By James Lewis, Ph.D.
With their force of about seven-hundred-and-fifty Illinois and Wisconsin militiamen, Gen. James Henry and Col. Henry Dodge finally caught up to Black Hawk's band just east of the Wisconsin River on July 21, 1832. Once found, the trail had been easy to follow. It was littered with pots, blankets, and other items that had been abandoned by Black Hawk's hungry followers in order to lighten their loads. Along the trail, the militiamen also found dozens of Sauks and Foxes, mostly old people and children who were suffering from starvation. Some of them were already dead; the rest were quickly killed. The advancing militiamen also encountered small groups of Sauk and Fox warriors who had stayed behind to slow their progress. Exhausted from the chase but exhilarated by the nearness of their enemy, the militiamen pressed on.
Late in the afternoon of July 21, the militia force reached the Sauk rear guard. As most of the band crossed the Wisconsin, Sauk warriors under Napope and Black Hawk fought the militia in a steady rain. Henry and Dodge had a commanding position on the highlands that bordered the river's flood plain. But Black Hawk and his warriors took positions below the heights in ravines that provided cover against the militia's gunfire and allowed them to check any further advance. With the light dimming, the rain coming down, and their men exhausted, Henry and Dodge decided to break off the battle and make camp. During the night, the remaining Sauks and Foxes slipped across the river.
Even though Black Hawk's band had made it across the river, the Battle of Wisconsin Heights clearly had a devastating impact. Estimates of the Sauk and Fox dead--either killed in the battle or drowned while crossing the Wisconsin--reached as high as seventy. Dodge reported that his Winnebago scouts and his and Henry's militiamen had taken nearly forty Sauk and Fox scalps after the battle. In contrast, the militiamen had suffered just one dead along with seven or eight wounded.
Early the next morning, Napope tried to end the fighting. Speaking in Winnebago, he described the condition of his people and asked to be allowed to recross the Mississippi. Just as at the Battle of Stillman's Run, however, no one in the militia camp could translate this peace offering as the Winnebago scouts had already left. Instead of a peaceful trip down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi, the Sauks and Foxes again found themselves on the run from a pursuing army. As he followed them, Dodge left no doubts about his intentions: "Be assured that every possible exertion will Be made to destroy the Enemy crippled as they must be with their wounded and families as well as their want [lack] of provision supplies."
Black Hawk's band had shrunk steadily over the three months between its peak size in late April and the Battle of Wisconsin Heights in late July. Most of the Winnebagoes and Potawatomis had drifted away, returning to their own villages. Some of the old people and children had died of starvation in the swamps near Lake Koshkonong and along the trail since. Following the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, a large group of Fox women and children tried to escape west of the Mississippi by using canoes to float down the Wisconsin; many of them were captured by Winnebago and Menominee warriors or shot by soldiers downstream, however. On the morning after the battle, after his failed effort at peace, Napope abandoned the band, slipping away to a nearby Winnebago village.
As Black Hawk's band disintegrated, his pursuers continued to coalesce. Dismissing even more of his militiamen, Gen. Henry Atkinson pared his force down to a few hundred men and set out to join Dodge and Henry along the Wisconsin. The forces met at Blue Mounds, a settlement downstream from the Battle of Wisconsin Heights, but still east of the river, where Henry and Dodge had taken their troops for provisions. On July 27 and 28, about thirteen-hundred men under Atkinson--including many of the men who had served under Dodge, Henry, and Generals Alexander Posey and Milton Alexander in the preceding weeks--crossed the river at Helena, Wisconsin. Black Hawk's band had almost a week's head-start. But the terrain ahead was rugged and Atkinson's men were healthy, well-fed, well-rested, and mounted, while the Sauks and Foxes were exhausted, hungry, and on foot. Over the next few days, Atkinson's force closed this gap fairly quickly.
On August 1, Black Hawk's band of perhaps five hundred men, women, and children reached the eastern bank of the Mississippi, a few miles downriver from the Bad Axe. The leaders called a council meeting in which Black Hawk and the Winnebago prophet White Cloud suggested breaking into small groups, turning north, and hiding out in the Winnebago villages. But most of the Sauks and Foxes wanted to build rafts or canoes and cross the river as quickly as possible.
