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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

July 1: A Veteran Describes the Hapless Militia

Editor's Note:

This highly critical letter was written for publication in the Illinois Advocate of Edwardsville, where John Sawyer was the editor. This was the follow-up to another letter sent June 21 [see this previous entry], but it is unknown if either were printed.

The letter's author, 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.

It would have been politically unwise to print such letters, which questioned the very basis of the war on Black Hawk. Although many articles were printed that criticized the execution of the war and its leadership, none argued that it was unnecesarry or wrong, as Orr does when he claims that Black Hawk had no hostile intentions.

Orr's criticism of the militia was nevertheless well-founded and widely believed. Many had volunteered in April expecting a brief adventure and glory fighting Indians; others saw militia service as a way to gain popularity before the upcoming elections in August. Few of them had any military training or experience, and while they certainly had enthusiasm for killing Indians, they had none for military discipline.

Many officers were no better qualified than their subordinates, as they were elected by the popular vote of their men. The frontier attitude and lifestyle in general was uneasy with all forms of authority, and the miners and farmers of the wild frontier who made up the militia were often unwilling to submit to any formal chain of command. These flaws in the militia and its leadership led to the terrible failure at Stillman's Run on May 14th, and so as Orr suggests, may have sparked an unnecessary war.

Report of William Orr to John Y. Sawyer
July 1, 1832

No citizen of our young state can feel more proud of it [the militia], or more sensitive in any thing touching its honor and its interests, and although holding but the place of a private in the Brigade, no one would have been more elated than myself, or returned home with more proud satisfaction, if its operations had been crowned with success.

But so far from this being the case, I feel the strongest conviction that it would have been fortunate to the state and to the frontiers more especially if it had never been called into action. I cannot be persuaded that the Indians crossed our border with any hostile intention beyond that of raising corn for their subsistence, and whilst I freely grant that this was an infraction of the treaty of Rock Island, I must be permitted to contend that the manner in which we have attempted to repel it was as unwise and injudicious as the result has proved disastrous and inglorious...

Our sympathies have been powerfully enlisted in behalf of those who have been overtaken in battle; and if these individuals have been lost to their friends and to society unexpectedly by the incapacity of those who would be officers, it is now but right and fair that they should hear the truth and look responsibility in the face.

Where has fled the military capacity and capability of heroic achievement for which our countrymen have heretofore been pre-eminently distinguished? Why is it that a mere fugitive band of Indians in number insufficient to make one complete regiment should thus long baffle our efforts and those of the United States to co-erce them into an observance of their compacts, and even defeat us in battle? The fault does not lie in the men; it would be an outrage upon the known patriotism of our citizens to say that it it does. The alacrity with which they obeyed the call to arms will forever place them high in the estimation of our common country, and it will long be regretted that they were not more ably officered.

But wherein does blame really attach to the officers? The explanation is by no means difficult. They never drilled the men, or made any thing like an attempt to practice them in the necessary evolutions. The whole time that I was out I never witnessed a company drill, a battalion drill, a regimental drill, nor a Brigade drill - and what will still more demonstrate the absence of all military usage, I never heard a roll call in the whole Brigade from the time of its organization.... There was a total absence of discipline; - orders were obeyed or disobeyed as suited the pleasure or convenience of the men; and in this way men may grow grey in service without becoming soldiers.

A citizen of St. Clair County

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

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