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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

Early May: "Killing, Indiscriminately, All the Indians They Met."

Editor's Note:

Gov. Reynolds was one of the biggest supporters of the militia, in part because he depended on their votes for his future political success. The myth of the yeoman farmer protecting his home (symbolized in the popular mind by the Minutemen of Concord and Lexington in 1775) was an important part of the militia's view of themselves. Reynold's reservations here about their lack of discipline was one of the few mentions he made of their serious shortcomings. The professional soldiers of Gen. Atkinson's U.S. Army units looked on the militia with scorn and contempt thoughout most of the war.

The anecdote about Abraham Lincoln, who was a captain in the militia, illustrates both the poor discipline of the common soldiers and their readiness to kill innocent Native Americans. This incident became an often-repeated part of Lincoln hagiography. It was first described in the 1889 biography of Lincoln written by his old friend and law partner, William Herndon (1818-1891). Recent scholarship has identified Herndon's informants as two members of Lincoln's company, William H. Greene and Royal Clary. Here is a 19th century drawing portraying Captain Lincoln "Protecting the Indian Captive."

Illinois Governor John Reynolds on the militia:

The brigade organized, and marching in the large prairies toward Rock Island, made a grand display. The material was an energetic and efficient troop, possessing all the qualities, except discipline, that were necessary in any army. This small army was composed of the flower of the country, and possessed strong sense and unbounded energy. They also entertained rather an excess of the Indian ill-will, so that it required much gentle persuasion to restrain them from killing, indiscriminately, all the Indians they met.

An anecdote about Abraham Lincoln, a captain in the Black Hawk War:

He did not hesitate to use physical strength to preserve order. When an old Indian, bearing a certificate of good character from American authorities, stumbled into camp, Lincoln's men talked of killing him, saying, 'The Indian is a damned spy' and 'We have come out to fight the Indian and by God we intend to do so.' Drawing himself up to his full height, Lincoln stepped in front of the shivering Indian and offered to fight anyone who wanted to hurt the old man. Grumbling, the soldiers let the Indian slip away.

[Source 1: Reynolds, John. My Own Times: Embracing Also the History of My Life (Chicago: Fergus Printing, 1879), p. 215]
[Source 2: Illinois State Military Museum. "Captain Abraham Lincoln." ]

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