hawk's camp, just a few short miles from where Stillman's command rested. Black Hawk had only about forty warriors with him, but he quickly gathered these forty together and engaged the riders coming at them. As he later related what happened:

I immediately placed my men in front of some bushes, that we might have the first fire, when they approached close enough. They made a halt some distance from us. I gave another yell, and ordered my brave warriors to charge upon them—expecting that we would all be killed![38]

They were not killed. Instead, they drove the undisciplined attackers back in such confusion that the frightened, drunk volunteers rode right through their own camp with such terror that the rest of the camp took flight right behind them on whatever and whomever's horse they could grab, many even running on foot. 'Retreating' with this group was also Majors Stillman and Bailey, along with Illinois Militia Colonel James M. Strode, from Galena, Illinois, who had ridden along for what he called "the fun."[39]

Not all of the men ran, however. It is reported that "Eight men rallied around Captain John G. Adams near the camp in an effort to stop the stampede. They gave their lives to give more cowardly men more time to run away."[40] Their bodies, along with two others, a total of eleven, were later found scalped and mutilated, their limbs, heads, hearts, and genitals hacked off.[41]

Confused reports began trickling in at Dixon's Ferry where Whiteside and Reynolds were still in camp as the demoralized troops from Stillman's command came in one and two at a time—one of the earliest 'survivors' that reached Dixon's Ferry was none other than Colonel Strode.[42] Reports ranged from being attacked by one thousand Indians[43] to Private John Wakefield's description that "Some of the men seemed to think that there were at least two thousand Indians. Others thought there were not more than one thousand, and none would fall below five hundred; but scarcely any two of them could agree upon any one statement."[44] In reality, however, according to Black Hawk, there were only about twenty-five who actually pursued the Americans back to their camp. In telling the story, he states that, "After pursuing the enemy some distance, I found it useless to follow them, as they rode so fast, and returned to my encampment with a few of my braves, (about twenty-five having gone in pursuit of the enemy.)"[45]

Early hysterical reports also indicated that fifty-two of the volunteers had been killed.[46] This was later proven false. Many of these 'missing' volunteers deserted and ran all the way back to their homes "carrying the news of this incredible disaster to the areas more heavily populated with whites—the Illinois River Valley."[47]

The battle had truly been a disaster, not only for Stillman's men, but also for the entire operation. Had it not been for Major Stillman and his unruly, undisciplined mob of drunken volunteers, "the Black Hawk War would have ended without bloodshed on Sycamore Creek, on May 14, 1832."[48] General Atkinson is recorded as stating that he believed that this action had "closed the door against settling the difficulty without bloodshed."[49] Reynolds can also be held to blame here. Had he not gone around General Whiteside and sent Stillman ahead, Stillman and his drunken, undisciplined troops would not have been in the area of Black Hawk, and Black Hawk would have had more time to dispatch a peace delegation to more senior members of either the Regular Army or the militia.

Demoralized at the lack of assistance from other Indian tribes in the area, Black Hawk had been ready to surrender and return peaceably back across the Mississippi River. As he states:

I had resolved upon giving up the war—and sent a flag of peace to the American war chief—expecting, as a matter of right, reason and justice, that our flag would be respected,…and a council convened,…thereby giving up all idea of going to war against the whites.[50]

Never was I so much surprised in my life, as I was in this attack! An army of three or four hundred, after having learned that we were sueing [sic] for peace, to attempt to kill the flag-bearers that had gone, unarmed, to ask for a meeting of the war chiefs of the two contending parties to hold a council, that I might return to the west side of the Mississippi…[51]

Several days later, left with his command at Dixon's Ferry to guard the sick and injured, Isaiah Stillman, newly promoted (by Governor Reynolds) to Lieutenant Colonel, packed up his militia and left for home "declaring that their departure was not desertion because their enlistment period was only three days from expiring, and that by the time they reached their home territory, it would have run out."[52] In answer to a request for an appraisal of Stillman from General Atkinson, Colonel Zachary Taylor is reported to have said, "I would say that Governor Reynolds's ranger commander is a man of noteworthy cowardice."[53]

Instead of Governor Reynolds' expectation that the volunteers would want to seek vengeance upon the Indians for "Stillman's Run," which is what the 'battle' has been dubbed,[54] most of them were of the same mind as Stillman. As one historian put it, "Their most fervent wish at this point was to get their immediate unpleasant task accomplished [burying Stillman's dead] and then go home."[55] But war was now officially declared, and although this group of volunteers' enlistments was nearly up, more would be needed.

