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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

July 8, Fort Gratiot, Mich.: Cholera Strikes Down Gen. Winfield Scott's Army

Editor's Note:

Gen. Winfield Scott (1786-1866) had been put in charge of the war on June 15th after President Andrew Jackson and Secretary of War Lewis Cass had lost all patience with the timid Henry Atkinson (see this previous entry). Unfortunately, as Scott headed west with hundreds of fresh troops, they were exposed to cholera at Buffalo, N.Y.

The excerpt at left is from a biography of Scott written in 1858, and describes in florid language the effects of the cholera epidemic on his military plans. In 1832, the Asiatic cholera swept through Europe and America, quickly claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. This deadly diarrheal disease is spread through contaminated food and water; once infected, victims usually died within a few days. Its primary symptom was massive diarrhea, and victims might quickly lose up to 36 liters of fluids. Without proper treatment and rehydration, the death rate was usually a devastating 50%. Cholera epidemics were among the greatest fears of pioneer settlers through the middle of the 19th century.

Scott's army never made it past Chicago, never fought a single battle, and yet suffered the most American casualties of the Black Hawk War. Packed onto crowded, unsanitary river boats, cholera spread through his regiments like wildfire. By the time the troops reached Michigan Territorry, several of the boats were quarantined, and hundreds of Scott's troops died or fled for their lives. By the time Scott finally reached Gen. Atkinson on August 3, Black Hawk had been defeated and more than half of Scott's reinforcements had died or deserted without ever firing a shot.

For a modern investigation into cholera on the Wisconsin frontier, including details about its effect on the Black Hawk War in 1832 and how public health officials in Milwaukee attempted to eradicate it in 1849-50, see this article from the Wisconsin Magazine of History.


This was the enemy, the conqueror of conquerors, which attacked [General Winfield] Scott's expedition up the lakes, and soon destroyed all its power or utility as a military corps...

Scott had, as we have said, embarked at Buffalo for Chicago, in the beginning of July, with nearly a thousand men, in four steamboats. On the 8th of July, while on the bosom of the lake, the cholera broke out among the troops with great fatality...

The troops were landed near Fort Gratiot, at the lower end of Lake Huron, in the neighborhood of which they in a few days met with most extraordinary sufferings. We have before us two accounts of the scenes there, and both authentic statements of actual witnesses.

One is written to the Journal of Commerce, apparently by an officer. It says, July 10:

"Our detachment, which consisted of about four hundred, has dwindled down to about one hundred and fifty, by pestilence and desertion.

"The dead bodies of the deserters are literally strewed along the road between here and Detroit. No one dares give them relief, not even a cup of water. A person on his way from Detroit here, passed six lying groaning with the agonies of the cholera, under one tree, and saw one corpse, by the road side, half eaten up by the hogs!"

Mr. Norvell, of Detroit, writes thus to the editor of the Philadelphia Enquirer.

"These troops, you will recollect, landed from the steamboat Henry Clay, below Fort Gratiot. A great number of them have been swept off by the disease.

"Nearly all the others have deserted. Of the deserters scattered all over the country, some have died in the woods, and their bodies have been devoured by the wolves. I use the language of a gallant young officer. Others have taken their flight to the world of spirits, without a companion to close their eyes, or console the last moments of their existence. Their straggling survivors are occasionally seen marching, some of them know not whither, with their knapsacks on their backs, shunned by the terrified inhabitants as the source of a mortal pestilence."

[Source: Mansfield, Edward D.; Scott, Winfield, Life and Services of General Winfield Scott, Including the Siege of Vera Cruz, the Battle of Cerro Gordo, and the Battles in the Valley of Mexico, to the Conclusion of Peace, and His Return to the United States (New York: A.S. Barnes and Co. 1852): p. 205.]

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