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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

May 18, Sangamo Journal: Laying the Blame for Stillman's Run

Editor's Note:

This letter from an anonymous officer of the army was published in the Sangamo Journal May 18, 1832.

Many participants in the Battle of Stillman's Run published first-hand accounts in Illinois newspapers, usually casting themselves in some heroic part. Articles like this one usually defended the honor of the militia and the reputation of the author. Since many militia officers were likely to run for office in the elections scheduled for August, 1832, they tried to manage their reputations in the press. By writing anonymously, the author of this particular article could be honest in his criticism without fear of retribution.

This anonymous author is generally correct about the facts of the battle, though there were 11 (not 12) militiamen killed and Black Hawk's force was about 50 (not 100). His overall view of the militia as undisciplined amateurs was typical of professional soldiers' attitudes towards the Illinois volunteers.

The following Letter, from An Officer of the Army, is published at the request of the writer, who pledges himself for the correctness of the statements, contained therein....

Head-Quarters, Dixon's, on Rock River, May 18, 1832.

Dear Sir: Gen. Atkinson... Before this reaches you, rumour will have told you all about the battle between Maj. Stillman's men and the Indians. The facts in relation to this affair, can probably never be truly known. From the best information I have been able to obtain from the officers and men; and from what I know myself, the facts are about these:

About 260 men had been embodied under the command of Major Stillman, and were at this place when we were received into the service of the United States, at Rock Island. When we arrived here, Gov. Reynolds requested Gen. Whiteside to take command of these men, and order them up Rock River, to attack the Indians; the Gen. refused to do so, saying, that as he had been received into service, and was then acting under orders from General Atkinson, he did not feel authorized to take or assume the command of any other troops than his own brigade; and, stated further,that he did not approve of the expidition; for if it was necessary to order out 2,000 men to whip these Indians, it was certainly erroneous policy to order 200 men to make an attack, when they could not be supported by the main body.

Notwithstanding this, the Governor ordered them out, and about 30 miles from this place, they came up with the Indians and made an attack on them, killed 6 or 8, and then when the Indians rallied, our men gave way and run in confusion to their camps. They were pursued by the Indians, and while our men were retreating with their commander some distance ahead, the Indians killed and mangled 12 of those who were in the rear. The stregth of the Indians is variously estimated, from 60-1,000; the most probable number is about 100...

No man can say when our campaign will be ended - my own impression is, that we are to have a bloody battle before we leave here; and the life of many a valient fellow will have to be sacrificed to repair the loss and disgrace, occasioned by the ignorance and cowardice of two or three men.

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.387]

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