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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

June 21: A Soldier Denounces Gov. Reynolds in the Illinois Advocate

Editor's Note:

This highly critical letter was mailed to John Sawyer, the editor of the Illinois Advocate in Edwardsville, but it is unknown if it was printed. Orr sent a follow-up letter on July 1.

Private William Orr came to St. Louis from New York in 1818, eventually settling in Kaskaskia, Ill. Here he served as editor of the Kaskaskia Republican and the Illinois Republican, and served in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War. He died of cholera in 1834 or 1836.

His letter exhibits the wide-spread dissatisfaction with American leadership in the Black Hawk War. In the face of the utter failure to capture Black Hawk, everyone looked for someone to blame. The Illinois militia, General Atkinson, William Clark, and here Illinois Governor John Reynolds all came under harsh criticism for causing or perpetuating the Black Hawk War.

Orr's complaints about the over-enthusiastic Governor are valid. He remarks upon how the war was used as a political promotion for the Governor. Nicknamed "the Old Ranger" from his service in the War of 1812, Reynolds was an avid Indian-hater and crafted a public image of manliness and hostility toward Indians to serve his political ambitions. Orr correctly argues here that waging war against Black Hawk was the responsibility of the U.S. Army under General Atkinson, and not of the undisciplined, amateur local militia.

Orr also questions the threat posed by Black Hawk in the first place, correctly observing Black Hawk's intention to act only defensively - a fact which the chief had communicated to the white leadership, but which they had kept secret from the public.

Here is another article critical of Gov. Reynolds printed during the Black Hawk War.

Report of William Orr to John Sawyer, Editor of the Illinois Advocate

Mr. Sawyer,...

I must be permitted here to state that I arrived at Bairdstown, the place of rendezvous, with a mind entirely unbiassed against the commander-in-chief [Illinois Governor John Reynolds], and well assured of the necessity of the expedition... I could not then have been made to believe that at so important a season of the year, particularly to the farmer, we would have been prematurely, if not unnecessarily called from our homes.

But during our halt at that place, the shameful and ludicrous principle on which places were filled on the one hand, and electioneering importunities and solicitations on the other, caused many of us to pause for a moment and reflect whether we were not going on some frivolous holiday excursion, and not to encounter hostile Indians. True it is, those who volunteered to serve their country were highly disgusted with the political manoeuvres there displayed by our worthy and chivalrous governor...

The Indians crossed at Rock Island, and passed Dixon's ferry on Rock River without committing one overt act of hostility; persons and property were alike respected by them. From this fact it may be inferred, that it was not their intention to become the aggressors, but to act upon the defensive... the first step, on our part, certainly should have been to have placed a small guard upon the frontier settlements, and thus to have insured their safety, let the disturbance have assumed whatever aspect it might afterwards. More than this was not the duty of the governor in the then state of things; the coercion and punishment of the Indians was a matter that devolved exclusively upon the United States.

But the governor seems only to have taken into consideration the fact that the Indians had shown themselves within the limits of the state in defiance of the late treaty, and his warlike disposition (or rather, the electioneering mania that seems to have taken possession of him) induced him, without ever consulting the critical situation of the country, hastily and prematurely to call out a force that could only be justified by a formidable invasion... In the two encounters that have taken place our men as might have been expected were shamefully whipped, and in the last instance, by an inferior force of Indians.

If Gen. Atkinson, with a force of three hundred United States Infantry, and one piece of artillery deems it unsafe to march in pursuit of the enemy, why did Gov. Reynolds order the detachment under Maj. Stillman of only about two-hundred and sixty raw volunteers to pursue the Indians up Rock River where it was to be apprehended their main force would be encountered [at the Battle of Stillman's Run]?

This was the capital error, this was the grand blunder which caused the total and miserable failure of the whole campaign, and Gov. Reynolds need no more attempt to escape the responsibility of this act than he need attempt to prove that there is one military atom in his whole organization...

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p. 724-729]

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