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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

May 19 & 20, Galena, Ill: "If Tears Were of Use I Could Shed Them"

Editor's Note:

Galena, Illinois, where this long letter was written, was the center of the lead mining country and the only city of significant size within the theater of war. Outlying farmers and miners flocked to it as the news of Stillman's Run spread through the region.

The letter's author, Horatio Newhall (1798-1870), was a Massachusetts native. He graduated from Harvard University in 1821 and moved to to Bond County, Illinois, to pursue a career as a physician. During the Black Hawk War he served as an army surgeon, managing the government hospital set up in Galena to serve the army at Rock Island.

In the first part of this letter to his brother, he describes how the war affected Galena. Work and daily life were disrupted throughout the lead-mining region as miners and farmers left their work for the protection of forts and towns.

The second half, written just as Newhall heard the news of a friend's death, provide a rare glimpse into the raw emotions produced by the war. William Durley was killed near present day Polo, Illinois while delivering a message from Galena to Dixon's Ferry. As the letter shows, Newhall's suffering and loss immediately inspired an intense desire for violent revenge.

No records survive to describe the similar feelings of loss, fear and anger felt by the thousand non-combatant men, women, and children of Black Hawk's band. Forced from their homeland and abandoned by supposed friends and allies, they were trapped in a war they did not want to fight and knew that they could not win. Like Newhall and many white settlers, they also grieved the deaths of friends and family, and vowed revenge.

Horatio Newhall to Isaac Newhall
May 19th 1832

Dear Brother, .... We had four Steam Boat arrivals yesterday, and one this morning. One from Prairie du Chien with arms, one from Rock Island with arms and Cannon, and the others from St Louis. The Steam Boat "Dove" is impressed for the use of the town. Every man here is a soldier. A guard is stationed on every Boat to prevent able bodied men from going off. We are building a stockade in the Centre of the town, to fly to, in case of emergency. We have fifty mounted riflemen, who act as rangers, making a circuit about 15 miles from town, and a guard detailed, every night, of 40 men, on the skirts of the village. My Rifle & pistols are by my bedside every night. Great alarm prevails thro' the country, but I think there can be but little danger here. By the "Galenian" I send you, and by the Galenian "Extra" you will learn all the news[about the Battle of Stillman's Run]. Except that the army have since gone out to bury the dead, and found but twelve dead, and these scalped & horridly mangled.

Mr. Dougherty, who married a half breed Winnebago, and lives among them, arrived in town to day, says they notified him to remove, as his life was in danger; that the Rock River band of Winnebagoes had declared war against U States and joined the British band of Sacks. We sent an express to the main army yesterday and will hear the news this evening. I will inform you, by postscript, what is going on. Galena is crowded with people who have flocked here for protection. I am appointed Surgeon to the Galena forces, & draw pay accordingly...

2 o'clock P.M Awful news has this moment arrived. Our Express which we sent to the main army yesterday has this moment returned. It consisted of six men, fine young men who volunteered their services, when within twelve miles of Dixons' ferry where the main army is supposed to be, they were suddenly surprised by a party of Indians, who fired on them. Mr. Durley was shot dead. He exclaimed "O God" & died. Mr. Smith had a Ball pass thro' his hat half an inch above his head. They have just arrived all but poor Durley. He was a good young man, and of a very respectable family. He was my friend; if tears were of use I could shed them for months. I have known him for ten years. His little nephew is now at my elbow weeping for the awful death of his unkle. If there is any thing on earth I now most desire, it is to kill Indians enough to avenge the death of Durley. I have no doubt the main army is completely surrounded by Indian Spies. No communication can go from them to us, or from us to them. We have satisfactory evidence of the fact. Our fort here goes on bravely. To day is Sunday, but all hands are at work. As the boat will not start until morning, I leave my letter unsealed for further news.

Monday morning May 20th

No more news. I did not perceive until I had written thus far, that I was on the 4th page, I shall therefore be compelled to put this under cover & compel you to pay double postage. Remember me to all my friends
Yours truly Horatio Newhall

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.393]

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