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Historic Diaries: Black Hawk War

August 2: A Soldier's Account of the Massacre at Bad Axe

Editor's Note:

The Sauk had reached the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Bad Axe, in modern Vernon Co., on the previous day, where their final attempt to surrender had been spurned by American officials on board the steamboat Warrior (see this previous entry). Early on Aug. 2nd they were attempting to cross the Mississippi when troops arrived on the bluffs behind them and attacked. Warriors and the nearly starved non-combatants -- men, women and children -- were indiscriminately killed on the shore, in the wetlands, and while trying to swim or canoe across the Mississippi. Most of the few who made it across were hunted down and killed by Sioux warriors acting at the request of U.S. officers.

This description of the massacre at Bad Axe River, near modern Victory, Wisconsin, is from John Wakefield's (1797-1873) History of the Black Hawk War, published in 1834. The full text is available here. Wakefield, a South Carolina native, moved to Lebanon, Illinois, as a child in 1808. While still a teenager, he served in the War of 1812 as a scout. As a volunteer in the Black Hawk War, he served as a surgeon and scout, and was a participant in the massacre at Bad Axe. Immediately after the war he wrote a short history from memory and a journal which he had kept regularly throughout the campaign.

Wakefield's account of the massacre reveals the mixed emotions that many whites felt about the war. It contains the racism, the desire for revenge, and the simple cruelty that were typical of many militia fighters. Yet at the same time Wakefield pities the Sauk non-combatants, and regrets the killing of the women and children as a "mistake" and a "great misfortune." Many settlers felt less sympathy than Wakefield expresses here. After four months of embarrassing military failures, loss of their crops, destruction of homes, and terrifying Indian attacks, many whites felt that Black Hawk and his followers deserved death, women and children included.

This was confirmed after Bad Axe, when infantry and Sioux warriors hunted down the approximately 200 who had escaped across the river. Seeking revenge as part of an earlier feud, the Sioux took 68 scalps, mostly women and children. Others were taken captive, many of whom are believed to have died of starvation and exposure.

They [the American soldiers and militia] all joined in the work of death - for death it was. We were by this time fast getting rid of those demons in human shape [the Sauk].

About a half hour after the battle commenced, Colonel [Zachary] Taylor with the infantry, and General Dodge with his squadren, got on the ground, and joined in the battle with us... General Atkinson stationed Generals Posey and Alexander, up the river, on the extreme right, in order to prevent the Indians from making their escape in that direction; which appeared to be one of those hard cases, for the men had marched a great way, through swamps, over mountains, and through the worst kind of order that they might have it in their power to assist in expelling from their country, those wretched children of the forest.

The battle lasted about three hours: when we came upon the enemy, they were fixing their bark canoes to cross the river. Some of them had crossed; others had just launched their canoes; and some had not got them made; but I suppose they all were busy making the necessary arrangements to cross and get out of the way.

But the Ruler of the Universe, He who takes vengeance on the guilty, did not design those guilty wretches to escape His vengeance for the horrid deeds they had done, which were of the most appalling nature. He here took just retribution for the many innocent lives those cruel savages had taken on our northern frontiers.

It can never be ascertained how many were killed in this battle; but from the best calculation that could be made, I suppose we killed about one hundred and fifty; and I think it altogether probable, that as many more were drowned in attempting to cross the river...

During the engagement we killed some of the squaws through mistake. It was a great misfortune to those miserable squaws and children, that they did not carry into execution [the plan] they had formed on the morning of the battle -- that was, to come and meet us, and surrender themselves as prisoners of war. It was a horrid sight to witness little children, wounded and suffering the most excruciating pain, although they were of the savage enemy, and the common enemy of the country.

It was enough to make the heart of the most hardened being on earth ache.

[Source: Wakefield, John A. Wakefield's History of the Black Hawk War (1834; reprinted, Madison, Wis., 1976), p. 131]

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