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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

June 16: Peter Parkinson Recalls the Battle of the Pecatonica

Editor's Note:

This stirring account of the Battle of the Pecatonica was written by Peter Parkinson, Jr. Born in Tennessee, he joined his father at the New Diggings mine (in Lafayette County, Wis.) in 1828. After serving in the militia during the Black Hawk War, he settled permanently with his brother in Fayette township. He went on to serve as a Wisconsin state assembleyman untill his retriement in 1855. Here is more information on Peter Parkinson and his father in the Dictionary of Wisconsin History.

Here Parkinson recounts the Battle of Pecatonica, which occured on the morning of Jun 17 at Horseshoe Bend. Here is a map of the battle site.

Although of little military significance, the Battle of the Pecatonica was a symbolic turning point for many whites, and the details Parkinson draws attention to in this account reveal why. He shows Col. Henry Dodge as a resolute, fearless commander who brought out the best qualities of the militia and led them to victory. Dissatisfaction with Gov. John Reynolds and General Henry Atkinson were at an all time high in June, and Dodge was fast becoming the rising star of the Black Hawk War. He wished to rejuvinate the demoralized militia, and during the war he made his reputation as a defender and leader of the common people that eventually propelled him to be first governor of Wisconsin Territory. You can learn more about him here.

Parkinson refers to the embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Stillman's Run and the cowardice of the militia, when says "the most terrific yell of the savage foe, that had so successfully and unfortunately frightened and terrified the Illinois forces upon all previous occasions." Unlike that battle, where militiamen completely ignored their officers in their spontaneous attack and hasty retreat, at the Pecatonica "The order for the charge was instantly given, and as instantly obeyed."

This small victory was the first step in redeeming the reputation of the militia. The utter failure of the volunteers to stand up to Black Hawk's forces had made them feel inferior to the clever and brave Indian warriors. Their failure in battle, and especially their inability to protect frontier women and children, doubt their competence. The Battle of the Pecatonica was the beginning of their redemption, and Parkinson's claim that the battle turned the "tide of war" shows how important it was in the minds of many militamen.

Here is the full Notes on the Black Hawk War by Peter Parkinson. The account of the battle begins on page 193.

Col. Dodge addressed the [militia company at Fort Hamilton]... by saying. "I shall start immediately in pursuit of the Indians, and I shall overtake them before I stop. Mark the language - I shall overtake them before I stop; and when I do overtake them, I shall charge sword in hand, let their numbers be what they may. If there are any in the ranks who feel as if they cannot do this, I want them to fall into the rear, for I want no cowards with me." But not a man fell back - all were eager for the chase...

[After crossing the Pecatonica and reaching the Sauk war party, concealed in a thicket, the militia was ordered to attack.]

We knew we were advancing upon a hidden foe, who were closely concealed in some advantageous position, from which they must inevitably have the first cool and deliberate fire, their numbers being but a few less than ours; and for aught we then knew, might be much superior. Still, the brave and gallant leader, not any of his men, seemed the least abashed or dismayed, but advanced into the dense thicket, with boldness and determination visibly depicted upon every countenance.

We marched in extended line, with the trail about the center. After advancing about one hundred and fifty yards through the dense thicket, and within sixty feet of the Indians, who were completely concealed under the bank of a slough, at least six feet high, the stillness and suspense of the occasion was suddenly broken by the Indian guns and the shrill whistle of the bullets, that passed so neat our heads that we could feel the force of them. All was accompanied by the most terrific yell of the savage foe, that had so successfully and unfortunately frightened and terrified the Illinois forces upon all previous occasions. At this fire, three of our brave volunteers were brought to the ground. Wells, Morris and Black received fatal shots; while Jenkins was soon afterwards severely wounded. The order for the charge was instantly given, and as instantly obeyed. The Indians occupied about the same position of the trail that we did the trail being about their center as well as ours. This brought us together, face to face, breast to breast.

The contest was a terrific one, - a hand to hand encounter. The Indians' tomahawk and spear were pitted against the white man's bayonet and breech. The conflict was deadly and decisive. Steel clashed against steel, and the woods resounded with the most terrific yell of the savages. But in the end the bayonet and the breech were triumphantly successful. The last Indian was killed and scalped, and not one left to tell old Black Hawk, their chieftain, the sad tale of their wholesale disaster.

In this contest the tide of war was turned against them. In this battle they were as badly whipped and beaten as they had been successful in whipping all with whom they had hitherto come into contact. In this fight, Col. Dodge made good his words spoken to Capt. Gratiot at the Blue Mounds. He showed the Indians that we were not of the soft-shelled breed, as they had said we were.

[Source: Parkinson, Jr., Peter. Notes on the Black Hawk War. (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Collections, Volume X, 1888) p. 193-196]

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