Interrogating the Project of Military History

January 8, 2005 - While on the road during the Christmas holiday I had a chance to visit the site of the battle of Bad Axe, the final clash between United States and American Indian forces during the Black Hawk War of 1832.  It's located on the Wisconsin bank of the Mississippi River, about equidistant between the cities of LaCrosse and Prairie du Chien.  I arrived at dusk, so I got only a perfunctory glimpse of the area before it disappeared in the darkness.  Despite that, or maybe because of it, something about the place pulled me into the events that occurred there.  I haven't really been able to let go of it since.

Above, left:  Road map of area.  A topographical map of the battlefield is here.

Above, right:  One of the few images of the battle:  the armed steamboat Warrior shells Black Hawk's band as it attempts to recross the Mississippi, August 1, 1832.

Far left: Birdseye view of the battlefield as it appeared in 1856.  Click image for a larger view in color.

Left:  The battlefield today.  "Battle Bluff" is in the background.  Click photo to read inscriptions.

I don't need to recapitulate the battle.  A good account is already available on a wonderfully well-done web site created under the auspices of the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project.  Because Lincoln served during the conflict in the Illinois militia, the project includes extensive material on the Black Hawk War, including digitized editions of books and documents dealing with the war.  I've excerpted the following from the excellent overview of the Black Hawk War written by Dr. James Lewis.

From The Black Hawk War of 1832, by James Lewis, PhD

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 [River]. 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 [two previous firefights], 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 [U.S. commander Brig. Gen. Henry] Atkinson's men, who dressed, gathered their equipment, collected their horses, broke camp, and set out before sunrise. Within a few miles, [Illinois militia general Henry] 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.

As this account makes clear, the "battle" of Bad Axe should more properly be called the "massacre" of Bad Axe.  Back when I was first starting on my current project dealing with race and war in nineteenth century America, I gave a mini-seminar at the University of Illinois in which I used Bad Axe as a case study.  Among the handouts I gave the students was a compilation of primary accounts of the fighting.  Below are some samples (the full handout is here):

Indian Agent Joseph M. Street to Superintendent William Clark, August 3, 1832.

The Inds. were pushed literally into the Mississippi, the current of which was at one time perceptibly tinged with the blood of the Indians who were shot on its margin & in its stream. . . .  It is impossible to say how many Inds. have been killed, as most of them were shot in the water or drowned in attempting to cross the Mississippi.

John Wakefield, who served as a private, published a book on the war in 1834:

During the engagement we killed some of the squaws through mistake. It was a great misfortune to those miserable squaws and children, that they did not carry into execution [the plan] they had formed on the morning of the battle--that was, to come and meet us, and surrender themselves prisoners of war. It was a horrid sight to witness little children, wounded and suffering the most excruciating pain, although they were of the savage enemy, and the common enemy of the country.

It was enough to make the heart of the most hardened being on earth to ache.

We took about fifty prisoners, principally women and children. They during the engagement, had concealed themselves in the high weeds and grass, and amongst old logs and brush, which lay very thick on the bottom, and some had buried themselves in the mud and sand in the bank of the, river, just leaving enough of their heads out to breathe the breath of life.

Halstead S. Townsend, also a private, gave a speech in 1898 on the 66th anniversary of the battle.  The original handout used only a few brief quotes from a secondary source. I've since found a larger portion of his address:

Black Hawk was a mean man and a coward. He brought on the war. . . . Our spies got to the river and fired. Only Rittenhouse was left standing. Indians had shot down the rest. We rushed past them and did not stop to see to their injuries for we were after Indians. They went ¾ of a mile below here. Abadiah Rittenhouse, a spy, had a ball through his whiskers and one through the rim of his hat. He was dazed and wild after that. A squaw with a child on her back was near him. He said, "See me kill that d-----n squaw." He killed the squaw and the bullet broke the child’s arm. When we came up the child was gnawing a horse bone. On an acre of ground on this island, ponies were tied all over it and goods and old Indians were placed there. We passed by and did not molest them. After the battle we took them and baggage to Rock Island. Three squaws were shot on that race; they were naked. One woman we took on the boat and cared for. Another woman crawled under the bank and buried herself in the sand. The first one told where the other was, after she saw we would not kill her, and we got her from the bank. We have been accused of inhumanity to those Indians. It is false as hell, we never did it. With Henry’s men we killed in three-fourths of a mile, 82 Indians. We lost three men. Indians were thick there. We pursued. The shot to [sic] high. We found bullets thirty feet high in trees. If they had fired low they would have killed many. There were three willow bars out there. I cannot find them now. There Dodge stopped and waited for regulars. Thirty yards ahead was another pond of water. We fired at the smoke we saw. Dodge was behind us and mad; he cursed the regulars for being so d ---- d slow. We killed Indians without seeing them. We lost five or six of our men. Zachary Taylor at last came; made a speech and ordered us to charge. Was heavy fighting there. Squaws came to us holding up their arms. We pushed them back and killed none of them. We killed everything that didn’t surrender. Those not killed got in the river. Henry’s men were below on island and killed those who floated down.

The point of the handout was to provide a jumping-off point for a discussion of racism as a factor in atrocity.  In retrospect, however, I think a better approach would have been to examine the event in a more open-ended fashion.  For example, the message board of the Black Hawk War Society has a post that quotes accounts similar to those above and concludes:

Additional accounts, preserved by Crawford Thayer and others, indicate a viciousness on the part of some army combatants that exceeds what many resonable people would consider "reasonable."

My question is: WHY was the fighting along the banks of the Mississippi so vicious?

Why indeed?  I suspect most of us could offer a sort of beer-and-pretzel explanation, but the episodes like this one are more deplored more often than they are carefully analyzed.  We could use a much better set of tools by which to examine the anatomy of atrocity.

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