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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Fortunes of War


On this day (June 15th) in 1832, the Secretary of War got so fed up with Henry Atkinson that he sent a new man to take over for him.

Atkinson (1782-1842) is the general for whom Fort Atkinson, Wis., is named. When the Black Hawk War broke out in April, 1832, he was given 400 U.S. Army soldiers and about 2,000 Illinois militia and told to drive Black Hawk's community of Sauk Indians across the Mississippi. While he marched his troops up from St. Louis, Black Hawk retreated up the Rock River toward Beloit.

But Atkinson was a cautious, middle-aged, professional soldier. Rather than charge into battle and engage Black Hawk when he had the chance in northern Illinois, Atkinson pushed his troops on to a spot midway between Peoria and Chicago and began constructing a secure base of operations.

From that remote location he was unable to protect the frontier, much less fight Black Hawk's warriors. Across southwestern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, Indian raiding parties attacked farmers and miners with impunity. When hot-headed Illinois militia did engage Black Hawk on May 15th, a handful of his warriors sent the 200 volunteers running for their lives. Then another month went by while Atkinson built a lovely fort 100 miles from the scene of action, and Black Hawk and his followers simply vanished into the prairie.

By June 15th, Washington had had enough, and put General Winfield Scott over Atkinson. "You will proceed without delay," Secretary of War Lewis Cass wrote to Scott, appointing him to take command of the war. "It is hoped, that the force already upon that frontier, & that which is now ordered, will be found sufficient to subdue & chastise the Indians." Cass expected that Scott and his 800 reinforcements would turn the tide against Black Hawk.

But that's not how things turned out. Although Scott quickly recruited troops and supplies, he had to move them from the East Coast to the Mississippi Valley. While passing through New York the 800 soldiers were exposed to Asiatic cholera, and just outside Buffalo the first cases appeared on the troop ships. Death quickly followed infection, and by the time the ships had crossed the Great Lakes and reached Chicago, Scott's force had dwindled to 150 from disease and desertion. General Scott and his reinforcements never reached the front, and events flowed inexorably toward their tragic end six weeks later.

This summer you can read a different original document from the Black Hawk War each day at our Historic Diaries pages (and even have it delivered to you overnight by RSS, if you want). Pictures, manuscripts, books, and museum objects from the war are also reproduced at our Turning Points in Wisconsin History digital collection.


:: Posted in Curiosities on June 14, 2007

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