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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

May 5: Washington Approves the War

Editor's Note:

This letter from Secretary of War Lewis Cass (1782-1866) is a response to Illinois Governor John Reynolds’ April 17 letter announcing that he had called out the militia. Here Cass gives Washington’s blessing to a possible war with Black Hawk’s forces. However, Cass tells Governor Reynolds, who had already called out the militia without asking, to leave all military decisions to U.S. Army General Henry Atkinson.

Throughout the war there was tension between the two military forces. Atkinson and the regular army moved slowly and methodically, and disapproved of the local militia's impetuousness and lack of discipline. Reynolds and his Illinois militia thought Atkinson timid and overly cautious, and rushed into battle with sometimes disastrous results. Towards the end of the war, the Wisconsin (Michigan Territory) militia under Col. Henry Dodge had better relations with the professional army.

Lewis Cass to John Reynolds
Department of War May 5th. 1832.


Sir I have had the honor to receive your letters of the 17th. and 18th. I Ulto., and have submitted them to the President. His views of the matter, I have now to state to you.

At this distance and with the imperfect knowledge which the Government possesses of the situation, strength, and designs of the disaffected band of Sac and Fox Indians, it is impossible to form a correct opinion of the force which is requisite to meet them, or to direct the course of operations. Recent letters from Genl. Atkinson leave the impression, that the objects of the Indians are not precisely known, nor their numbers or position. Much must of course be left to his discretion, and instructions have this day been issued to him, giving him authority to act as circumstances may require. It is very desirable that as much should be accomplished by the regular troops as possible, and that the militia force should not exceed the amount necessary to effect the object. Of this Genl. Atkinson will judge, and your Excellency is requested to place under his orders such a militia force as he may call for.

The President [Andrew Jackson] is satisfied that the safety of the frontiers requires the most rigorous and decisive measures. The spirit of disaffection exhibited by this Band, will spread among the other Indians, and produce the most serious consequences, unless it is promptly met & repressed. The disregard which this Party [Black Hawk’s Band] has shewn to the arrangement made last year, proves the little dependence to be placed upon their promises. Under these circumstances the President has directed that Genl. Atkinson be instructed to compel the Indians to recross the Mississippi river. He will merely give notice to them that if they do not immediately retire, they will be attacked, and he will follow this notice by offensive measures, and not desist till the object [is] attained. And should they recross the river & continue embodied, evincing a hostile disposition, he will follow them, and subdue and disperse them. And he will also continue his operations till such a number of the murderers of the Menominees are surrendered as will answer the purposes of justice and serve as a proper example to the Indians.

Funds will be placed in the hands of the Officers of the United States to defray the necessary expenses.

Very respectfully I have the honor &c (Signed) Lewis Cass
To His Excellcy. John Reynolds Govr. of Illinois



[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.350]

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