As Black Hawk later dictated, "instead of this honorable course [referring to the displaying of the white flag of truce] which I have always practiced in war, I was forced into WAR, with about five hundred warriors, to contend against three thousand"! Black Hawk had led a contingency of Sac and Fox warriors with Tecumseh against the Americans during the War of 1812, and was very familiar with the white man's honorable use of the white flag.[57] Hence, outnumbered as he was, and unable to surrender, Black Hawk was about to begin warfare his way; and Black Hawk had a wealth of experience in warfare and leading war parties.

Born at Saukenuk in 1767, Black Hawk was sixty-five years old in 1832.[58] In his long life, he had became a renowned war leader; feared by his enemies, both white and Indian alike. However, like his primary rival for leadership of the Sac and Fox tribes, Keokuk (He Who Has Been Everywhere),[59] Black Hawk was never a true tribal civil chief. Nonetheless, both Keokuk and Black Hawk were extremely charismatic and well respected by both their civil chiefs and peers. As such, both Indians grew to obtain strong influence over all in their tribes, including the civil chiefs.

At age sixteen, Black Hawk participated in his first war party, where he killed his first enemy by plunging a knife into the heart of a full-grown, experienced Osage warrior. As was tribal custom, this act made Black Hawk a full-fledge warrior with the right to lead others into battle. A couple of months later, having impressed many of the older warriors by this feat, the young brave was able to persuade six others to follow him on another campaign against the Osage Indians, but this time as the war party's leader. With the seven warriors under Black Hawk's leadership surprising and routing one hundred Osages—Black Hawk killed and scalped one of the enemy warriors while three other Osage warriors were wounded; none of Black Hawk's party suffered any injuries—his first campaign as a war leader was a tremendous success.[60] Black Hawk soon went on to gain more and more honor and respect from his peers and civil chiefs as a great war leader, successfully leading numerous raids against both rival Indian Tribes and offending whites, including fighting with Tecumseh in the War of 1812. Over the years and through many battles, some against whites, Black Hawk began to harbor a strong dislike and distrust for the Americans, although he continued to trust and respect the English, his old ally in the War of 1812 and on and off supplier of arms, ammunition, food stuff, and other gifts.

Keokuk, on the other hand, was more of a peace advocate. As such he continually urged the Sac and Fox tribes to go west and comply with the United States Government's wishes. In doing so, Keokuk was successful in keeping the majority of the tribal civil chiefs and people from joining Black Hawk's British Band. Black Hawk not only detested Keokuk for this, but the two were normally at odds in nearly all of their separate efforts for the rest of their lives.

But now, Black Hawk, with his small force, even though not wanting to fight, was forced to, this time for the survival of his band. However:

The Indians could not fight a prolonged battle, but were forced to adopt hit and run tactics. The limited Sauk offensive involved a series of skirmishes: the battle of Pecatonica, June 16th; the first Battle of Kellogg's Grove, also on the 16th; and Apple River fort on the 24th.[61]

All of these, among others, were accomplished stealthily and with lightning force, some even personally led by Black Hawk, resulting in the death and mutilation of several white settlers and militia members, including complete families: men, women, and children. This, coupled with the news of the Stillman affair, set a wave of great fear among the settlers.

Not only did Black Hawk have his own British Band of warriors at his disposal, but also other young warriors from several tribes—the Kickapoos, the Rock River Winnebagoes, and even some Patawatomis—who, without and against the consent of many of their own chiefs, joined Black Hawk's band to show their mettle and earn their right to be called a warrior.[62] As with Sac and Fox tribal customs, many of these periphery Indian's tribal customs also required the wounding or killing of an enemy to become true warriors.[63] Others tagged along to just wreak vengeance upon whites who had wronged them in the past. Even some of the other Winnebagoes that Black Hawk's band came across after the battle with Stillman congratulated Black Hawk and offered to guide the Band farther up the Rock River to safer locations.[64]

