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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

July 27, Helena, Wis.: Gen. Atkinson Begins the Final March

Editor's Note:

After resting and resupplying at Blue Mounds Fort, the militia under Henry Dodge met the regular infantry under Gen. Atkinson at Helena, Wisconsin, where this letter was written.

The next day, they would cross the Wisconsin River and try to find Black Hawk's trail again. To get their 1,300 troops across the river they dismantled the town of Helena, which had been evacuated by its residents, and used lumber from its buildings to make rafts (more details here).

As Atkinson here predicts, Black Hawk's party was indeed headed for the Mississippi, where they hoped to travel downriver to join the rest of the Sauk and Fox led by Keokuk. However, when troops caught up with them on the night of August 1, Black Hawk decided it was unwise to fight, and he, Waubakeeshik and their familes headed north by land to seek refuge among the Ho-Chunk or Ojibwe. Most of his warriors and the non-combatants chose to try to cross the Mississippi, despite the approaching white troops.

In this letter, Atkinson worries that the Americans' need to resupply at Blue Mounds might have given Black Hawk's warriors time to cross over the Mississippi, and he requests General Winfield Scott to apprehend them on the other side with his infantry. Scott's troops, however, were still depleted from their exposure to cholera, and half of them had deserted or died by the time Atkinson wrote this letter. Scott was unwilling to bring his remaining force to join Atkinson, predicting that the militia would mutiny rather than risk mixing with cholera-infected troops.

Atkinson would finish the war with the 1,300 forces he mentions here, on the banks of the Bad Axe River, on August 2.

Henry Atkinson to Winfield Scott
Head Qurs. division of the North Western Army
On Ouisconsin river,
Helena, July 27th. 1832


I arrived here yesterday from the Blue Mounds and we are now in the act of crossing this river with a select body of men consisting of regulars & volunteers amounting to thirteen hundred. The tardiness and difficulty of crossing on rafts will detain us all of tomorrow and will give the enemy five days the start of us, a most unfortunate circumstance, but unavoidable. The trail of the enemy leads up the country between this river and the Mississippi. He intends making his way to the Chippaways, or crossing the Mississippi -- probably the latter. He appears to be in a distressed situation for subsistence & to facilitate his movement has thrown away kettles, skins &c.-- comforts to an Indian -- and he must be much crippled in his recent conflict with the volunteers [at Wisconsin Heights]. I am in hopes notwithstanding our delay to be enabled to overtake him, if he does not cross the Mississippi, in six days. This excursion before us must end our active operations for some time, as all the Horses of the volunteers, as well as pack and officers horses, are worn down.

It would be well that you should cross over to the Mississippi as early as practicable, as in the event of our not closing the War in the pending exertion, an organization of a new force must take place.

I send this letter by Mr. Caldwell, a chief of the Pottiwattime nation, and Waponce, a War chief. I commend them to your notice as worthy of confidence. To the former I refer you for any information relative to his trible [so spelled] you may wish to acquire. He is a gentleman of education and intelligence.

General Dodge is with me, in command of the Michigan [i.e., Wisconsin] Volunteers. He has accepted of the appointment of Commandant of the Corps of Rangers.

With great respect Sir, I have the honor to be Your Mo. ob. Svt.

H. Atkinson, B. Gn. US. army.

P.S. will you order Matthews Regt. of volunteers stationed at Ottoway, Illinois river, to be discharged; they are not, I think, longer wanted there.

Maj. Genl. Scott, Comg. North Western Army Chicago.

[Source: Whitney, Ellen M., ed. The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832. (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1970), p. 891]

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