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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

May 14: A Soldier Puts a Spin on Stillman's Run in the Press

Editor's Note:

This account, published in the Sangamo Journal, is typical of the whitewashed versions disseminated to the public after the battle. Modern scholars who have compared all the evidence generally agree that Black Hawk's version (given here yesterday) is closer to the actual facts. Historians are generally agreed that Black Hawk's emissaries carried a white (not red) flag and that he was sincerely trying to avoid war and hold a council when they were attacked by the militia.

Rumors quickly spread after the battle, and many innacurate and self-serving stories such as the one at left were published in Illinois newspapers. This author feebly attempts to defend the militia and its leadership, which had drawn criticsm after the defeat, by mis-stating facts. For example, the militia did not face a force "five times their number" but actually outnumbered Black Hawk's warriors at least six to one and yet fled in chaos. Another recollection of the battle, included on page 3 of this 1891 article Black Hawk Heroes, even claimed that the Sauk attacked the militia while they were asleep.

The regular Army's professional soldiers looked on Stillman's Run with scorn. Colonel Zachary Taylor wrote that the militiamen "became panic struck & fled in the most shameful manner that ever troops were known to do..." Here is how another Army officer recalled it shortly afterwards.

One undebatable consequence of the battle on May 14, 1832, was that it convinced the Sauk and Fox leaders that they would receive no mercy if they tried to surrender. Instead, they prepared for war even though they were vastly outnumbered. In the weeks that followed, small war parties launched guerrilla attacks on frontier settlements, travelers, and miners in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. These were intended to spark terror among the inhabitants and to secure food and supplies for the starving Indian non-combatants as they tried to outrun their pursuers.

Andrew H. Maxfield to the Sangamo Journal

After a pursuit of about five miles up Rock river, we overtook the fugitives, and found them armed with bows and arrows, spears and rifles. At the further edge of a ravine, about 40 rods wide, we recognized a red flag, and ordered them to surrender. This order being disobeyed we fired and brought down three Indians and one poney.

The Indians now rallied to the number of about 30, and moved towards us with moderation. We then fell back across the ravine till we were reinforced by about as many whites. The brave and intrepid coolness displayed by Lieut. Gridley on this occasion, deserves a high eulogy. After much exertion he succeeded in forming the ranks to await the approaching shock of battle. Soon after this we were joined by the main body under Gen. Stillman. Night was now closing fast around us, and as it was not supposed that any great body of Indians were in that vicinity we recrossed the bog and formed a line of battle. A deputation bearing a white flag was seen advancing, and capt. Eads, of Peoria, with two or three other individuals rode forward. At this the flag receded till capt. Eads was drawn into an ambuscade, from which he narrowly escaped. It was now known that this sham was only to give the Indians time to send out their flanks. Stillman now saw his error in crossing the slough, and therefore gave orders to retreat and form on an eminence, about one mile in the rear. The Indians were now seen by the glimmering moon light, on three sides like swarms of summer insects. Our lines were never again formed. Some companies formed and fired, and were thrown into confusion by the retreat of others. A general retreat now followed, and all the exertion of officers was insufficient to arrest the flight. Stillman's last order was to retreat over Sycamore creek, and make a stand on the hill beyond. This order also was disobeyed, and no further orders were given. I remained on the bank of the creek till most of the army had passed. Our camp then resounded as though five hundred men were under the torture of the tomahawk and scalping knife. This noise was undoubtedly made by the Indians as none of the whites were killed at this place.

It has been intimated by many of the main army, that intoxication and cowardice were the causes of our defeat. To such I would say, do better yourselves before you boast. It is true there was, perhaps, one case of inebriation. On our march about ten miles from Sycamore, it was found that baggage wagon was too heavy. One barrel of whiskey was therefore, unheaded and all our canteens filled. A quantity was still left which could not be lost, and was finally saved in a summary way. Stillman, it is true, has been censured for his defeat,—but was any officer ever praised for a defeat? Some say, why did he not form, and make a determined stand? To such I would say, is it possible for one man, or for ten men, to stop the flight of 200? Or would it be prudence for 200 men to stand and see themselves surrounded by five times their number, superior in discipline? as was the fact in this case. On the whole, our escape may be considered fortunate almost to a miracle. The conduct of our captains, without one exception, deserves the highest encomiums on this occasion. From all the information I can obtain, I am of opinion, that not less than 30 Indians fell in this victory of theirs. The bravery of Samuel Hackleton, Esq. of Lewiston, Fulton county, deserves the warmest praise. He commanded the first charge on the Indian spies, and was wounded in a personal conflict

"Here cease we, but ere long a more powerful force
They may expect to take the field against them."

Yours, respectfully, A. H. Maxfield.

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.562.]

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