All this while the Regular troops under Colonel Taylor, all afoot and hence unable to even hope to catch up with Black Hawk's mounted band, were still trudging up the Rock River, literally manhandling two large keelboats and six smaller Mackinac boats filled with the expedition's supplies. To this point, none of the Regulars had seen any more action than fighting the river's currents and the rocks of its rapids. By the time they finally reached Dixon's Ferry, and Whiteside and his troops returned from burying Stillman's dead, Governor Reynolds had already sent for two thousand more militia to replace those whose terms were expiring.[65]

By 27 May, with the expiration of the volunteers' enlistments, General Atkinson was left with his original 340 regulars and only 300 militia that had volunteered to stay on "until another levy could be inducted."[66] Abraham Lincoln was one of these that opted to stay on.[67] Unlike many of his fellow militia volunteers, Lincoln tended to be much more conscientious about his duties, and as such was not hesitant to use his physical strength to preserve order in the ranks when needed. It is reported that when an old Indian, who was bearing a certificate of safe passage from American authorities was stumbled across by men of Lincoln's company, the militia men talked of killing the Indian, stating that "The Indian is a damned spy" and that "We have come out to fight the Indian and by God we intend to do so." Captain Lincoln quickly stepped in front of the old man and offered to fight anyone who attempted to hurt him, resulting in the Indian being allowed to leave unhurt.[68]

Although courageous as he was, Lincoln's overall service in the Black Hawk War was neither particularly heroic nor even dangerous. In an 1848 debate with Lewis Cass, Lincoln jokingly stated that "in the days of the Black Hawk War, I fought, bled, and came away," and, in the same debate, relating to Cass allegedly having broken his sword in the War of 1812, Lincoln furthered that "It is quite certain I did not break my sword, for I had none to break; but I bent a musket pretty badly on one occasion." As he continued, he stated, "If he [Cass] saw any live, fighting Indians, it was more than I did, but I had a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes [sic]; and, although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.[69]

Going hungry, at times, was the norm for many of the volunteers, especially under Whiteside and Reynolds as they continually kept well ahead of Atkinson while Atkinson and Taylor were trudging up the Rock River during the early part of the conflict. The volunteers also tended to waste their provisions, which eventually caused a stop of the entire army to await additional supplies—unknown to Atkinson, just a few miles up the Indian trail that he was pursuing from where this occurred was Black Hawk's entire camp.[70]

Among the Regular officers present during this conflict were Lieutenant Albert Sidney Johnston, General Atkinson's Aid-de-Camp and acting Assistant Adjutant, as well as Major John Bliss, Lieutenant Robert Anderson, Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, and Captain William S. Harney, the latter who had been on leave at the outbreak of the expedition, but quickly terminated his vacation and returned. Along with Lincoln and Taylor, all of these would go on to prove themselves in other wars or as presidents of either the United States or the Confederacy. It was Anderson, of later Fort Sumter fame, that swore in Lincoln for his stint as a volunteer in the war.[71]

The general impression of these professional officers of the militia's actions to-date was not a good one. In commenting concerning the militia's abilities, Colonel Taylor stated, "The more I see of the militia the less confidence I have in their effecting any thing of importance; and therefore tremble not only for the safety of the frontiers, but for the reputations of those who command them."[72] In this he may have been particularly concerned with General Whiteside's reputation, since Whiteside had earlier been a subordinate to Taylor in earlier clashes with the Sacs in 1814.[73] Things, however, were about to change.

The next couple of months saw a period of both "great activity and great uncertainty;" with new militia volunteers mustering in and although Colonel Dodge and General Atkinson sent out troops in search of Black Hawk's trail, Black Hawk could still not be found. Nonetheless, Colonel Dodge was no Stillman, nor was his troops the "soft-shelled breed who can't stand up before the yell of the Indians," which, after "Stillman's Run" was the common thought of all of the Indians towards the white men.[75]

Dodge and his militia of miners from the southwestern Wisconsin-northwestern Illinois area rapidly began proving themselves. First, immediately after a settler from Fort Hamilton was ambushed and killed by a group of Kickapoo and Sac Indians, Dodge led his men in hot pursuit, quickly tracking, attacking, and killing all eleven of the Indians.[76] Then, by boldly and forcibly standing up to the Winnebago Chief White Crow (not to be confused with White Cloud, the Prophet), Dodge was able to retrieve two teenage white girls, now in White Crow's possession, who had been captured by Potawatomi warriors aided by a few of Black Hawk's band. Dodge was so aggressive and forceful acting in front of White Crow that the Indian not only handed over the two sisters unharmed, but also told Dodge where Black Hawk was hiding and how many warriors were with him.[77]

