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  • Sue Devick

Abraham Lincoln and the Black Hawk War

Sauk war leader Black Hawk crossed the Mississippi River in April of 1832 with around 1,000 Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo followers who proceeded deep into Illinois along the Rock River. Black Hawk had been recruiting warriors to assist him and his "British Band" of warriors in driving out the white pioneers out of Illinois, who were rapidly settling on land that the Native Americans claimed as their homeland. Alarm spread through the region, and the threat of war was summarized in the Galenian newspaper on 5/2/1832:

We are informed by a correspondent at Rock Island, whose knowledge of the

Indians is gained from personal observations, that this mischief has been long

meditated by that [trio] of Indian Chiefs. They have been sending wampum for

the purpose of enlisting them to take part in their nefarious cause. They say, too,

that many will aid them, and that they are promised succor from the British---that

they expect their ammunition, etc., from the British. They have not consented to

listen to the counsels of any Indians who are friendly to the U. States. (Courtesy

of Ben Strand's book A Black Hawk War Guide.)

One of the chiefs mentioned in this editorial was known as "The Prophet," a half-Winnebago, half-Sauk leader of a village of unaffiliated Native Americans at Prophetstown, which was along the Rock River in Illinois, where Black Hawk's followers created an encampment. The Prophet was largely considered an instigator of war against the white settlers. Brigadier General Henry Atkinson of the Western Department of the U.S. Army quickly investigated the intentions of Black Hawk by sending two trusted Sauk braves as emissaries with a very direct warning that included the notification of U.S. President Jackson, referred to as the "Great Father." When advised that they must re-cross the Mississippi without delay, Black Hawk and the Prophet told the messengers that the British Band had been invited by the Winnebago to live there, and that they had no hostile intentions. (The Winnebago tribe generally inhabited land north of the current border between Illinois and Wisconsin; the British Band was comprised of Sauk braves who followed Black Hawk and fought with the British against the Americans during the War of 1812.) The trail of information available to Atkinson caused him to doubt the sincerity of Black Hawk and the Prophet, and he advised Washington of the potential for war. Black Hawk then continued northward with his followers, causing a great deal of fear among the pioneer communities. President Jackson, a force behind the Indian Removal Act of 1830, began preparing for military intervention with his military leaders, which was logistically complicated.

Governor John Reynolds of Illinois, who was familiar with the Native American population of the state, also activated the Illinois militia in April (1832) due to Black Hawk's movements. The allotted daily pay for militia service was only $0.21 per day, or around $6.30 per month, and the participation of the soldiers was voluntary; most were settlers with farms to tend, so their time commitments were brief. Among those who appeared for duty was Abraham Lincoln, who was 23 years old and living in New Salem at the time. He had declared his candidacy for the Illinois House of Representatives in March of 1832; an excerpt of a letter he wrote to his fellow citizens included his statement, "I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life." Most of the enlisted men, including Lincoln, had no weapons, and conditions were harsh. Hostilities began with the Battle of Stillman's Run around May 15, 1832 when an untrained Illinois militia group rapidly retreated after encountering part of the British Band. Lincoln arrived at the site of this battle after it ended, and he assisted in the burial of 12 soldiers who had been scalped. Although he did not actively participate in any military action, he was undoubtedly affected by burying his fellow militia soldiers after the first skirmish of the Black Hawk War.

Lincoln was elected as a Captain of the Rifle company of the 31st Regiment of Militia of Sangamon County, 1st Division, a position he held from April 21, 1832 to May 27, 1832. He was then discharged from duty but reenlisted as a Private, serving again from May 28, 1832 to July 10, 1832. Lincoln's participation in the Black Hawk War proved to be his only military experience before being elected President of the United States in 1860, a year before the onset of the Civil War. He did not attempt to capitalize on his service, but treated it with humor because he did not engage in military action. As President, Lincoln not only faced a civil war between the Union and the Confederacy, but the Dakota War of 1862, an uprising of several bands of Dakota Native Americans known as the Santee Sioux. After militia intervention and military charges brought against the participating Sioux braves, President Lincoln reviewed the death penalties of 303 convicted warriors and approved 39 (with one reprieve), which resulted in the largest mass execution in American history. Lincoln was no longer inexperienced at wartime leadership, and one can only speculate as to whether or not his experience burying the dead Illinois militia soldiers impacted his subsequent handling of the Santee Sioux.

