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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

May 22: Washington Demands "Energetic Measures"

Editor's Note:

U.S. Army General Alexander Macomb, jr. (1782-1841), who wrote this order to Atkinson, had been a soldier for more than 30 years and won a key victory against the British in the War of 1812. He had been appointed top commanding officer of the American Army by President John Quincy Adams four years earlier, in 1828.

This note reveals that high officials in Washington knew about Black Hawk's expressed desire to surrender and return west of the Mississippi, but simply did not trust his word. Only a year before, in June 1831, he had promised not to cross back into Illinois, and yet he had done so in April 1832. Officials feared that if he was not severely punished, Native American leaders of all the frontier tribes would not respect the power and authority of the U.S. government, and would continue to attack white settlers as they had at Indian Creek. Washington did not want Black Hawk to become a symbol of successful Indian resistance.

They had intended the American response to Black Hawk to be swift and powerful, to prove the futility of disobeying U.S. authority. Instead, their punitive actions had been delayed by the slow-moving regular Army and bungled by the local militia. By late May it was clear that the war would take much longer than officials had previously thought.

Alexander Macomb to Henry Atkinson
Head Quarters of the Army Washington
22 May 1832

Sir: It is understood that Black Hawk, and his associates, finding that the Pottawatomies and Winnebagos are unwilling to join them in their contemplated hostilities, have determined to surrender the murderers of the Menomenees [see previous entry], and to retreat across the Mississippi.

The character of Black Hawk is such that no confidence can be placed in what he may promise, nor is there any security for his better conduct in future. It is therefore the President's order that Black Hawk be demanded of his associates, with other hostiges, and if his band continue embodied or refuse to deliver him up with the hostiges required, that you attack and disperse them, taking if possible, Black Hawk, and a sufficient number of prisoners.

It is firmly believed that unless energetic measures are taken at this time with Black Hawk and his band, the same outrages on the frontiers of Illinois will be repeated annually to the great annoyance and disquiet of the frontier settlements, attended with endless expense to the United States.

I have the honor to be respectfully Sir
Your obedient servant
Al: Macomb, Major General
Brt. Brigadier General Henry Atkinson
Comg. on the Upper Mississippi

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.409]

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