White Crow, like several other Indians was secretly aiding Black Hawk as a guide. In fact, White Crow had been playing one side against the other nearly ever since Black Hawk's band originally crossed the Mississippi River. To White Crow's credit, however, he had recently led a handful of his braves into Black Hawk's camp to negotiate the release of the two Hall sisters, successfully gaining their safe release from Black Hawk. In addition, on the way to Dodge's location with the two girls, White Crow fended off the two hotheaded young Potawatomi braves, Toquamee and Comee, who had earlier led the savage raid on the Hall and Davis settlement, killing nearly everyone present, including the Hall sister's parents and others of their siblings in revenge for mistreatment by mill owner William Davis. The two young Potawatomis were upset that Black Hawk had released their captives and wanted to kill them.

The raid led by Toquamee and Comee was one of several raids on white settlements and farms led by Indians not truly attached to Black Hawk's British Band, nor sanctioned by Black Hawk, but led by warriors from other tribes that quickly used Black Hawk's uprising as a pretext to wreak vengeance on selected hated whites. Many of these raids were summarily and erroneously blamed on Black Hawk. Some of the raids were, however, sanctioned by Black Hawk to gather food and horses.

About this same time, Militia Major John Dement and his troop won praise from Black Hawk in Dement's determination and bravery in leading his small band of mounted militia to rescue a detachment of his own troop sent out as reconnoiterers. As Black Hawk later dictated:

their chief, with a party of men, rushed up to rescue the men we had fired upon…They acted like braves, but were forced to give way when I rushed upon them with my braves…He seemed determined to fight, and anxious for battle!…This young chief deserves great praise for his courage and bravery; but fortunately for us, his army is not all composed of such brave men![78]

Other militia, however, were wreaking havoc upon their own people, such as the now infamous Colonel Strode. Having returned to Galena from his dash for safety after "Stillman's Run," he fully antagonized the citizens of Galena by taking it upon himself to declare martial law and force the townspeople to labor day and night building a fort.[79] Thoroughly disliked, it seems, Strode has been described as a large man weighing "nearly or quite 200 hundred pounds…a regular 'Bombaste Furiosus. ' As garrulous as a fish-monger, and a thorough coxcomb."[80] Strode's antics got to the point where General Atkinson had to write a letter of chastisement admonishing the colonel against declaring of martial law, coercing people into personal labor, pressing individual property, and hiring private steam boats with the expectation that the United States Government would pick up the tab.[81]

Adding to the unruliness of many of the militia volunteers, Governor Reynolds had given verbal orders to the militia units granting them permission to pillage Indian villages they encountered. On one occasion soon after the Stillman debacle, a detachment of militia came upon a town of friendly Potawatomi Indians, which had been recently temporarily abandoned. Colonel Taylor and his regulars that accompanied the detachment, while maintaining their ranks, looked on in disgust while the much larger militia force pillaged and sacked the village. It was in this village that Captain Lincoln challenged his men when they discovered the old Indian with the certificate of safe passage.[82]

By 25 June, General Atkinson had a new army. The new cadre of volunteers, nearly 3,000 strong, were mostly all mounted and split into three regiments under militia Generals Alexander Posy, James Henry, and Milton Alexander. In addition to this force were Zachary Taylor's nearly four hundred regulars and Colonel Dodge's rangers, along with some artillery pieces.[83] Atkinson was finally ready to move in earnest. He began by sending Colonel Dodge's troops to southwestern Wisconsin and General Posey's troops to northwestern Illinois, and taking the rest of the command with him up the Rock River to where Chief White Crow had indicated Black Hawk had gone.