Approximately 36 years after Lincoln's assassination in 1865, a memorial was constructed for him honoring his assistance in burying the soldiers killed at Stillman's Run, and it was located near the site of this battle; it states, "The presence of the Soldier, Statesman, Martyr Abraham Lincoln assisting in the burial of these honored dead has made this spot more sacred." Black Hawk was also honored by a monument outside Oregon (Illinois) which is called The Eternal Indian. At its unveiling in 1911, Ohiyesa, a member of the Sioux Nation, stated, "This monument shall stand, as every day, no doubt, Black Hawk himself stood, in silent prayer to the Great Master at sunrise and sunset. So may this monument stand in silent prayer, proclaiming, to generations to come, that after all we are children of the same Maker, and we are all brothers." The legacy of Black Hawk as well as other indigenous tribes of Illinois and Lincoln's participation in this brief but important Black Hawk War are part of the complex story of human life and interaction here, and current citizens can benefit from comprehending the inter-connectedness of those who lived before us. Although numerous land acknowledgement ceremonies have occurred which recognize the dramatic forced relocation of the indigenous population in Illinois, the topic remains unusually absent from school

curriculums and community historic records. As noted by Dr. Ann Durkin Keating, "We erase this history, which is unfortunate because it offers a fuller, richer understanding of our past." Fullersburg Historic Foundation is anxious to be part of the effort to initiate change in this regard.

Sue Devick, M.A., (with thanks to authors and historians Ben Strand and Ann Durkin Keating):

How was Fullersburg impacted by Lincoln and the conflicts referenced above? As Black Hawk threatened to wage war against the settlers and to recruit the local Potawatomi in present-day DuPage County, many white settlers fled to Fort Dearborn on an indigenous trail that passed through Brush Hill, which became Fullersburg. The Potawatomi village of Sauganakka at this site was the largest in DuPage County. Army General Winfield Scott asked Lt. Sherman King to scout this village and advised him to keep an eye on the Potawatomi at this site. General Scott and some of his officers also passed through Brush Hill on their westward trek to face Black Hawk, who had veered north and west during the summer of 1832. General Scott's troops had been afflicted with cholera, delaying the U.S. Army's full military response. After the 1833 Treaty of Chicago forced the departure of the Native Americans from Illinois, Brush Hill appealed to settlers such as Benjamin Fuller, who traveled by horseback from New York to this area in 1834 and established the future Fullersburg. The village also became a safe haven for fugitive slaves escaping Southern states as early as 1850, with the ratification of the Fugitive Slave Act. Lincoln, who was anti-slavery, stopped in Fullersburg on his way to his first debate with Stephen Douglas in 1859 and spoke to the citizens. Many residents of Fullersburg were involved in a debate club at that time, and several were active participants of the Underground Railroad. Therefore, it is probable that Lincoln received a great deal of support here. After Lincoln was elected President and the Civil War began, numerous residents, including Morell Fuller (brother of Benjamin), enlisted as Union soldiers; they are still honored in an annual Memorial Day celebration at the Historic Fullersburg Cemetery. Since its settlement, Fullersburg had established friendly relations with the local Potawatomi, who continued to visit or pass through the area as late as the early 1860's; Ben Fuller taught them how to shoe their ponies. The citizens of this area, who often expressed compassion for the Native Americans, were probably very conflicted during the Dakota War of 1862; however, there is a local historical source that indicated that the Torode family feared retribution due to the large mass execution of the Dakota braves. Fullersburg had a complex role in the turbulent 19th century, and its rich history should be acknowledged and preserved for future generations. Much more information is available on the site

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