Some got across the Mississippi that day. But the crossing was checked when the steamboat Warrior approached. Privately built and owned, the Warrior had been chartered by an army major a few days earlier to take a message to the Sioux. Armed with an artillery piece and guarded by twenty soldiers, the Warrior was returning from this mission when it came upon the Sauks and Foxes trying to escape to safety. With the Warrior armed and anchored just fifty yards from shore, the Sauks and Foxes abandoned their efforts to cross the river. Under a white flag, Black Hawk waded out into the river and tried, once again, to surrender. As at Stillman's Run and Wisconsin Heights, however, the soldiers could not understand him. After ten or fifteen minutes of failed communications, the soldiers on the Warrior opened fire on the unprepared Sauks and Foxes. A number of the warriors around Black Hawk died instantly; the rest found cover and opened fire. After a two hour fire-fight, the Warrior's fuel supply was nearly exhausted and it headed off downriver.
The battle with the Warrior left nearly two dozen Sauk and Fox warriors dead. It also convinced Black Hawk that safety lay to the north among the Winnebago or Ojibwa villages, rather than to the west across the Mississippi. He pleaded with his people, but few were willing to follow him. Late on August 1, Black Hawk, White Cloud, and thirty or forty others (mostly members of their families) left the main band and headed north. A few more Sauks and Foxes crossed the river before darkness made it too dangerous. Most remained on the eastern bank.
Before dawn on August 2, the Battle of Bad Axe began. At 2:00 a.m., bugles roused Atkinson's men, who dressed, gathered their equipment, collected their horses, broke camp, and set out before sunrise. Within a few miles, Dodge's scouts met the Sauk rear guard. The warriors tried to slow the army's advance. As they retreated, they led them away from the main camp. This tactic succeeded until a militia regiment stumbled across the main trail and led Atkinson's army toward the Sauk and Fox camp. The warriors continued to fight, hoping to allow time for more of the women and children to cross the river. Just as Atkinson's troops pushed them back toward the river, the refueled Warrior returned and began firing its cannon into them from behind.
The slaughter on the eastern bank of the river continued for eight hours. The soldiers shot at anyone--man, woman, or child--who ran for cover or tried to swim across the river. They shot women who were swimming with children on their backs; they shot wounded swimmers who were almost certain to drown anyway. Other women and children were killed as they tried to surrender. The soldiers scalped most of the dead bodies. From the backs of some of the dead, they cut long strips of flesh for razor strops.
Of the roughly four hundred Native Americans at the battle, most were killed (though many of their bodies were never found), some escaped across the river, and a few were taken prisoner. Of the one-hundred-and-fifty or so who crossed the river on August 1 and 2, moreover, few survived for long. Sioux warriors, acting in support of the army, tracked down most of them within a few weeks. Sixty-eight scalps, many from women, and twenty-two Sauk and Fox prisoners were brought by the Sioux to Joseph M. Street, the federal agent for the Winnebagoes at Prairie du Chien in late August.
The month after the Battle of Bad Axe was spent rounding up anyone who was even vaguely associated with Black Hawk. Everyone took part in this round-up--U.S. army officers and soldiers, the federal agents with the different northwestern tribes, and many Native Americans, including some who had earlier supported Black Hawk's band but now felt the necessity of showing their loyalty to a vengeful federal government. On August 20, the "friendly" Sauks and Foxes under Keokuk brought Napope and a number of other chiefs and warriors to Gen. Winfield Scott at Fort Armstrong on Rock Island. Scott and other officers examined each of these prisoners. They took testimony about the involvement of the Winnebagoes, Potawatomis, and Kickapoos in the war, planning to use this evidence to demand land cessions from these tribes as indemnities for their parts in the conflict. They also sought information that might help them find the still-elusive Black Hawk and White Cloud.
In fact, Black Hawk and White Cloud spent much of this month preparing to surrender. After the encounter with the Warrior and the rejection of their advice to head north to the Winnebago and Ojibwa villages, Black Hawk, White Cloud, and thirty or forty followers had gone northeast toward the headwaters of the La Crosse River. They had camped for a few days when a group of Winnebagoes, including White Cloud's brother, arrived to counsel them to end the fighting and surrender themselves. Initially, Black Hawk and White Cloud had rejected this advice. But, when they found themselves abandoned by the remaining warriors in the small group that still followed them, they relented. Black Hawk, White Cloud, and their followers travelled downstream to the Winnebago village at La Crosse and remained their for a number of days. With the army, Keokuk's Sauks and Foxes, and many other tribes scouring the countryside for them, Black Hawk and White Cloud recovered their strength and waited while the Winnebago women made new suits of white deerskin for them. On August 27, the remnants of Black Hawk's band surrendered to the Winnebago agent, Joseph Street, at Prairie du Chien.