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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

June 12: Washington Chastises Gen. Atkinson for Inaction

Editor's Note:

In this scathing letter from Washington, the highest officers of the American government express their anger and disappointment at General Henry Atkinson, commander of American forces in the Black Hawk War. Its author, John Robb, was temporarily acting as secretary of war and wrote on behalf of Secretary of War Lewis Cass and President Andrew Jackson.

By mid June, the war was going very badly for the Americans and settlers were increasingly dissatisfied with the military leadership. While new Indian attacks spread terror across the entire mining region of Illinois and Wisconsin and Black Hawk disappeared, Atkinson was hunkered down in Ottawa with his 340 regular soldiers, far away from danger or combat. This created great resentment on the frontier, and critics of the cautious general wrote Washington that the soldiers had abandoned the frontier for their own safety.

The author of this letter also complains that Atkinson was out of touch with his superiors. While letters from Indian agents, militia officers, and politicians streamed into Washington with bad news, the man who was supposed to be leading the war was silent. To Atkinson's credit, he had written two other letters to Washington on May 25 and May 30, but they had not been received when this critical letter was written.

Nevertheless, the residents of the frontier and his superiors in Washington were both dissatisfied with Genl. Atkinson, which would soon lead to his replacement - on June 15 Secretary Cass sent General Winfield Scott west to take charge of the war effort.

Henry Atkinson in the Dictionary of Wisconsin History

John Robb to Henry Atkinson
Department of War, June 12th. 1832.

Sir, Information has reached the Department, from Dixons Ferry, Hen-nepin, Rock Island, Chicago, Detroit, Galena, Prairie du Chien, and St. Louis, of the movements, depredations, and murders, committed by the hostile Indians upon the frontiers, but nothing has been received from you, upon the subject of your movements with the regular and militia forces under your command, since the 10th. of May, when you report your force to be 340 regulars, 165 foot volunteers, and 1,500 mounted men. If you have written subsequently, your communications have not been received.

I am directed by the President to say, that he views with utter astonishment, and deep regret, this state of things. Orders were forwarded to you on the 5th. of May to call upon the Governor of Illinois for such a force as you might deem necessary, to drive the Indians across the river, and if they would not surrender the murderers of the Menomonies, or assumed a hostile attitude, after having recrossed, to forthwith attack, and chastise them.

If the information received at the Department is to be relied upon, (and your report of the 10th. May in which you state your numerical force to be 2,000, corroborates the statements) a force sufficient has been acting with you in the field for some days past, to have effected the object of your expedition. From the instructions given, and the measures adopted by the Department, and the Governor of Illinois, the President had a right to anticipate promptness and decision of action, and a speedy and effectual termination of Indian hostilities, and the capture, or death of Black Hawk, the principal agent in the work of death, and desolation. Some one is to blame in this matter, but upon whom it is to fall, is at present unknown to the Department.

It was expected that you would have despatched expresses daily, from your Head Quarters, to the nearest, and safest point of communication, and have kept the Department advised of your movements, and the state of affairs in the region of country where you were called to act.1

The President is at a loss to account for this remissness, especially, as letters from the seat of war and its vicinity are almost daily received, from the agents of the Government, and others, one of which, dated the 21st. of May, at Prairie du Chien, contains this remarkable sentence, "Is it not strange that no official communication has reached this post from Genl. A: or Govr. R. since the battle near Dixons Ferry—all is rumour and report."

The President directs your particular attention to the subject of this communication, and instructs me to say that Black Hawk, and his party, must be chastised, and a speedy and honorable termination put to this war, which will hereafter deter others from the like unprovoked hostilities by Indians upon our frontiers.

I have &c, &c, (Signed) John Robb Actg. Secretary of War.
Genl. H. Atkinson, Illinois, Via St. Louis.

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.580]

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