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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

June 15: Washington Replaces Atkinson with Gen. Winfield Scott

Editor's Note:

In this order, Secretary of War Lewis Cass made Gen. Winfield Scott the new commander of American forces in the Black Hawk War. Once arriving in Chicago, he was to replace the overly cautious Gen. Henry Atkinson, who had frustrated both frontier settlers and his superiors in Washington through his inaction. Cass also authorized another 600 regular troops and extended militia service terms to three months. He hoped that these changes would deliver the quick victory against Black Hawk that everyone had expected in April.

This letter also outlines a post-war plan of total Indian removal from the entire region. Despite the fact that many tribes were fighting with the Americans against Black Hawk, Cass was convinced that the frontier would not be secure without the total removal of all Indians west of the Mississippi. When he had earlier served as Territorial Governor of Michigan, Cass was one of the strongest proponents of Indian Removal Policy [see this previous entry], and the Black Hawk War provided the perfect pretext for the expansion of the policy throughout the Midwest.

Major General Winfield Scott (1786-1866) is one of the most famous and the longest serving generals in American history. During his long career, he served in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War, and the Civil War. He also served as a diplomat and was a candidate for president in 1852 (he lost to Franklin Pierce).

Secretary of War Cass hoped that this accomplished general would turn the tide against Black Hawk, but that was not to be the case. Although Gen. Scott moved rapidly to recruit troops and obtain equipment for his army, while in New York the troops were exposed to Asiatic cholera. Just outside Buffalo the first cases appeared on the troop ships, and death often followed infection. By the time the ships reached Chicago, his force had dwindled from 800 to 150 due to disease and desertion, and Scott and his reinforcements had little impact on the war.

Lewis Cass to Winfield Scott
Department of War June 15th 1832

Sir, You will proceed without delay to Chicago, & assume the command of the regular troops & militia in the service of the United States, operating upon the frontiers of Illinois, Indiana & Michigan, against the hostile Indians...

The nature of the warfare is so distressing to the whole frontier, that every principle of policy & humanity requires, it should be brought to a termination without delay. As little should be left to the contingencies of such a campaign as possible, & the President is desirous of guarding against any reverses, which, tho' they are not anticipated, may yet happen...

It is hoped, that the force [of 3,000 militia and 400 regular troops] already upon that frontier, & that which is now ordered, will be found sufficient to subdue & chastise the Indians. In addition to this, a bill has just passed Congress, providing for raising 600 mounted men, to serve one year. This corps will be enlisted & organised without delay, & ordered to the scene of action. Should circumstances, however, require any additional force, you are authorised to call upon the Governors of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana & Michigan for such an amount as you may find necessary. The Executives of these States & the Executive of Michigan have been requested to supply any call you may make. But no militia will be received into service, for a shorter period than three months from the time of their arrival at the place of rendezvous, to be disbanded previously, if their services should be no longer required. The enormous expense & the utter inefficiency of the troops, when shorter periods are permitted, render this regulation indispensable...

It is very desirable, that the whole country between Lake Michigan & the Mississippi, & south of the Ouisconsin, should be freed from the Indians; & with this view, you will endeavor to prevail upon the friendly or neutral Chiefs of those tribes, if such there be, who have not principally been engaged in these hostilities, to cede their claims, & to remove west of the Mississippi. Reasonable stipulations, respecting temporary annuities, subsistence &c, similar to those recently made in the treaties with the South western Indians, may be granted to them. If any considerable proportion, tho' not a majority, of the tribes east of the Mississippi, & west of Lake Michigan, should have taken up arms against the United States, the same proportion of the country possessed by them will be required; the boundaries to be amicably arranged with those who have not engaged in this warfare. This measure is not only just in itself, as the United States agree to provide them another country, but is required by a due regard to the future. If their government is so weak, that the disaffected cannot be restrained, the tribe has no right to object to a division of interest, for the purposes of peace, which was allowed, if not created by themselves, for the purposes of war. Besides, if this aggression passes by without some effectual preventive, our frontiers will be still exposed to the same calamity, & the spirit of disaffection will extend to the other tribes.

This Department cannot judge what proportion of the Sacs & Foxes is engaged in this conflict; but whatever it may be, the principles above stated will apply to them... But, if possible, it would be desirable to induce Keokuk & the other friendly Sacs & Foxes to relinquish their right to any of the country upon the Mississippi. By this measure, the probability of future difficulties would be removed, & the frontier greatly strengthened...

I am Sir, Very respectfully Your obt Svt., Signed
Lewis Cass.

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.590]

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