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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

June 1, Dixon's Ferry: "Our difficulties thicken on us daily"

Editor's Note:

In this letter, Col. Zachary Taylor informs his commander, General Henry Atkinson, of the mounting panic in the lead mining region and the attack on Felix St. Vrain [See this previous entry].

In late May and early June of 1832, all of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin were panic stricken. The miltia, their morale broken by the defeat at Stillman's Run, were on the verge of outright mutiny, and every week came new reports about roaming Sauk warriors attacking settlers across the countryside. Farmers and miners, whose homesteads were spread out across the open prairies, were vulnerable and terrified.

Colonel Taylor recognized the political significance of these failures, and typical of a professional soldier, showed a distaste for the undisciplined militia. In another letter to Gen. Atkinson on June 2 he wrote: "The more I see of the militia, the less confidence I have in their effecting any thing of importance; & therefore tremble not only for the safety of the frontiers, but for the reputation of those who command them, who have any reputation to lose."

Despite such reservations by professional soldiers, Illinois Governor John Reynolds was still raising 2,000 new militiamen to join the war effort. The Illinois volunteers might be hapless and untrained, but they were at least aggressively pursuing Black Hawk and engaging with him. The regular army troops, in constrast, remained at Dixon's Ferry constructing their base of operations. Tasks that U.S. Army Gen. Atkinson viewed as proper tactics and preparation, Gov. Reynolds and others in the militia saw as timidity and procrastination.

Zachary Taylor (1784-1850), born in Virginia and raised on a Kentucky plantation, was a career Army officer who spent 40 years in the military, much of it fighting Native Americans on the frontier. Taylor, who had been commander at Fort Crawford before the war, served as a colonel during the Black Hawk War. In 1849 he was elected the twelth president of the United States but died only a year later from an illness contracted at a 4th of July celebration.

Zachary Taylor to Henry Atkinson
Camp on Rock River
June 1st. 1832


Genl...

Our difficulties thicken on us daily, the people of Galena are perfectly panic struck, Majr. Stephenson arrived here on Monday with 75 men from that place, & gives the most dreadful account of the alarm, & distress of the of the whole mining country... Stephenson brings the unwelcome intelligence that St. Vrain who left here for R[ock]. Island in company with six others, had been killed with two of the party about 30 miles from this near the road to Galena. An attack was no doubt made on the Block house at the mouth of plum river, but no one killed, since which the place has been abandoned. Great fears are entertained for Col. Hamilton, who had not been heard of when Majr S. left Galena.

In order to ascertain the fate of St. Vrain, & to inter his remaines, if they can be found, as well as to quiet the fears of the people I shall send Capt Snider to Galena tomorrow with 35 men, in order to ascertain the situation of affairs between this, & the former place, so that you may have a correct knowledge of affairs in that quarter when Capt S. returns. Report says, that 30, or more Indians crossed the Mississippi, a few days since, not far above the r[ock]. river rapids, this I think quite pobable as I still think they will try & elude you by making their escape from the country...

Wishing you health & success I remain, Dr Genl,
Yours with respect & Esteem,
Z. Taylor



[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.499]

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