Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War
July 21, Wisconsin Heights: Black Hawk Describes the Battle
In this excerpt from his autobiography, Black Hawk describes the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, fought on the evening of July 21 near modern Roxbury, Wisconsin.
On June 18, Henry Dodge's militia and James Henry's U.S. troops discovered Black Hawk's trail on the edge of modern Dodge Co. near Hustisford, and over the next three days chased them through today's Jefferson and Dane Counties, finally catching up with them as they were about to cross the Wisconsin River. Here Black Hawk was forced to make a stand as the women and children quickly made birch-bark canoes and log-rafts to escape across the river. Black Hawk here states that he believes the militia's casualties were "much greater, in proportion, than mine," but American sources [see yesterday's entry] reported the opposite; only one white soldier was killed and 8 were wounded.
This was only the second important battle of the three-month-old war, the first being the militia's embarassing defeat at Stillman's Run on May 14. At Wisconsin Heights the volunteers showed much more discipline and resolve against Black Hawk's warriors, who had suffered months of starvation in the swamps of southern Wisconsin. Although they killed about a dozen of Black Hawk's warriors in this battle, they failed to capture Black Hawk or stop his followers.
Black Hawk expresses astonishment that the militia did not pursue him after the battle and instead decided to make camp for the night and renew the battle again the next morning. This afforded the Sauk time to make their escape across the river at night, right under the noses of the soldiers. Black Hawk's real accomplishment at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights was commanding a handful of warrior who held off ten times as many white troops, saving the lives of the Sauk women and children. Unfortunately, in less than two weeks they would meet their end on the banks of the Mississippi.
Here is a painting of the Wisconsin Heights battlefield, made in 1856.
Neapope, with a party of twenty, remained in our rear, to watch for the enemy, whilst we were proceeding to the Wisconsin [River] with our women and children. We arrived, and had commenced crossing over to an island, when we discovered a large body of the enemy coming towards us.
We were now compelled to fight, or sacrifice our wives and children to the fury of the whites! I met them with fifty warriors, (having left the balance to assist our women and children in crossing) about a mile from the river, when an attack immediately commenced. I was mounted on a fine horse, and was pleased to see my warriors so brave. I addressed them in a load voice, telling them to stand their ground and never yield it to the enemy. At this time I was on the rise of a hill, where I wished to form my warriors, that we might have some advantage over the whites. But the enemy succeeded in gaining this point, which compelled us to fall into a deep ravine, from which we continued firing at them and they at us, until it began to grow dark.
My horse having been wounded twice during this engagement, and fearing from his loss of blood that he would soon give out - and finding that the enemy would not come near enough to receive our fire, in the dusk of the evening - and knowing that our women and children
had had sufficient time to reach the island in the Wisconsin, I ordered my warriors to return, by different routes, and meet me at the Wisconsin - and was astonished to find that the enemy were not disposed to pursue us.
In this skirmish with fifty braves, I defended and accomplished my passage over the Wisconsin, with a loss of only six men, though opposed by a host of mounted militia. I would not have fought there, but [except] to gain time for our women and children to cross to an island. A
warrior will duly appreciate the embarrassments I labored under -- and whatever may be the sentiments of the white people in relation to this battle, my nation, though fallen, will award to me the reputation of a great brave in conducting it.
The loss of the enemy could not be ascertained by our party; but I am of the opinion that it was much greater, in proportion, than mine. We returned to the Wisconsin and crossed over to our people.
Here some of my people left me, and descended the Wisconsin, hoping to escape to the west side of the Mississippi, that they might return home. I had no objection to their leaving me, as my people were all in a desperate condition, being worn out with traveling and starving
with hunger. Our only hope to save ourselves was to get across the Mississippi.
But few of this party [who went down the Wisconsin River on rafts and in canoes] escaped. Unfortunately for them, a party of soldiers from Prairie du Chien were stationed on the Wisconsin, a short distance from its mouth, who fired upon our distressed people. Some were killed, others drowned, several taken prisoners, and the balance escaped to the woods and perished with hunger. Among this party were a great many women and children.
[Source: Black Hawk's Autobiography]