Friday, July 15, 2016

Abraham Lincoln in the Black Hawk War

Chief Black Hawk by George Catlin
(from Letters and Notes on North American Indians
by George Catlin, 1913)
Abraham Lincoln’s real story begins about the time he was chosen as a Captain in the Black Hawk War.

Before I tell you about Lincoln, I should tell you about the Black Hawk War. It wasn’t really much of a war. It was more like a slaughter of the Sac and Fox Indians. From the years 1827 to 1831 squatters crossed over into Indian Territory in Iowa and Illinois. They destroyed the Indian’s homes and planted crops while they were away on their winter hunt. Each time Black Hawk complained to the authorities, they told him to let it be.

In 1831 authorities warned Black Hawk, if he crossed the Mississippi and returned to his village in Illinois it would be considered an act of aggression. In 1832 he crossed the Mississippi, intending to meet up with a band of Winnebago’s who offered his people shelter at the Prophet’s Town.

What followed was a mix-up of frontier madness, mayhem, and murder. Illinois Governor John Reynolds called out the militia and raised thousands of volunteers. General Winfield Scott marched his regulars to Fort Armstrong. Zachary Taylor led a group of dragoons in the fighting.

Needless to say most of the Indians were slaughtered despite making numerous attempts to surrender.

Lincoln’s role in the war was minimal. He was elected captain of a regiment in New Salem. Later he became a ranger in Captain Elijah Iles’s company of Independent Rangers. After Iles’s company of rangers was mustered out of service in mid-June, he joined a group of scouts led by Captain Jacob M. Early.


The closest Lincoln came to battle occurred in late June. The spy company he was attached to was sent northwest towards Galena to search for Black Hawk. The battle at Kellogg’s Grove was fought on June 25th. Lincoln arrived in time to help bury the bodies of five men killed and scalped in that battle.

Abraham Lincoln
“I remember just how those men looked,” said Lincoln, “as we rode up the hill where their camp was. The red light of the morning sun was streaming upon them as they lay heads towards us on the ground. And every man had a round red spot upon the top of his head about as big as a dollar, where the redskins had taken his scalp. It was frightful, but it was grotesque…”

Three weeks before the battle of Bad Axe (which ended the Black Hawk War) Early’s company was mustered out and Lincoln headed home.

In 1848 Lincoln shared this story about his time in the Black Hawk War,

“Did you know I am a war hero? Yes, sir; in the days of the Black Hawk War, I fought, bled, and came away…I had a good many bloody struggles with mosquitoes, and, although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.”


Another bad-ass hombre Lincoln may have met up with at this time was Jefferson Davis, later President of the Confederacy. At the close of the war Davis escorted Black Hawk down the Mississippi to his prison cell in Jefferson Barracks (St. Louis).


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