The next several weeks saw the troops following the Indians' trails, many of which proved to be false leads designed by Black Hawk to buy his band time. At other times Atkinson and his generals were misled by 'friendly' Indian chiefs of peaceable tribes, who where in fact shielding Black Hawk's band.[84] Running out of supplies, due to the militia's nearly constant wasting of it,[85] Atkinson sent Colonel Dodge and Generals Alexander and Henry and their troops to Fort Winnebago in south-central Wisconsin with pack horses to bring back provisions. While at Fort Winnebago, the militia leaders were told by 'friendly' Winnebago Indians that Black Hawk was still on the upper portion of the Rock River.[86] Dodge and Henry decided it was more important to go directly after Black Hawk, while General Alexander insisted upon returning with his command to Atkinson with all of the supplies as ordered, refusing to go on what he described as a "wild goose chase."[87] Some controversy has arisen about the actions of Dodge and Henry, but according to Albert Sidney Johnston, Dodge and the generals had "verbal instructions to pursue the trail of the enemy, if it was met with going or returning."[88]

While Alexander was returning to Atkinson, Dodge and Henry came across Black Hawk's now abandoned camp on the northern reaches of Rock River. Soon thereafter they stumbled across a large fresh track heading west towards the Mississippi River and sent a dispatch to Atkinson with the news.[89] The trail Dodge and Henry had found was indeed Black Hawk's.

With his people, including women, children, and old, now literally starving to death, Black Hawk, as he states, "concluded to remove my women and children across the Mississippi, that they might return to the Sac nation again…the next day, we commenced moving, with five Winnebagoes acting as our guides."[90] Chief White Crow, still secretly acting for both sides, was the leader of these Winnebagoes guides. With Dodge and Henry on Black Hawk's trail and Atkinson moving up to join them, it was now a race for time; Black Hawk's band of starving Indians against Atkinson's combined forces. Many of the latter, however, although on horse back, were on horses that were all but spent. Nonetheless, at the same time most of Black Hawk's band—against his wishes—had eaten many of their horses just to stay alive, and were now on foot.

Black Hawk didn't just run, though. He maintained a strong rear guard, even once setting a trap for Atkinson where present day Madison, Wisconsin sits. The trap was set at the narrow portion of the trail between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. This was the second of such traps Black Hawk had set for Atkinson. The first had been set just north of Lake Koshkonong on the Rock River where Black Hawk was ready to enfilade Atkinson's troops from heights on both sides of the river, thinking that Atkinson only had one thousand in his group. White Crow, however, again acting as a double agent, warned Black Hawk that although his trap would work against one thousand troops, it would not work against the over three thousand actually with Atkinson at the time.[92] In turn, Atkinson was also too wily to send his troop through such an area as ripe for an ambush as the one between the lakes without taking precautions, and Black Hawk's second trap was also avoided.

By this time most of the original militia volunteers that had chosen to stay on, including Lincoln, and even Governor Reynolds, had gone home. While Lincoln took the time to be properly mustered out, Governor Reynolds, along with many of his volunteers, just took his leave. He later tried to justify this "desertion" by explaining that "Under these circumstances,…a great many worthy and respectable individuals, who where not particularly operative in the service, returned to their homes."[93]

With Black Hawk's band in desperate condition due to lack of food, Indians from his group, especially the old, were dying or just stopping along the trail to meet their fate at an alarming rate. As the volunteers came across these, those weak, nearly incapacitated Indians found alive were summarily killed and scalped, the corpses discovered were scalped and sometimes mutilated, and the graves plundered. One lone aged Sac was found sitting next to the fresh grave of his wife, who had just died from starvation and exhaustion the evening before. Dr. Addison Philleo, a physician and the editor of the Galena, Illinois newspaper The Galena, instantly raised his gun, as did others, and in unison shot the old Indian dead where he sat. Philleo then "rushed to the dead man and scalped him, holding the grisly trophy high in one hand as he danced a little jig."[94]

Not all on the frontier were enthusiastic about this. Philleo sent this scalp, along with another, to Galena, and an article soon thereafter appeared in The Galena touting its editor's escapades. In a response, the Cincinnati Chronicle later commented in an editorial that " We trust that the Galenian is the only paper in the Union that could boast of such a feat, and that its editor is the only one of the fraternity capable of perpetrating so disgusting and cruel an act. "

