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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

April 20: Jefferson Davis in the Black Hawk War

Editor's Note:

Future Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) did play an important part in the war -- just not the one he told to this reporter.

Davis was an Army lieutenant assigned to Fort Crawford during the summer of 1832. An 1851 campaign biography published at Jackson, Miss., when he ran for governor, said that he "earned his full share of the glories by partaking of the dangers and hardships of the campaign. Here he remained in the active discharge of his duties, and participating in most of the skirmishes and battles, until shortly after the battle of Bad Axe."

And near the end of his life, Davis gave the interview quoted at left describing the Battle of Wisconsin Heights on July 21st.

The trouble is that documents prove that on July 21st Davis was not even in Wisconsin. Official records show that on March 26, he went down the Mississippi on a furlough to visit his family, and that he sent a letter from Woodville, Miss., on July 9th. According to his most recent biographer, no means of transportation could have carried him back to Wisconsin in time to witness the Battle of Wisconsin Heights.

Davis was only one of several very famous Americans who served in the Army or the militia during the Black Hawk War. He played a prominent role at the very end of the war, but there is no reliable evidence that he ever saw combat. For more information, see this article by P. L. Scanlon.

[In 1887 Jefferson Davis told a reporter:] We were one day pursuing the Indians, when we came to the Wisconsin River. Reaching the river bank, the Indians made so determined a stand, and fought with such desperation, that they held us in check...

This was the most brilliant exhibition of military tactics that I ever witnessed -- a feat of most consummate management and bravery, in the face of an enemy of greatly superior numbers. I never read of anything that could be compared with it. Had it been performed by white men, it would have been immortalized as one of the most splendid achievements in military history.

[Source: Aldrich, Charles. "Jefferson Davis and Black Hawk." The Midland Monthly. vol 5, no. 5 (May 1896): 408-409]

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