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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

July 19-20, Madison, Wis.: Troops Close in on Black Hawk

Editor's Note:

This is an excerpt from the journal of James J. Justice (lightly edited here for comprehension), a Clinton County, Illinois, resident and militia lieutenant, describing the days leading up to the Battle of Wisconsin Heights on July 21.

The Americans had been hunting for Black Hawk since late June, and until now had had no luck finding him. Frustration set in among the volunteers, made worse by heavy traveling, bad food, summer rain, oppressive heat, and abundant mosquitoes. Perpetually trailing behind the elusive Sauk, the militia began to suspect their Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi guides of deliberately leading them astray.

Their distress was relieved when, on July 19, Col. Henry Dodge's adjutant discovered Black Hawk's trail [see this previous entry]. Suddenly the soldiers could imagine the end of the long, difficult campaign, and became eager and determined to get the war over. Some also saw a long-awaited chance to exact vengeance on the warriors who had humiliated them and killed their comrades earlier in the summer.

On the night of July 20th, the miilitia camped along the eastern shore of Lake Monona, on the eastern edge of modern Madison. A few miles away, at Pheasant Branch in modern Middleton, Black Hawk and his followers were camped, starving, desperate, and hoping to make their escape by racing to the Mississippi and re-crossing it before the troops caught up with them.

...on the Intelligence of the express finding the trail and that we were to follow on in pursuit, the soldiers were seen gathering their horses and saddling them with as much cheerfulness as if at home and gearing them to go plowing after a fine season of Rain. They then felt as if they would shortly overtake the savage foe and give him a scurging and then Return home.

Accordingly we left our bagage wagons and took up our march early in the morning and marched about 12 miles, and thro a desperate thicket and low swampy land, and came on the trail of the Indians, which appeared to be about a day and a half or two days old and afforded us a much better guide than the Winnebagoes were... We were all anxious to make what discoveries we could with Regard to the strength of the Enemy and the length of time they had been gone.

Thus we marched on till the afternoon, when there came on a very heavy Rain which continued an hour or two... We continued our march through the Rain and passed by one of the Indians' encampments near a Lake [perhaps Rock Lake, at modern Lake Mills, in Jefferson Co., Wis.] which I suppose to be about 15 miles in circumference, and at dark we struck camp. Some made fires, others laid down without, and the next morning we arose, the most of us leaving a puddle of water where we had lay...

We again set off on a forced march and passed several [abandoned Sauk] encampments and camped at the four lakes [Madison] while the Indians were (some of them) on the opposite side of the lake. We were under arms the greater part of the night.

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p.1324]

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