Soon, Black Hawk was caught attempting to move his band across the Wisconsin River at Wisconsin Heights. Instantaneously, he dispatched as many warriors available to hold off the whites while the women, children, and the old of his party could cross the river with the few canoes they had managed to carry across country from the Rock River. The battle that ensued became known as the Battle of Wisconsin Heights. Dodge's and Henry's men showed their mettle in this battle, but so did Black Hawk's warriors—the battle was fiercely fought by all involved. The casualty count varied, from six Indians killed (Black Hawk's assertion)[96] to thirty-five Indians killed with many wounded, and one Volunteer killed with seven wounded (Atkinson's allegation).[97] Others reported seventy Indians killed—either by drowning in the crossing or killed in the battle; Dodge reported taking forty scalps.[98] Whatever the case, both sides fought well. However, if there could be said to be a winner of the battle, that title would arguably have to go to Black Hawk who succeeded in successfully getting his people across the river and out of the immediate reach of the Volunteers. As historian Lloyd H. Efflandt writes, "The Sauk had achieved a tactical victory. Black Hawk had led a twenty-five mile retreat, protecting his noncombatants and enabling them to safely cross the river."[99]

Upon ascertaining that make-shift rafts and canoes had most likely been made by Black Hawk's band—Dodge's men discovered this when they noticed that many of the birch trees at Black Hawk's abandoned camp along the river had been stripped of their bark, and bark was customarily used in the making of canoes—Dodge sent word to the commander of the Regulars at Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien that some of Black Hawk's people might be coming down the Wisconsin River.

Captain Gustavus Loomis, the commanding officer at Fort Crawford, "decidedly bored with this post and irked at being stationed more or less out of touch with the events of the Black Hawk War thus far," eagerly took matters into hand.[100] He quickly anchored Regular troops and a canon on a raft at the mouth of the Rock River, placed another detachment of Regular troops, also with a canon, onboard the steam boat Warrior and commissioned it to patrol the Mississippi, and sent word to the Dakota Sioux under Chief Wabashaw to range along both shores of the Mississippi River in search of Black Hawk's band so that none of the British Band would escape.[101] The Sioux had been enemies of the Sacs for years, and were eager to do their bit. Atkinson actually sanctioned this use of the Sioux as militia, along with some Menominees—also long time enemies of the Sacs.[102]

Although Black Hawk didn't know it at the time, he was effectively cut off. In addition, his band was constantly shrinking. Besides those that had been killed or died of starvation or drowning, many of the Kickapoo, Winnebago, and Potawatomi warriors that had attached themselves to his band to prove their mettle or take revenge on the whites for true or perceived wrongs had been slowly drifting away.[103]

Atkinson's troops, by now once again all together, restocked, and the volunteers mounted on what fresh horses they could muster, set out to continue the pursuit. At the time he crossed the Wisconsin River, however, Atkinson's total force was down to approximately 1300, having sent many of the more unruly militia home.[104] Nevertheless, his force was now made up of 900 of the best of the volunteers, led by Dodge, Henry, Alexander, and Posey, all militia leaders who had proven themselves, plus Colonel Taylor's 450 or so Regulars.[105]

On 29 July, one week from the time nearly 100 of Black Hawk's women, children, and invalided elderly had taken to the Wisconsin River on one raft and several canoes—all but three of these canoes indeed having been hastily made from the birch bark at the site of the Wisconsin Heights battle—they were met by Lieutenant Joseph Ritner and his crew of Regulars onboard the raft anchored at the mouth of the river. The Indians had waited until dark to try to slip unseen into the Mississippi River. Ritner's party, however, had seen them, and in the dark opened fire with their muskets and cannon. Between the musket and cannon fire and a party of Menominee Indians that ran to the sound of the fire and attacked any of the Sac party that ventured to shore, only thirty-two woman and children and four old men were captured alive, the Menominees having killed all that they came upon.[106] The Indian 'militia' units were apparently as uncontrollable, if not more so, as many of the white militia members had been.

