Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War
June 16: Henry Dodge Describes The Battle of the Pecatonica
In this long letter to his commanding officer, Col. Henry Dodge describes a battle between the Wisconsin (Michigan Territory) militia and Sauk warriors at 'Horseshoe Bend' on the Pecatonica River the morning of June 16. Three white soldiers and eleven Sauk were killed in the encounter which, allthough of small military importance, was the militia's first victory and a symbolic turning point in the war.
Dodge had just returned from Ottawa, Ill., where he had met with General Atkinson and his 400 regular soldiers. On his return on June 14, he heard news that that very day four farmers had been killed by Sauk warriors on the banks of the Pecatonica. After ordering their bodies to be recovered and buried, Dodge made his way to Fort Hamilton (modern Wiota, Wis.), where this account picks up.
The German mentioned here is Henry Apple, a settler who was heading home from Fort Hamilton. The ambush set on him was most likely meant for Dodge, who went off the main road and just narrowly saved his life.
Although the battle of the Pecatonica was a small one, it was a very important symbolically for Dodge, the militia, and settlers, because it came at the lowest point for whites in the war. The crushing defeat at Stillman's Run a month earlier had been followed by seemingly unstoppable and gruesome Indian attacks across northern Illinois. With General Atkinson in Ottawa and the militia disbanded, the frontier population felt abandoned, vulnerable, and terrified.
Out of this chaos rose Henry Dodge, a rugged and fearless frontier leaders who, unlike his professional army superiors, believed in the militia and was quickly at the scene of action. He had helped to negotiate the ransom of the Hall sisters, and nowhe was the first officer to stand up successfully to the maruading Sauks.
This battle proved that the militia could overcome their two most conspicuous flaws - lack of discipline and cowardice. They waited for Dodge to give the order before riding in search of the attacking Sauk, and awaited Dodge's order to attack, unlike the wild charge that had failed at Stillman's Run. Dodge's company rode, charged, and fired together, and were willing to face death. Dodge showed that under good leadership, the untrained frontier militia could stand up to and beat the Sauk. The names of all the Wisconsin residents who served under Dodge are included in these muster rolls, at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.
Here is a Powder Horn used by a militiaman in Dodge's unit, from the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
Here is a painting of the Pecatonica battlefield made about 20 years after the encounter.
Henry Dodge to Henry Atkinson
Fort Union June 18th 1832
Brigr General Atkinson
On the 16th. I started from my camp accompanied by two men and reached Fort Hamilton at 8 Oclock. Within about 400 yards from the Fort I met a German on horse back; stopped about one minute to talk to him. Eleven of the hostile Indians were lying in ambush within one hundred and fifty yards of the spot, I met the German; I passed on at a gallop and before I reached the Fort I heard three guns. I supposed it was some of Captain Gentries men shooting at a targett. In less than one minute Capt Gentry rode up on the horse of the German. The horse had been shot through the top part of his head. I instantly ordered the mounted men under arms And fortunately for us, The Indians had not more than thirty minutes start of us. After killing, scalping, and butchering the German in a most shocking manner, They retreated through a thickett of undergrowth almost inpassible for horsemen.
They scattered to prevent our following them. Finding we had open prairie around the thickett, I dispatched part of my men to look for the trail of the Indians in the open ground while I formed as large a front as possible to strike the trail, which we soon found in the open ground. In running our horses about two miles I saw them about half a mile ahead trotting along at their ease. They were making for the low ground where it would be difficult for us to pursue them on horseback. Two of the small streams we had to cross were so steep as to oblige us to dismount, Jump our horses about four feet down the banks of them, and to force our way over them the best way we could. This delay again gave them the start - but my horses being good, I gained on them rapidly. They were directing their course to a bend of the Pickatolica covered with a deep swamp which they reached before I could cross that Stream, Owing to the steepness of the banks and the depth of the water.
After crossing the Pickatollica In the open ground I dismounted my command, twenty nine in number, Linked my horses, and left four men in charge of them, And sent four men in different directions to watch the movements of the Indians if they should attempt to swim the Pickatollica. They were placed on high points that would give them a complete view of the enemy should they attempt to retreat. I formed my men on foot at open order & at trail arms. We proceeded through the swamp to some timber and undergrowth where I expected to find them; when I found their trail I knew they were close at hand. They had got close to the edge of the Lake where the bank was about six feet high, which was a complete breastwork for them
They commenced their fire when three of my men fell, Two dangerously wounded, One severely but not dangerously. I instantly ordered a charge on them made by eighteen men which was promptly obeyed. The Indians being under the bank, our guns were brought within six feet of them before we could fire on them. Their party consisted of Eleven men. Nine of them were killed on the spot and the remaining two killed in crossing the Lake so that they were left without one to carry the news to their Friends. The Volunteers under my command behaved with great galantry. It would be impossible for me to discriminate among them. At the word charge The men rushed forward and literally shot the Indians all to pieces. We were Indians & Whites on a piece of ground not to exceed 40 feet square
A part of the scalps was given to the Sioux & Menomonies as well as the Winnabagoes. Col. Hamilton had arrivd with [those] Indians about one hour after our defeat of the hostile Sacks. The Friendly Indians appeared delighted with the scalps; they went to the ground where the Indians were killed and cut them literally to pieces...
I am Dear General with Sentiments of regard and Esteem
Your Friend and Obedient Servant
H Dodge Col
Commanding Michigan Militia
[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.622]