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Battle of Wisconsin Heights: Indian Focus

Battle of Wisconsin Heights by S. M. (Samuel Marsden) Brookes 1856

The Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo Indians fought bravely at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights. This battle acted as a turning point in the 1832 Black Hawk War as it signified the beginning of the end.  The militias had caught up to the retreating Indians with a much larger number of men, and the Indians who had been starving were losing their will to fight.

The Black Hawk War itself started with Black Hawk attempting to lead his people back to their tribal land, Saukenuk, which had been taken from them by the US Government.  The chief of the Sauk agreed with the settlers in Illinois that they would move, and were paid an extremely small sum of money for the land that they gave up.  After they relocated across the Mississippi River, Black Hawk voiced that this was an outrage, and gathered eight hundred Sauks (only about one sixth of the overall tribe) to return to their tribal lands.  This group was nicknamed the British Band, which was the name of Black Hawk’s band while fighting with the British in the War of 1812.  However, for reasons unknown Black Hawk never went back to their Sukenuk, and continued to move about in Illinois. The state militias thought of this as a threat, and told Black Hawk to leave, as these were now lands belonging to the US Government.  Farms were already on some of this land and the civilians were getting worried.  Without British assistance , which Black Hawk thought that he would get as they were allies in the War of 1812, Black Hawk began to realize that he and his people were going to be low on food and supplies and began to think about asking the “whites” for a truce so that they may go back to their designated lands across the Mississippi River.

The Illinois militia deployed, and on the night of May 13th between 300 and 400 militiamen reached a base camp near Black Hawk’s tribe under heavy rains.  In the morning they realized that it was too muddy to take supplies out of the camp. Some sources claim that militia were sent to reconnoiter the small tribe when they were attacked.  However according to William B. Green, a Black Hawk War survivor, what happened was far more disgraceful.  The militia didn’t mind leaving most of the supplies that they had but were extremely resistant to leaving the whiskey, which they did not want the Indians getting.  Many of the militiamen decided to finish off the whiskey supply before moving on.  Black Hawk’s scouts had found the party and reported back prior to this, and Black Hawk thought it would be a good time to send three men with a white flag to signify peace and truce.  However, the drunken and now riled up militiamen were not having it.  They killed two of the Indians and the third escaped.  Then the militia attacked the rest of the British Band (most of the young men were out hunting, and only forty braves were there to defend), but they were driven back and chaos ensued.  The camp where the militia spent the night was also attacked and some civilians died according to some sources.  This was later called the Battle of Stillman’s Run, because Major Stillman and his troops all fled.  However the response to dead American civilians and militia was overwhelming.  The settlers began to mobilize a large amount of Illinois and Michigan militiamen and volunteers to fight what was feared to be an even bigger threat than previously thought.

Black Hawk knew now that a war was inevitable and brought his tribesmen up to the Ho-Chunk camp at Lake Koshkonong.  There he left the non-combatants and sent out groups of his braves to raid nearby forts and villages.  This was done, as is right in Sauk culture to avenge the unarmed braves that were killed while asking for a truce.  The British Band began to move again, conducting sieges of forts and raiding villages.  Due to deaths from these activities and a lack of food, as well as disease among the British Band, Black Hawk decided to head back across the Mississippi River, to avoid any more war.  They began to head west, leaving a trail of dead and starved Indians.  At this same point, General Atkinson was being threatened with the loss of his command to General Winfield Scott (incidentally also the man who came up with the Union’s strategy of the anaconda plan in the Civil War).  He was pushing the militia to set out once again to attack the British Band before he lost his command.  On July 15th General Henry left with his 1,200 man brigade to pursue Black Hawk.  Some Menominee Indians went along with them as well to fight the British Band.

At around noon on July 21st, 1832, the state militias passed through Madison, WI.  At this point, while surrounded by hills, they began taking fire by Indians.  Black Hawk claimed that these Indians were patrolling and meant no harm.  It was here that the militias picked up the Indian trail, and as they followed the small group of Indians, who stopped every mile or so to set up another ambush, they were able to kill a few.  Colonel Henry Dodge put the number of Indians killed two, however, many bodies were seen from the British Band (mainly women and children) who had starved or died of other conditions.  The British Band had been attempting to survive off of only bark and roots and the occasional dead pony.  It had been out of food for weeks.  At roughly 5pm the militias caught up to the retreating Indians near the Wisconsin River, in somewhat marshy terrain.  To make matters worse, it was an unusually chilly July day, and it was drizzling and cloudy.  Captain Dickson followed a few Indians with a spy party and discovered the main body crossing the river.  Some had chosen to leave the British Band altogether and made rafts and floated down the river.  These Indians were not out of harms way either, as many of them were caught and killed downstream or starved to death in the woods after escape.  Captain Dickson was discovered spying on the main body of the British Band, and after taking fire, he retreated back to the main line of the militia to assist in the fighting there.  The British Band now realized that an attack was imminent and began to make rafts and to send their women and children across the Wisconsin River.  A small force of between fifty and sixty braves headed out from the retreat area to defend their families.  The Tactics used on the part of the Indians here is illustrated well in the following poem.

The Indians’ usual method of attack,
Is, to approach their foes in a single column,
Or Indian file, so called, direct behind
Some shady tree, that intervening stands;
So keeping range, that each man in the file,
Is from the enemy’s ken completely hid.