On 1 August, Black Hawk and those of his remaining band finally arrived at the Mississippi River just south of the mouth of Bad Axe Creek. Having arrived with the hopes of finding canoes to transfer his followers across the River, Black Hawk was discouraged to find only three canoes hidden in the brush. Captain Loomis had sent a harsh warning to the local Winnebagoes threatening to confiscate and destroy all of their canoes if they left any in wait for the Sacs.[107] Although discouraged, Black Hawk still hoped to get as many of his people across the river as he could using the three canoes, and began to do just that. Each manned by two warriors to row the empty canoes back after each trip, a total of only 18 Indians could be ferried at a time.[108]

After only a few hours of this, the steam boat Warrior came into view. At this time, although having sent twenty hand-picked warriors to act as a rearguard and lure Atkinson's troops away in hopes of getting his people across the river[109]—Atkinson was within only hours of Black Hawk's band at this time—Black Hawk realized it was no use to go on and decided to surrender. As he later dictated to his biographers, "I told my braves not to shoot, as I was intending going on board, so that we might save our women and children. I knew the captain, [Throckmorton,] and was determined to give myself up to him."[110] For the second time, Black Hawk was trying to surrender to the whites. For a second time, however, the whites ignored the white flag that the Indians held out; although this time it was not a volunteer who ignored the time honored, traditional white flag, but an officer of the Regular Army. The military commander onboard the Warrior was Lieutenant James W. Kingsbury. After a few minutes of yelling back and forth with Black Hawk through a Winnebago interpreter onboard the Warrior, Kingsbury came to believe that Black Hawk was trying to lure him into a trap, and from a distance of approximately seventy yards ordered the cannon and troops to commence firing.[111]

The Indians lost very few in this battle with the Warrior after the initial onslaught, although that initial barrage was severe—the total Indian loss was approximately twenty-three. The whites suffered only one injured on the Warrior. Within two hours of the beginning of the fight, the Warrior began running low of firewood and departed.[112] Black Hawk then entreated his band to either cross the Mississippi, if they could, or go with him to Chippewa country.[113] Few, however, chose to go with Black Hawk. Only three lodges of Sacs, along with the Prophet's lodge continued to follow the aged leader in his attempt to make it to the Chippewa villages. The others elected to remain and try to cross the river.[114]

The next day, 2 August, saw the end of the British Band. As Atkinson's troops closed in, some of the warriors Black Hawk had set out as a rearguard successfully drew off part of whites, temporarily misleading them.[115] But the ruse was soon discovered, and trapping the Indians between a combined force of volunteers and Regular troops coming at two different directions, the sheer cliff of the river bank, and the river, "The militia, encouraged by the first slayings of several Indians, broke ranks and became uncontrollable."[116] The slaughter went on for eight hours, with the soldiers killing everyone in sight. One historian wrote that "The whole battle scene became pandemonium as Indians were killed indiscriminately wherever found, of whatever age or sex, and the carnage increased as the remnants of strength of the warriors failed them."[117] Some of the Indians attempted to swim the river; few made it, many being shot while in the water, others drowning. The vast majority that did make it across the Mississippi, including those that went across by the canoes earlier, were hunted down by Chief Wabashaw's Sioux and killed—68 scalps and only twenty-two prisoners were eventually brought in by the Sioux.[118]

Nonetheless, even without his direct leadership, Black Hawk's band did not go down without a fight. Atkinson lost twenty-two soldiers killed and seven wounded. The number of dead and wounded of the Indians ranged upward of 350, with 150 of these being killed on shore, the others in the water, either from being shot or from drowning.[119] A few days later Black Hawk and the Prophet were captured alive without incident, officially ending the war.

Although the Black Hawk War was a war that did not have to happen, once it began the showing of the forces engaged was quite varied. The Indians, led by the charisma of Black Hawk, although never an actual civil or war chief, fought skillfully and doggedly, displaying bravery, determination, and strategy until the very end. At the advanced age of sixty-five, Black Hawk conducted a well organized campaign. Although having little control over some of the non-British Band of affiliated Indians (Potawatomis, Winnebagoes, and Kickapoos), many of who used the war for their personal vengeful purposes, he ably kept his band together, fighting several successful rearguard actions, personally leading sorties, spreading fear all along the Wisconsin-Illinois border region, and, until the last few weeks of the conflict, effectively leading the whites on wild goose chases.

Towards the end, however, when the outlook began seeming bleak, many of Black Hawk's allies began to leave him. In addition, his close friend and confidant, Neapope, as well as the Prophet, had both lied to him from the beginning about promised Indian and British support. White Crow, seemingly his ally and at times actually guiding and assisting him, also betrayed Black Hawk in the end.

