There is a strong military tradition in Effingham County. The numerous veterans memorials throughout the area and the large collection of military artifacts in the Effingham County Museum attest to that fact. That tradition goes back to the days when the county was in its infancy, going back to its first year of existence, when in 1832, the young county sent out its first warriors into the Black Hawk War.
This military venture is not one about which most people know much of anything; nonetheless, it was quite important for Illinois history because it was the last united effort of the Indian tribes to drive the whites from the soil of Illinois. To understand the war, one has to journey backward in history to the close of the war of 1812. Black Hawk, who had sided with the British during that war, was a leader of those native tribes who fought against the Americans.
At the close of the war of 1812, Black Hawk established his village at the point where the Rock and Mississippi Rivers converge. Everything seemed to work well until 1830 when Keokuk, without Black Hawk’s knowledge, ceded the lands held by his tribe east of the Mississippi River. The treaty indicated that Black Hawk and his band had to give up their villages, including cornfields and hunting grounds by the following year. That enraged the chief, who then declared the treaty a fraud. He tried to unite all the Indians to resist the white people. At the same time, Keokuk and his band went quietly across the Mississippi.
In the spring of 1831 after Black Hawk and his people returned from their winter hunting trip, they found that the ground where their village had stood was now occupied by a fur trader who was preparing to plant a cornfield of 700 acres. There was an immediate war. Then things quieted down. However, disputes continued to the point that in May that year Governor Reynolds call for volunteers to protect the settlers. When war appeared inescapable, negotiations led Black Hawk and his band across the Mississippi while soldiers took possession of the Indian Village.
Early in the spring of 1832 Blackhawk and his people recrossed the river. General Atkinson, commander of Fort Armstrong, told the chief to retrace his route to the other side of the river. The chief refused. Governor rebels immediately sent General Whiteside with 1,800 volunteers to expel the native tribes from the state. Almost immediately bitter fighting broke out. There were massacres and atrocities on both sides.
Two thousand more men quickly enlisted. Fighting in the northern part of the state spread rapidly. The little group of men was not very strong in numbers, yet a sizable portion of the able-bodied men in the area. The 1883 “History of Effingham County” listed 14 names of the Indian fighters: Alexander McWhorter, John Griffy, Henry P. Bailey, John Trapp, Mike Brockett, John Allen, James Porter, Eli Parkhurst, John Beasley, Isaac Fancher, Alexander Fancher, James Patton, Gideon Louder and John Meeks. Another longtime resident of the county who also served in the war, but was not part of the earliest group, was Harrison Higgs.
These soldiers were part of the Spy Battalion, 3rd Brigade, Illinois Mounted Volunteers, Captain Samuel Huston’s Company. (“Spy” means that the unit served as scouts to find and often be the first to engage the enemy.) Organized on June 7, 1832, with William L.D. Ewing, as commander, the Battalion received marching orders the same day and began the long journey to Fort Wilbourn in LaSalle County.
After arriving at the fort on June 16, the unit was mustered into service on June 19. It was at this same location that on June, 16, 1832, Abraham Lincoln enlisted as a private in Jacob M. Early’s Company. The fort was located on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River near the confluence of the Illinois and Vermilion Rivers, a place often referred to as “The Rapids of Illinois.” In addition to Lincoln, another soon-to-be-famous personality at the Fort was U.S. Army Lieutenant Robert Anderson, who soon would rise to fame as the commander at Fort Sumter in 1861. The Battalion found its own rations in full from the 8th to the 17th of June, then found nearly all the small rations for itself until August 15. The company was mustered out on August 16, 1832, by order of Brigadier General Atkinson.
What did the Effingham soldiers experience during those weeks of service? To begin with, these recruits for the Black Hawk War received $6.66 a month, this amount tripled if they provided their own horse. In addition, militiamen received travel pay, and land grants after the campaign ended.
Again, the 1883 history provides insight into the soldiering experience: “Not a great war, great in its many battles and innumerable slain, but great in its fruit, and its good to all the millions of people in the Mississippi Valley and their descendants. It was not in a war tainted with invasion or conquest, those unholy purposes that stain mankind and make their battles so shocking in brutalism and barbarism; it was to protect their homes, and their wives, and little ones from the tomahawk, the scalping knife, and the fire and faggot of the monster red devils in their cruel and bloody course, that the noble little band went forth. The country has not very graciously remembered these, its true heroes and benefactors. The politicians have had no occasion to spill over the living or the dead of these heroes any of their ocean of crockadile tears in order to catch votes. It has not been fashionable to do so, and there are no fashion-followers that can equal the politicians.”
The book, “The Black Hawk War: Including a Review of Black Hawk’s Life,” written by Frank E. Stevens in 1903, gives greater detail about the battalion’s fighting experience as it describes the unit when it joined in the pursuit of Black Hawk during July of 1832, traveling into today’s Wisconsin: “The Indians opened fire as the advance guard of the whites was passing a stretch of uneven ground, through the high grass and low brush.
Major Ewing’s Battalion was at once formed in front, where the Indians poured their fire into it from behind trees. In a few moments, Henry arrived with the army and formed the order of battle, Colonel Jones being placed to the right, Colonel Collins to the left, Fry in reserve and Ewing in front, with Dodge on the extreme right. In this order, Henry ordered the forces to move. The order to charge the enemy was splendidly executed by Ewing, Jones and Collins, routing the Indians, who retreated to the right and concentrated before Dodge’s Battalion, with obvious intention of turning his flank. Henry sent Major McConnel to Dodge, ordering him to charge the enemy, but this Dodge preferred to delay until he received a reinforcement, whereupon Henry sent Colonel Fry to his aid, and together they charged into the brush and high grass, receiving the fire of the whole body of the enemy...
“A determined stand was made here, but Ewing, Jones and Collins dashed upon them and drove them in scattered squads down into the Wisconsin bottoms. ... ...This was the first time Black Hawk in person had met signal defeat during the campaign. ...”
Fighting continued throughout the year until September when Black Hawk and his captured warriors were sent to Jefferson barracks, near St. Louis. The following spring Black Hawk was taken to Washington, D.C., and then to Fort Monroe. After a trial, he was able to return to his own people having been charged with nothing more than “Honorable warfare.”
Black Hawk regained his position as chief of his tribe, but was subordinate to Keokuk. He then established his home on the Des Moines River, where he lived until his death on Oct. 3, 1835. Historically, he has been called “The last native defender of the soil of Illinois.”