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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

July 12: "The Most Painful Situation Which Can Well Be Imagined"

Editor's Note:

Cass had ordered Scott to Illinois on June 15 to take cahrge of the Black Hawk War. The famous general quickly raised 900 infantry in New York, and took ferries westward. However, some of the troops contracted the deadly cholera, and it quickly spread throughout their ships. Scott here reports how scattered his troops had become, as he tried to isolate the sick from the healthy, and prevent the terrible disease from infecting the resident population of every town his convoy docked at. Although Scott's efforts were succesful -- only three civilians died of the disease -- settlers fled the cities in terror.

Cholera entirely incapacitated Scott's army, and proved an even more devastating and terrifying enemy than Black Hawk's warriors. The disease spread easily and struck quickly, claiming its victims within days. People had little concept of how infection spread, fatalistically believed that the morally disreputable were more vulnerable, and that if you died of the disease you probably deserved it.

Even if they had some idea of how prevent or cure cholera, Scott's army was miserably understaffed with surgeons, and many sick soldiers were simply abandoned on the roadsides. Although the esteemed General Scott had come to finish the war Genl. Atkinson had not, his army would never leave the harbor.

Winfield Scott to Lewis Cass
Head Qrs. North W. Army
Chicago July llth.[-12th] 1832.
10 O'Clock P.M.

To Hon Secy of War


I find myself in the most painful situation which can well be imagined. From Fort Gratiot I wrote to the Adjt Genl that the troops embarked on board the Henry Clay (Lt Col. Twiggs and Major Payne's Battalions) were infected with Cholera as early as the 4th. Inst., and I left orders at Mackina for the Commander of the Troops on board the Clay to land his sick on reaching the same place... I was further induced to ... establish [a] Hospital at Mackina...

I proceeded with the 4 companies in the Thompson, from Mackina, on the morning of the 8th. inst all in high health and spirits, with the exception of some occasional uneasiness on account of the troops on board the Clay. At day light, on the morn'g of the 9th. 6 cases of Cholera were reported to me, and in the course of the day 13 or 15 others, and down to this morning we have had 77 seized with the same disorder, and 19 deaths. Among the former are Cap Gait, Actg. Asst. Adjt. Genl. Lieuts Thornton, Maynedier and McDuffie -- a graduate of this year. The three first of the officers are doing well.

We arrived off this place [Chicago] last night, and landed all the troops this forenoon. Fort Dearborn is now one entire Hospital—the former Garrison of 2 companies under Major Whistler, having previously marched out to the distance of 2 miles and encamped, to make room, and to avoid taking the infection. Since the Troops were landed and comfortably lodged, the number of cases has been comparatively fewer Asst Surgeons Decamp and Macomb (the latter on board and on shore) have displayed great zeal in their attendance on the sick, and, as I believe, equal ability. The well officers and soldiers from the first, have desplayed the most admirable firmness, and have been unceasing in their attentions to the sick.

July 12th. 8 O'Clock A.M.
We have succeeded in finding a citizen to take this letter, express, to Detroit. The inhabitants of the place have generally fled, and the few remaining are difficult to approach. Indeed I have done all in my power to preserve the village from the infection.

The Officers who were sick yesterday are in about the same state this morning; but many others were and are slightly indisposed whose names are not given. Six enlisted men died in the course of the night, and two new cases only have occurred.

I have not seen or heard of the Clay since we passed her at Detroit. She ought to have been up with us at Mackina where we were detained during the whole of the night of the 7th. by rain and taking in wood. I begin to apprehend that we may not see her. Perhaps the Master has refused to stand on, or the crew has mutinied. I will not beleive that the Officers, except in the most extreme case, have neglected their orders.

The Clay not appearing, I am not without uneasiness in respect to the other two boats, the Penn and Superior, and the troops which they were to bring. The same disease may have broken out among the latter.

Should a boat arrive with troops, uninfected, I shall, of course, keep them far apart from those which have the disease.

At present we have not, among the 4 companies of Arty here, more well men than are absolutely necessary to attend the sick and bury the dead.

It is the opinion of Officers about me, and of the few citizens I have consulted, that if I were to obtain from all the Steamers, with troops, a force sufficient to march in the direction of Genl Atkinson, the fear of Cholera would give a panic to all who are with him, regular and volunteers, and certainly cause the latter to return home...

I have nothing to add but that I am, with high consideration your obt. signed - Winfield Scott.
Hon Lewis Cass Secy, of War

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.767]

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