The Regular troops, although for the most part spent little time actually fighting compared to their months of marching to keep up with the mounted volunteers, were well disciplined and well led by their professional officers. General Atkinson, although hampered as he was with supply problems and only having Regular infantry originally at his disposal, and limited amounts of infantry at that, can arguably be shown as successfully prosecuting the war. This, however, was not seen at the time of the conflict by his superiors, who eventually dispatched General Winfield Scott to take overall command—Scott never made it to the scene of conflict prior to the termination of hostilities due to nobly battling a devastating outbreak of Cholera among his troops that eventually killed close to 370 of the 850 Regulars accompanying the general to the war.[120] Colonel Taylor, as well as Major Bliss, Captain Harney, Lieutenants Johnston, Anderson, and Davis, along with their Regulars also conducted themselves with honor and distinction.

It must be remembered, however, that some Regular officers, such as Lieutenant Kingsbury commanding the Regular and militia troops onboard the steam boat Warrior, did misinterpret the Indian's intentions, exasperating the war and causing undue loss of life on both sides. General Atkinson also made the mistake of letting Generals Whiteside and Reynolds out of his site, which indirectly resulted in the beginning of the hostilities.

The militia, on the other hand, whether white or Indian (Sioux and Menominee), can only be given mixed reviews. Enlisting for money, hatred of the Indians, patriotism, or the perceived fame that fighting in the war would bring them, many in the militia, besides being untrained, were undisciplined and at times led by poor leaders. As we have seen, this lack of discipline and poor leadership directly led to "Stillman's Run" and the actual outbreak of hostilities. Many of the militia also continually threw away or misused their provisions and even looted the white farmers they were to protect in order to replenish themselves. At times this misuse of supplies caused General Atkinson's army to come to complete halts, awaiting re-supply—at least once allowing Black Hawk's band to escape. Not a few, like Major Stillman and even Governor (Major General) Reynolds, left the service, abandoning their posts, prior to the expirations of their enlistments—effectively deserting. Unchecked looting took place by many of the militia members, even with the approval and direction of Governor Reynolds, of both Indian villages—including villages of friendly Indians—and Indian graves. As Indians were encountered of nearly any tribe, many of the militia, whether white or Indian, indiscriminately killed the Indians they met, and then wantonly and willfully mutilated their bodies, like Dr. Philleo's taking of scalps as trophies.

The Sioux and Menominee Indians allied to the whites, although fighting fiercely also fought savagely with little or no control, unnecessarily and indiscriminately killing women, children, and the old along with the warriors. In addition, some Indian allies, such as White Crow, assisted both sides for their own profit. In White Crow's case, he kept half (a full $1,000.00 plus some horses) for himself of the ransom money that he told Colonel Dodge it would take to get Black Hawk to release the Hall sisters.[121]

Other militia members, however, like Generals Henry, Alexander, and Posey, Colonel Dodge, Captain Lincoln, and Major Dement acted with bravery and even skill, and at least attempted to keep their men in check—some like Dodge and Lincoln, for the most part, succeeding. Nonetheless, without the use of the militia, due in most part to the need for mounted troops, General Atkinson would not have been able to hope to drive Black Hawk and his band back across the Mississippi River.

Good and bad leadership, as well as good and bad soldiering, occurred on both sides of the war. A good many of those in the war who proved themselves worthy of good leadership went on to bigger and better things—Presidents of both the United States and the Confederacy, distinguished generals, again for both the Union and the Confederacy, and a State Governor. Many of those who less ably distinguished themselves went on to obscurity.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography
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© 2024 Robert C. Daniels.

Published online: 03/18/2007.

Written by Robert C. Daniels. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Robert Daniels at:

About the author:
Robert C. Daniels, a retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer, holds a BA in History from Old Dominion University (ODU), Norfolk, VA, and a MA in Military Studies, Land Warfare from the American Military University (AMU), Manassas Park, VA. He has written and published two books telling the exploits of both WWII era veterans and civilians: 1220 Days and World War II in Mid-America and several military history articles published on He currently is writing a book about the Black Hawk War, and teaches U.S. History, World Civilization History, and Western Civilization History at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, VA, as an adjunct professor.

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