The Black Hawk War, among the earliest and least remembered of America’s Indian wars, took place between April 5 and August 2, 1832, in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin (then a part of Michigan Territory). This lopsided war was waged between 1,500 U.S. Army regulars, along with approximately 10,000 Illinois militiamen, and 1,300 Sauk and Fox tribesmen, many of whom were not even warriors. At issue was an 1805 treaty in which the Indians ceded their ancestral lands east of the Mississippi to the federal government for a trifling sum of money. Twenty seven years after the fact, Black Hawk, the Sauk Chief, and his people had joined their allies, the Fox, and had returned to reclaim their homelands in Illinois.
The war ended decisively after only four months of skirmishing, when 300 of Black Hawk’s followers—many of them women and children—were gunned down in a withering crossfire attempting to cross the Bad Axe River, a short tributary of the Mississippi, from today’s Wisconsin to Iowa.
In an attempt to burnish (or even fabricate) their military careers, several candidates for political office claimed to have contributed to the Black Hawk War. Four future governors of Illinois, plus future governors of Michigan and Nebraska, and at least seven future senators claimed service in the campaign against Black Hawk’s followers. And four future presidents were, in fact, somehow involved in the war, three of them on the ground in or near the fighting.
William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory and later the ninth U.S. president, negotiated the 1805 treaty that precipitated the war; U.S. Army Col. Zachary Taylor of Virginia, 12th president, commanded troops in the main battles; Lt. Jefferson Davis of Kentucky, who became president of the Confederate States of America in 1861, arrived late in the war zone but served in the final days of the conflict.
A gangly 23-year-old store clerk from New Salem, Ill., also joined the war eff ort—Abraham Lincoln, the future 16th U.S. president. In April of 1832, Lincoln volunteered for service in the 31st Regiment of the Illinois Militia. He was elected captain of the 69-man company—much to his surprise, apparently. His men drew rations and smooth-bore flintlock muskets at Beardstown on the Illinois River and marched north to the Rock River, the scene of Black Hawk’s “invasion” of Illinois and of some of the early fighting.
Late in May, Captain Lincoln reenlisted for twenty days into a mounted company of Independent Rangers and, on June 16, enlisted for a third time as a 30-day private in the Spy Corps, undertaking mounted scouting and reconnaissance work and helping to bury the dead. In 1848, during his single term as a U.S. Congressman from Illinois, Lincoln mentioned his military service in a speech on the House floor, joking that “in the days of the Black Hawk War” he had been “a military hero.”
“Yes sir,” he is quoted to have said. “I had a good many bloody struggles ...with the mosquitoes.”
Dale L. Walker is the former president of Western Writers of America, Inc. and author of several books on Western history.