By James Lewis, Ph.D.
By mid-April 1832, just days after Black Hawk's band crossed the Mississippi into Illinois, both the U.S. Army and the state militia had begun their pursuit. On April 1, Gen. Henry Atkinson had received orders to take a detachment of federal troops from St. Louis up the Mississippi to Rock Island. These orders said nothing about Black Hawk. Atkinson's mission was to prevent a war between the Sauks and Foxes, on one hand, and the Menominees and Sioux, on the other. Still, as a result of these orders, Atkinson already had his men organized and their provisions and steamboats arranged when Black Hawk crossed into Illinois. On April 8, Atkinson and his troops left Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis; late on April 12, they arrived at Fort Armstrong on Rock Island.
The next day, Atkinson took three steps that had an immense impact on the events of the next four months. First, he held a council with some of the "friendly" Sauk and Fox chiefs. When they refused to attempt to control Black Hawk and the rest of the band, Atkinson concluded that Black Hawk's intentions had to be hostile. Second, even though Black Hawk and his warriors were still near the mouth of the Rock, Atkinson decided against not only trying to use his small force to stop them, but also sending a messenger to meet with them. As a result, Black Hawk's band continued further up the Rock and deeper into Illinois. Third, Atkinson wrote Illinois Governor John Reynolds informing him that the federal force under him was "too small to justify . . . pursuing the hostile party."
Reynolds received this letter on April 15. The next day, he informed Atkinson that he had ordered Major Isaiah Stillman to assemble immediately a force of two hundred mounted militia to patrol the frontier "from the Mississippi eastward." Reynolds also issued a public call for another twelve hundred militia to meet at Beardstown in central Illinois within a week. On April 17, Reynolds wrote to Secretary of War Lewis Cass informing him that the state was "in imminent danger," that Atkinson's force was too small, and that Reynolds had called out the militia. This letter, and others from federal officers and agents on the scene, would eventually bring additional federal troops from the East to northwestern Illinois.
In time, the Black Hawk War involved federal troops, militia companies from the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri and the territories of Wisconsin and Michigan, and, on both sides of the conflict, Native American warriors. Even though nearly one third of the U.S. Army was eventually committed to this conflict, however, the roughly nine thousand Illinois militiamen made up a majority of all of the soldiers called into service against Black Hawk's band.
The militia companies were organized locally and made up of men from all levels of society. In most companies, most of the soldiers and many of the officers would have been farmers. But every healthy, adult male was required to participate. As such, professionals, merchants, and shopkeepers (including the twenty-three-year-old store clerk Abraham Lincoln) also took part.
In Illinois and throughout the United States, mid-nineteenth century militia companies were generally seen as poorly prepared, armed, and commanded. The regular militia muster days were often as important for their social functions as for any military training. They brought together men from scattered farms and small hamlets who rarely saw anyone other than their nearest neighbors. The men practiced marching and firing in something approaching unison (though often with hoes, umbrellas, and even corn-stalks substituting for guns). Muster days generally ended with drinking, gambling, wrestling, and eating. They fostered community identity and reinforced male authority far better than they produced cohesive and competent fighting units.
As federal and state troops organized to pursue them in mid-and late April, Black Hawk's band proceeded up the Rock to the Winnebago prophet's village. There, in late April and early May, all of Black Hawk's hopes collapsed as he discovered that his people would not be allowed to live along the Rock in peace.
On April 26, Napope (the principal civil chief), Black Hawk (the war chief), and the other leaders of the band met with two Sauk chiefs sent by Atkinson. Through these messengers, Atkinson made it perfectly clear that the government would not permit the band to remain east of the Mississippi. He also informed Black Hawk that he had been misled if he expected British assistance. Even as Black Hawk and Napope stated that they had no hostile designs, they defied Atkinson by insisting upon living with the Winnebagoes, harassing the messengers and the Winnebago agent Henry Gratiot, and flying a British flag over their camp.
Aware that Atkinson would soon bring his troops up the Rock, Black Hawk began to make preparations. What he soon discovered was that, just as Atkinson had said, Napope and White Cloud had misinformed him. They had promised British support in the form of men, guns, and supplies; but no British assistance was coming. They had told him that the Winnebagoes and other native groups would rush to the band's defense. But the Winnebagoes did not even want Black Hawk's band to settle in their villages and, thus, expose them to attacks by the army or militia. In fact, Black Hawk learned, the Winnebagoes were not even willing to share their corn with the band.
Sometime in early May, Black Hawk's band left the Winnebago prophet's village and continued up the Rock. Black Hawk's last hope was that the Potawatomis would provide the food and support that the Winnebagoes had refused. At the Kishwaukee River (near modern Rockford, Illinois), he held a council with the Potawatomi chiefs. It quickly became apparent that he could expect little from them. With no provisions and no allies, Black Hawk decided in mid-May that the band should return peacefully down the Rock to the Mississippi.
On the morning of May 14, the crisis created by Black Hawk's return to Illinois five weeks earlier could still have been easily ended without any bloodshed. By the end of the day, Black Hawk found himself in the midst of a war that ultimately destroyed his people.
In the midst of his council with the Potawatomi chiefs, Black Hawk learned that two or three hundred mounted soldiers had been seen less than ten miles away. He sent three warriors under a white flag to arrange a meeting with the soldiers in order to arrange a safe return down the Rock. Unfortunately, the soldiers were Major Stillman's Illinois militia rather than the U.S. Army. No one in the militia camp could speak Sauk. Already suspicious, the soldiers grew alarmed when they saw other warriors in the distance. They seized the messengers, grabbed their horses, and took off after the other scouts. Several of Black Hawk's scouts were killed, but others made it back to camp and reported what had happened. Black Hawk sent more warriors to form a skirmish line in case the soldiers attacked the main camp. The militia did, but in such a disorganized way that Black Hawk's skirmishers easily sent the militiamen into a panic. Abandoning their camp, they fled across the prairie in terror.
The so-called Battle of Stillman's Run ended in relatively few deaths on either side. But it destroyed any hope of peace. Gen. Atkinson believed that it had "closed the door against settling the difficulty without bloodshed." Governor Reynolds responded to news of the battle by calling out another two thousand militiamen. Black Hawk was amazed at how easily a few of his warriors had driven off nearly ten times as many soldiers. But he decided that the band, which included hundreds of women and children, could not simply return down the Rock. It would have to continue north in order to avoid its pursuers before negotiating or turning west.