This was their manner here. In several files,
Such as above described, behind large trees,
At proper distances apart, which stood,
Approached; then filing off to right and left,
Skulking behind contiguous trees around,
In prompt obedience to their chief’s [Black Hawk’s] command,
Themselves prepared to ope’ a galling fire
Upon the more advanced of their pursuers. (Smith 202)

After the Indians crept up behind trees, they set up their ambush up on a tall ridge, now called “Sharpshooter’s Lookout.”  Black Hawk set up his warriors on this ridge, knowing that it would give them an advantage, and “addressed them in a loud voice, telling them to stand their ground, and never yield it to the enemy.” (Black Hawk 45) As the militiamen began to come down the opposing ridge, Black Hawk gave the command and the braves let loose an intense volley of fire into their opponents, which threw them into chaos for a moment.  After the militiamen regained their bearing and began firing back at the ridge line, the Indians began to retreat.  Black Hawk got upon his horse, drew his sword, and began to rally his troops for a charge up the opposite ridge.  With screeching and yelling the Indians let loose war cries as they ran full force at their enemies.

He was the Leonidas of the western hemisphere, defending his women and children with Spartan bravery on the banks of the Wisconsin river, with a few scattering trees and occasional thickets as his only shields or shelters for a Thermopylae.  Instead of 300 well-fed Greeks, disencumbered even of ordinary baggage, he had but the shadows of 200 Indians encumbered with 1,200 skeleton women and children, with not only his camp equipage, but all the worldly goods of his band. (Armstrong 456)

However, the militiamen, showing great discipline (at least according to Colonel Dodge), waited until the Indians were within thirty meters, and then shot their own intense volleys of gunfire.  This resulted in many Indian casualties from the overwhelming number of militiamen, and the Indians retreated back to their own ridge but were moved from that position soon after by a charge from the men of Colonel Dodge’s company.  Dodge’s troops shifted into an “L” shape after the charge, following the contours of the ridge.  The  Indians had retreated into a deep ravine, which provided the Indians minor cover and concealment until nightfall when both parties retired.  While Black Hawk says he only lost 6 men in this battle, this number differs.  Some sources say he lost as high as forty braves in the battle.  The number of dead and wounded militia is not such a mystery, as the number is placed at only one dead and eight wounded.

During the night, the Indians were able to flee with the remainders of the tribe.  The militia watched from their ridge as the Indians crossed the river, not within firing distance.  As soon as the main body of Black Hawk’s party crossed the river, he took the small remainder of his warriors and retreated across the river as well.  The militia did not follow, and about an hour and a half before dawn the militiamen were startled by a “loud, shrill voice, speaking in an unknown tongue.”  They took it to be Black Hawk, motivating and organizing his tribe for a final assault.  General James Henry then gave a speech to his own troops and told them to prepare for battle.  However, when morning came the oration on the bluff ceased.  It turns out that this voice was that of Neapope, a friend of Black Hawk’s and a fellow chieftain, who was begging for peace (suing for quarters).  However, the Winnebago’s had left the militiamen during the night, and nobody could translate the speech and to understand that it was not hostile, and instead was asking the militia allow Black Hawk’s party to go back across the Mississippi River to the lands given to them by the United States.  They wanted no more conflict.

After this the militia ran into the issue of getting such a large number of men across the river without canoes.  Twelve days later, the militia caught up to Black Hawk again, on an island at the mouth of the Bad Axe river.  Once again one of the braves asked for peace, as the steamboat Warrior, which was full of militiamen, was passing the island.  Once again something was misunderstood, and one of the Winnebago Indians on board began yelling to Black Hawk and his men “Run and hide!  The whites are going to shoot!”  Volleys of fire were exchanged between the steamboat and the island for a little while, until Colonel Dodge and the rest of the men crossed over to the island from shore.  The war ended at this, the Battle of Bad Axe, where nearly the entire tribe was massacred as they attempted to flee.  Many of not most of the Indians killed here were women and children or braves attempting to flee.  Some were killed from boats while trying to swim away while others were shot in the back or stabbed while running.

In the end the battles of Wisconsin Heights and Bad Axe, as well as the war overall had much more to do with Indian treatment and land rights than bloodthirsty Indians trying to start conflict.  It shows simply the thinking of the day when it came to Indians, in an era where they were thought of as nothing more than an obstacle that needed to be removed.  Wars like these are analyzed today and looked upon as a disgrace to American history.

A 1903 map of militia and Indian positions during the battle (

Primary Sources:

1. Black Hawk (1833). Autobiography of Ma-Ka-Tai-Meshe-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk. pp. 45.

2. Green, William B. Chicago Daily Tribune (12 July 1891) “That Black Hawk War: It was no credit to the men who waged it.” pp. 25. Chicago, IL.

3. Powell, William. (1913) “William Powell’s Recollections.” Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin at its 60th annual meeting held Oct. 24, 1912. pp. 146-179. Madison, WI.

4. Dickson, Joseph. “Personal narrative of the Black Hawk War, 1855.” Original manuscript in the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives (SC 1816).

Secondary Sources:

5. Smith, William R (1854). The History of Wisconsin in Three Parts. Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 279-281. Madison, WI.

6. W. A. Titus and L. P. K. (1920). The Wisconsin Magazine of History, “Historic spots in Wisconsin: the Battle of Wisconsin Heights” Vol. 4, No. 1 (Sep., 1920), pp. 55-60

7. Armstrong, Perry A. (1887) The Sauks and the Black Hawk War: With biographical sketches, etc. pp. 449-464. Springfield, IL.

8. Smith, Elbert H. (1848) Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or, Black Hawk, and scenes in the West : a national poem : in six cantos. pp. 200-203.  New York, NY

Further Reading:

Wikipedia. “Battle of Wisconsin Heights.”