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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

July 21, Wisconsin Heights: Henry Dodge Describes the Battle

Editor's Note:

This report from Gen. Henry Dodge to Gen. Atkinson, which we have lightly edited for easier comprehension, describes the Battle of Wisconsin Heights on the evening of July 21 at modern Roxbury, Wisconsin.

The morning of July 21, the militia rose early at their camp on the east bank of Lake Monona. They crossed the isthmus, today the center of downtown Madison but in 1832 an uninhabitted wilderness. Surgeon's mate John Wakefield wrote of the scene, "If those lakes were anywhere else, except in the country they are, they would be considered among the wonders of the world. But the country they are situated in is not fit for any civilized nation of people to inhabit. It appears that the Almighty intended it for the children of the forest."

As they reached the foot of the hill where the Wisconsin capitol now stands, militia scouts spotted a lone Indian sitting by the shore and immediately shot him. When the scouts raced to claim his scalp, they discovered he was sitting on the grave of his wife, who had recently died from exhaustion or exposure (this incident is described here by a participant) They killed several other Sauk that morning who had fallen behind Black Hawk's band, which was discarding supplies as they desperately tried to outrun the militia.

Throughout the course of July 21st, Black Hawk and his followers hiked from Middleton through northwestern Dane Co. with the military hot on their trail. In the evening as they neared the Wisconsin River, the warriors placed themselves on top of a tall hill, ready to defend the community while the non-combatants crossed the river. At dusk the militia arrived and the battle began. Dodge thoroughly describes the action, which was the first important military engagements the Americans had fought in the entire war. Dodge proudly concludes the letter by paying great compliments to the militia, which had previously disgraced the state.

The precise number of Sauk warriors killed appears impossible to determine; contemporaries reported as few as four and as many as sixty. 16-year-old Satterlee Clark, who was with the Ho-Chunk scouts and among the first on the battlefield, left his account of it here. A footnote on that page discusses the various claims for numbers killed.

Although Black Hawk lost the battle, suffering several casualties and killing only one soldier, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory for the Americans since the Sauk held off the troops until dark and enabled their women and children to escape. When the soldiers woke up to renew the battle the next morning, the enemy had once again entirely vanished.

Here is a painting of the Wisconsin Heights battlefield, made in 1856.

Henry Dodge to Henry Atkinson
Camp on the Wisconsin Thirty miles below Fort Winnebago
July 22d. 1832
Brigadier General Atkinson

Dear Sir In my last communication to you, I stated my intention to follow the hostile Sacks with General Henry. We crossed the Mud lake fork of Rock river at about 2 Oclk P M on the 19th. where the Sacks had encamped in a body. On the 20th. we made a forced march & reached the head of the 4 lakes, and on the 21st. we overtook the enemy at this place. Our advanced spies killed two Sacks before we met with a body of the enemy —they showed themselves frequently on the surrounding hills to divert our attention, our spies met with three & pursued them within a mile of their camp, our men were pursued in turn by the enemy on horseback.

Believing the main body of the enemy near us, I dismounted my squadron of horse, which formed the right & left columns of the advanced guard, the centre column was composed of the spies commanded by Colo. Ewing, I ordered my squadron to advance in front, and fortunately met with a good position, a natural elevation of ground which covered my men who were ordered to squat down, the Enemy raised the Yell and galloped up within thirty yards of us, we fired on them and killed one and wounded one or two others, when they retreated. General Henry arrived with his Brigade, dismounted & formed in order of battle, the enemy rallied and commenced a fire on the left flank, his object was evidently to outflank us. the prompt movement of one of General Henry's Regiments defeated the object he had in view.

The Indians occupied a height which enabled them to kill one of Genl Henry's men & wounded one of mine. after consulting Genl Henry we determined to charge the enemy. My squadron, with the spies commanded by Colo. Ewing, & the regiment of Colo Jones charged the enemy in good order, with part of Col Coiling Regiment, we dislodged him from his position & drove him down the height into the high grass in the swamp, our fire was so heavy he soon gave way, I thought from the movement of the enemy he might aim at turning the right flank. I advanced briskly at the head of Clarks & Camps Companies to watch his movements, supported by two Companies ordered by Genl. Henry to the right flank. The enemy then gave way in every direction retreating to the river.

The Winnebagoes scalped eleven Indians killed by the whites, and the whites took thirteen scalps last night -- eight were found today and three were killed in the chase. The enemy were seen to carry a number from the field during the action, so that the numbers killed cannot fall short of forty (perhaps more); many were wounded but the number not known. We lost one killed & seven wounded, one of our men was wounded before the battle, on our march.

When the battle was over it was 7 Oclk. our men had made a forced march of forty miles, many of them on foot and exposed about six hours in the rain, their arms wet and out of order. Knowing [the Sauk] had retreated to the river and that they had chosen their position and that we could not reach them before dark, after consulting with Genl. Henry it was agreed to defer a further attack on the enemy untill the next morning. We marched from our position to the river early in the day, and found he had crossed the river, he had left his camp in much hurry & confusion. from the appearance of the trees, bark canoes had been prepared for the purpose of crossing the Wisconsin when they might arrive there with the main body.

Ths conduct of the officers & men composing my Squadron was brave & cool, they advanced to the charge with a quick pace and even front, they all behaved well, and it would be difficult for me to driscriminate between them, they deserve the confidence of their country. The officers & men of Genl. Henry's Brigade have met the high expectations formed of them. They have done honor to their state & themselves. I would always unite with great confidence with such brave & gallent men

I am with sentiments of great respect Your obedient Servant H Dodge Col. Commanding Michigan Mounted Volunteers

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p. 842]

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