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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

July 28, Helena, Wis.: Dodge's Troops Find Black Hawk's Trail

Editor's Note:

This account was written by Philip St. George Cooke (1809-1895), a U.S. cavalry officer and author. An 1827 military academy graduate, he spent his early career in the far west, and served as a second lieutenant in the black Hawk War. He gained most of his fame as author of The 1862 U.S. Cavalry Tactics and for his memoir, excerpted at left.

Dodge's discovery of Black Hawk's trail was extremely important for the American forces, who had already spent a month searching for the elusive enemy. After the Battle of Wisconsin Heights on July 21 [see this previous entry], the militia was forced to interupt their campaign to restock on food and supplies at Blue Mounds. A week later, they finally resumed the campaign and crossed the Wisconsin River in search of Black Hawk's force, who now had a week-long headstart on their journey to the Mississippi. Dodge's discovery of the trail created by the 700 or so remaining men, women, and children of Black Hawk's followers meant they would waste no time searching in the wrong direction.

Crawford B. Thayer's Massacre at Bad Axe is an excellent compilation of eyewitness accounts of the campaign against Black Hawk.

A post was established at Helena; and the army crossed July 28th, and marched in a northern direction, in the expectation, doubtless, of soon falling upon traces of the retreating enemy. If so, they were soon realized; for we were still in the low grounds of the river, when, being in the van [front], I witnessed the discovery of the trail, which led to a singular and amusing little scene --

Suddenly I saw Colonel D. [Dodge], -- who was riding in advance with the General, -- draw his sword and spur forward with great animation, riding hither thither -- gazing on the ground, and uttering unintelligible exclamations -- the General, though evidently quite ignorant of the inspiring cause of this eccentric proceeding, in a kind of blind sympathy, galloped after the Colonel, following him quite closely in his course, which became a series of circles narrowing down to a point, where, sure enough, was the plain fresh trail of the whole tribe. Imagine a pointer circling in search of the hole of a ground-squirrel with a young one following, nose to tail, in an attempt at imitation, and then imagine them metamorphosed into horses, and on their backs, -- of one, a portly and grave Colonel sword in hand -- and of the other, a dignified and still more portly General!

[Source: Cooke, Philip St. George. Scenes and Adventures in the Army: Or Romance of Military Life. (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1857), pages 170-171]

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