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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Pride Before the Fall

One summer evening many years ago, hundreds of new recruits to a local militia sat around campfires swapping tall tales and making brave claims. For 21 cents a day, these young men from southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois had agreed to leave their farms and mines to pursue a band of Sauk and Fox Indians. Their orders were to find Black Hawk's band and "forthwith attack them and force them to obedience." The soldiers were so full of themselves that one observer wondered if they "were not going on some frivolous holiday excursion, and not to encounter hostile Indians."

Although the soldiers didn't know it, the Indians were not yet hostile. In early April Black Hawk and hundreds of followers, mostly non-combatants, had tried to return from Iowa to their village on the Rock River, but been pushed away by armed squatters who'd occupied it. They fled upriver and had paused about 30 miles south of Beloit to mull over their options. Here Black Hawk told visitors that he was "anxious to recross the Mississippi, but dared not... for fear of being intercepted by the Militia & indiscrimately slaughtered." Thomas Forsyth, a veteran Indian agent, said that at this point Black Hawk, "hampered with many women and children,... had no intention to make war."

On the evening of May 14, 1832, however, the rag-tag militia led by Maj. Isaiah Stillman unknowingly came within a few miles of Black Hawk's encampment outside Rockford. They bivouaced, made dinner, and many proceeded to get drunk. Black Hawk, notified of their arrival, sent three unarmed warriors to their camp with a white flag, hoping to invite the commander into a conference, and he told five more to watch from a distance and observe how they were greeted. His three emissaries were immediately imprisoned and the other five attacked, two being killed, and the militia quickly mounted for battle. When this news reached Black Hawk, he gathered 40 warriors and rode out to engage the 375 volunteer troops charging across the prairie toward them.

Although the Sauk fighters expected to die defending their families, they discovered that their focused intensity and superior discipline drove the much larger force of white troops from the field. "The enemy retreated!" Black Hawk later recalled, "in the utmost confusion and consternation, before my little but brave band of warriors." In fact, the young men who only days before had spoken with such bravado became, in the words of Col. Zachary Taylor, "panic-struck, & fled in the most shameful manner that ever troops were known to do." When the sun came up the next morning, 11 soldiers had been killed and their corpses scalped and mutilated.

News of Stillman's Run, as this encounter became known, spread far and wide. The humiliating defeat made the 1,500 troops eager for revenge, and descriptions of the bodies of the slain soldiers spawned fear among the local white population.

It had other effects on the Indians. It suggested to Black Hawk that his opponents were both uncivilized and inept. Their refusal to honor the white flag of truce persuaded him that they were less interested in negotiation than extermination. And the remarkable success of his warriors suggested that he might be able to hold them off with occasional victories while escaping back across the Mississippi. The stage was set for the series of tragic events that we know today as the Black Hawk War.

[Source: Trask, Kerry. Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America (N.Y., Henry Holt: 2006)]

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:: Posted in Curiosities on May 12, 2006

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