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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

July 9, Whitewater Creek, Wis.: Gen. Atkinson Writes to Gen. Scott

Editor's Note:

In the middle of the swamp campaign against Black Hawk, General Henry Atkinson wrote this letter to the new commanding general of American forces, Winfield Scott, several miles east of Lake Koshkonong.

Showing little hope for success, the cautious Atkinson describes the difficulties of the campaign, the elusiveness of Black Hawk, and his own lack of information. Scott had been sent from Washington D.C. on June 15 with an army of 900 infantry to Illinois (see this previous entry), but it was hoped the Atkinson would have finished the job by the time he arrived.

The swamp campaign to find Black Hawk had began in late June, when infantry and militia converged in southern Wisconsin and marched together to Lake Koshkonong. Expecting to find all of Black Hawk's Band encamped here, they found nothing but an old, starving Sauk who had been left behind. Following the trails left by the 1,000 men, women and children of Black Hawk's community, the disillusioned army trudged northeast, always just behind their elusive enemy. Their horses and artillery made the journey extremely difficult, and Atkinson here writes that he thinks the cannons would be completely useless.

However, Washington felt little sympathy for Atkinson, who appeared overly cautious during the war. When this letter reached Washington, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Alexander Macomb (1782-1841) said he considered it "by no means satisfactory... [Atkinson] seems full of despair of bringing [the Indians]... to action, if the Indians are determined to decline fighting."

Macomb also sensed Atkinson's willingness to wait and let Gen. Scott finish the war for him. However, what Atkinson did not know was that Scott's army of 900 infantry had fallen victim to cholera, which quickly spread through the transport boats that had carried the troops west from New York. In fact, Scott's army would never get beyond Chicago, and by the time Atkinson defeated Black Hawk at the Battle of Bad Axe on August 1, more than half of Scott's 900 troops would have died or deserted.

Henry Atkinson to Winfield Scott

Genl: Atkinson To Genl Scott
Head Qrs: of the Army
on Rock River Camp, On White Water

July 9th. 1832

...I had been advised by the Secr of War of your approach with a large body of Troops to put an end to this perplexing and difficult Indian War. I am gratified at the measure adopted by the government in this instance and particularly as you are placed in the General command.

As yet the hostile Indians have eluded my pursuit, altho' I have been for several days in a few miles of a part or the whole of them. The country is so cut up with Prairie, wood and swamp, that it is extremely difficult to approach them. Indeed many parts of the country for miles is entirely un-passable, even on foot. We are engaged at this moment in throwing a Bridge across this creek (White Water) with a view of getting up with the enemy, who is represented to be only five or six miles before us. Yet if he chooses he can easily elude us, by changing his position over ground our Mounted Troops cannot pass...

The enemy are represented to be from seven to eight hundred strong, well armed and provided with Powder and ball. My own force consists of four hundred and fifty regular Troops, and about Twenty one hundred Mounted Volunteers, under Generals Dodge, Posey, Alexander and Henry, but all fresh from their homes except the two hundred and fifty under Dodge, who have in part had a little experience [at the Battle of the Pecatonica]

I must try and come up with the enemy by Tomorrow if possible or I shall have to suspend operations for several days, as I have not three days' provisions on hand & I must march the mounted men to the nearest Depots, Fort Winebago Thirty five miles & Hamilton's, forty five. This is an unfortunate circumstance. I shall however hold the enemy in check by taking a position on the river with the regular Troops Till a supply arrives—& I shall not press matters unnecessarily before your arrival, agreeably to your suggestion, I will detach a part of the mounted force to join you on your march.

You speak of bringing with you two six pounders and one Howitz. Artilery will be of but little service to us unless the Indians fortify, which it is not likely they will do, nor do I think they will let us come up with them only in some thick Wood. I have with me one six pounder and a hundred rounds of Ball and grape, which I am doubtful of being able to use. The position of the enemy is now in a thick Wood surrounded by swamps. If I come up with him I think it doubtful, with the description of force I have, I shall succeed easily...

I have about 100 Pottowattomies, and a few Menomonies and Wine-bagoes [Ho-Chunk]: they seem to be sincere in their friendships, and it is not probable that many disaffected of the first or last-named tribes have joined the enemy; indeed I have no positive information that any have. Yet, if the number of the enemy is as much as eight hundred, some must have joined. The surrounding tribes seem more disposed to be neutral than taking part with us

I found it necessary to urge the Pottowattomies to take sides, not that I wanted their strength, but, to know where to find them.

Since writing this morning the several parties sent out to discover where the enemy is posted have returned, and we find that he has advanced further up the country, probably twelve miles. I expect in six days to be enabled to march in pursuit, of this however I will advise you

(signed) H. Atkinson Brigr Genl U.S. Army

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.752]

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