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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

April 18: Who Were the Militia?

Editor's Note:

This is an entry from the diary of Rev. Cutting Marsh (1800-1873), of Stockbridge, Wis., who talked with northern Illinois settlers two years after the war. His host William Phelps, was sympathetic to Black Hawk's cause, unlike the militia captain described.

Marsh traveled through the Lead Region, down the Mississippi to Yellow Banks, and across into Iowa. Everywhere he went he recorded in his diary scenes of drunkeness, swearing, gambling, and violence. He lamented that this was the first impression that Indians usually got of white civilization, and even concluded at one point, "How much more tolerable to live amongst Indians..." It was this vanguard of unbridled adventurers who responded to Reynolds' call for militia.

According to Indian agent Joseph Street, writing in 1827, the Indians feared the militia more than regular U.S. Army troops because of their lack of discipline and honor: "They apprehended more from the militia ordered to be drafted than all the regulars... The Indians had been soured by the conduct of the vast number of adventurers flocking to and working the lead mines of Fever River. Those who went by land, by far the greater part, passed through the Winnebago country. Many of them had great contempt for 'naked Indians' and behaved low, gross, and like blackguards amongst them."

Although there were honorable individuals within the militia, and many (such as Abraham Lincoln) were elected commanders of their units, the rank and file was also composed of men such as those described by Street and Marsh.

[In 1834, at Yellow Banks, Ill., a local Indian trader told Rev. Cutting Marsh that during the war] he considered the barbarity of the whites as great as that of the Indians for they would kill the women and children indiscriminately.

And his brother came very near having a skirmish with a captain White because he would not deliver up Tama, a friendly chief and 2 or 3 others with him, who had put themselves under his care for the night, having come up the river to his trading Post in order to know what the military movements meant and whether they were going to attack his village which was about 10 m. below.

This Captain declared that he would shoot these Indians and threatened to burn Mr. P's store and buildings if he did not give them up. The matter proceeded so far, that the said Capt. ordered his men to fire off their guns and reload ready for action, and Mr. P. also ordered his men, having 7 or 8 as a guard about him, to fire off their guns and reload. This they did, each man having two guns. In the mean time Mr. P. said that Tama shd not be given up unless the neighbors whom he had sent for shd say that he must. But when they came in, the brave Capt. had become less imperious in his demands, and not choosing to risk a battle, permitted the neighbors to form and escort Tama to the river, which they accordingly did and so he departed in safety.

O shame to the white men who calls himself a man, a human being, or makes any pretensions to civilization, and who can be guilty of such cowardly and disgraceful deeds as to wish to destroy the innocent and defenseless with the guilty!!

[Source: Marsh, Cutting. "Expedition to the Sacs and Foxes." Manuscript in the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives (Wis Mss AU). Entry for Aug. 18, 1834]

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