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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

May 14: Black Hawk's Victory at the Battle of Stillman's Run

Editor's Note:

Here Black Hawk describes his unexpected victory at the battle of Stillman's Run, on the evening of May 14, 1832. When Black Hawk's offer of peace was rejected (see previous entry), he rallied his small band of warriors for what he thought would be their last stand. As the frenzied militia galloped towards his camp, Black Hawk set an ambush in the bushes. Suddenly finding themselves surrounded by Black Hawk's whooping braves in the dusk, nearly all the militia fled in terror as soon as they received the first volley.

Their retreat turned into a rout as panicked volunteers dropped everything and ran away, spreading fear and chaos as soon as they reached their camp at Old Man's Creek. Although they could have stopped there to find cover and fire at Black Hawk's band, as the Sauk leader points out in this excerpt, instead the disorganized and terror-stricken militia ran or rode all the way back to their base at Dixon's Ferry, a half day's march away.

All that night and the next morning Stillman's troops straggled into camp, with horrifying stories of a devastating defeat at the hands of hundreds of fearsome Indians, saying there were few white survivors. In fact, Black Hawk had possessed a very small force that night, and by dawn all but eleven militiamen had reported in. Despite the exaggerated reports of the fleeing militia, there was no overwhelming horde of Indians and no wholesale massacre of soldiers.

The Battle of Stillman's Run was an embarrassment for the militia and its leadership, especially Governor Reynolds. This pushed them to double their efforts against Black Hawk, whose unexpected victory forced him into a war he knew he could not win.

Modern Stillman Valley, IL is named after this battle.

...The alarm was given. Nearly all my young men were absent ten miles away. I started with what I had left, about forty, and had proceeded but a short distance, before we saw a part of the army approaching. I raised a yell, saying to my braves, "Some of our people have been killed! Wantonly and cruelly murdered! We must avenge their death!"

In a little while we discovered the whole army coming towards us at a full gallop. We were now confident that our first party had been killed! I immediately placed my men behind a cluster of bushes, that we might have the first fire when they had 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 they would all be killed! They did charge! Every man rushed towards the enemy and fired, and they retreated! in the utmost confusion and consternation before my little, but brave band of warriors!...

The enemy's encampment was in a skirt of woods near a run, about half a day's travel from Dixon's ferry. We attacked them in the prairie, with a few bushes between us, about sundown, and I expected that my whole party would be killed! I never was so much surprised in all the fighting I have seen, knowing, too, that the Americans generally shoot well, as I was to see this army of several hundreds retreating!, WITHOUT SHOWING FIGHT!! and passing immediately through their encampment, I did think they intended to halt there, as the situation would have forbidden attack by my party,if their number had not exceeded half of mine, as we would have been compelled to take the open prairie whilst they could have picked trees to shield themselves from our fire!...

After following the enemy for some distance, I found it useless to pursue them further, as they rode so fast, and returned to the encampment with a few braves, as about twenty-five of them continued in pursuit of the flying enemy. I lighted my pipe and sat down to thank the Great Sprit for what he had done...

I was never so much surprised in my life as I was in this attack! An army of three or four hundred men, after having learned that we were sueing 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, to come forward with a full determination to demolish the few braves I had with me, to retreat when they had ten to one, was unaccountable to me. It proved a different spirit from any I had ever before seen among the pale faces! I expected to see them fight as the Americans did with the British during the last war [the War of 1812], but they had no such braves among them!

I had resolved on 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, (I have always seen it so in war among the whites,) ...Yet instead of this honorable course which I have always practised in war, I was forced into WAR, with about five hundred warriors, to contend against three or four thousand!

What was now to be done? It was worse than folly to turn back and meet an enemy where the odds were so much against us, and thereby sacrifice ourselves, our wives and children, to the fury of an enemy who had murdered some of our brave and unarmed warriors, when they were on a mission to sue for peace!

[Source: Black Hawk's Autobiography]

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