Lincoln and the Black Hawk War

By Dale Thomas
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2004, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from a chapter of Dale Thomas’s book, Lincoln’s Old Friends of Menard County, Illinois. After his failure to win the Whig nomination for Congress in 1843, Lincoln wrote to a political associate: “It is truly gratifying to me to learn that while the people of Sangamon [County] have cast me off, my old friends of Menard [County] who have known me longest and best of any, still retain their confidence in me.”1

Abraham Lincoln about the time of the Black Hawk War

On April 7, 1832, fife and drum announced the spring muster of militiamen around the region of New Salem. All white males from eighteen to forty-five, according to state law, had to assemble four times a year, but the regulation was often ignored in favor of a yearly muster. William G. Greene, twenty years old, stood in a casual formation with his cousins, Bennet Abell and Mentor Graham, along with Lincoln and the other men who were part of the Thirty-first Regiment of Illinois. A militiaman was supposed to “provide himself with a good musket or rifle with proper accoutrements.”2 But these citizen soldiers did not look like a military unit with “some sitting, some lying, some standing on one foot, some on both — every variety of weapon, the cornstalk, the umbrella and riding whip predominating.”3

Governor John Reynolds

Nine days later, Governor John Reynolds of Illinois called for mounted volunteers to reinforce federal troops opposing Black Hawk, chief of the Sauks and Foxes, who had led his braves across the Mississippi River, one hundred miles northwest of New Salem. Black Hawk, sixty-seven at the time, had violated an agreement to stay out of Illinois, but his initial purpose was planting corn until some local militiamen fired the first shots in what became known as the Black Hawk War. Most of the fighting would take place near the northern border of Illinois. If there had been a true emergency in the state, Reynolds could have called up the entire militia of one hundred and fifty thousand, but the Indians only numbered between four and five hundred braves.4

Volunteers to fight Black Hawk eventually totaled around nine thousand men, most of whom were motivated by an intense hatred of Native Americans. Less than twenty years earlier, the Territorial Government of Illinois had given a fifty dollar bounty for a “hostile” Indian’s scalp and only two dollars for a wolf’s pelt. “An antipathy since childhood,” wrote an Englishman traveling through Illinois, “they should not mind shooting an Indian than a wild cat or raccoon.”5

William G. Greene

According to a biography written in 1863, Lincoln had a somber conversation with Greene after hearing of Reynolds’s request for volunteers.6 “I shall enlist,” he said, “Black Hawk is one of the most treacherous Indians there is, and I hope he will be shot.”

“Just like an Indian,” Greene said. “The only way to keep them in their place is to show them no quarter.”

“I don’t know about that,” Lincoln said, “though I am certain we have got to fight Black Hawk to save ourselves. He is a cunning, artful warrior, and determined to massacre all the whites he can.”

Twenty-three years old and nearly out of work, Lincoln may have seen the political advantages of being a war veteran, as he was considering a run for state representative. “In less than a year,” he later wrote, “Offutt’s business was failing — had almost failed — when the Black Hawk war of 1832 — broke out.” New Salem swelled with “military ardor. Enlistments progressed rapidly.”7 On April 21, Lincoln, Greene, John Rutledge, Royal Clary, William F. Berry, and Jack Armstrong joined the other young men of the region, who were mostly in their early twenties or late teens, traveling to Richland and volunteering for thirty days. They were assigned to Company A of the first division of Illinois forces to fight the “British Band” as Black Hawk’s warriors were called.8

Before leaving New Salem, Greene, now a private, claimed his father had spoken to the men without Lincoln’s knowledge: “There’s no question about it, Abe is altogether the best man for captain.” They were in agreement, but many of them believed Lincoln was too modest to be a candidate. “Well then, you must keep the matter close, but have a fair understanding among yourselves. Whisper the matter about, so that every vote will be right.”9

“We will press him into service,” Pvt. Greene said. After the election, he humorously greeted him: “Captain Lincoln, your honor!”

“None of your fun at my expense,” Lincoln answered, knowing Greene was kidding and showing respect at the same time.10 Lincoln later wrote that he “joined a volunteer company, and to his own surprise, was elected captain of it,.. [and] has not since had any success in life which gave him so much satisfaction.”11

Black Hawk

The New Salem Company rode to Beardstown, joining the other volunteers who awaited orders to move north. “The whole time that I was out,” an enlistee from St. Clair County said, “I never witnessed a company drill…. I never heard a roll-call in the whole Brigade.” He felt like the men were “going on some frivolous holiday excursion, and not to encounter hostile Indians.”12 On the last day of April, the citizen army left for Yellow Banks on the Mississippi River. The carnival atmosphere soon turned into a nightmare of cold rain, swollen streams, and prairie mud. Motivated by promises of food and whiskey at the end of the journey, the army found neither as it rode into Yellow Banks on the night of May 3. Hungry volunteers openly cursed Governor Reynolds, army commander, as they waited for two days before steamers arrived with supplies. In the mean time, local farmers suffered the foraging of militiamen, unlike Black Hawk’s braves who had passed through the region a month earlier. Reynolds’ militia met the federal troops at Fort Armstrong on May 7, and the two armies moved northeast from the mouth of Rock River in pursuit of Black Hawk. After the thirty day enlistment expired, the New Salem Company was disbanded, and most of the men returned home without seeing any action. Lincoln, however, reenlisted twice as a private, serving until a month before the war ended with the Battle of Bad Axe on August 2, 1832.13

Speaking on the floor of Congress in 1848, Lincoln joked about his militia days in which he had never seen any fighting: “By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know I am a military Hero? Yes sir; in the days of the Black Hawk war, I fought, bled, and came away…. I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes; and, although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.”14

Greene was impressed with his company commander, especially when an “old Indian came to camp & delivered himself up, showing us an old paper written by Lewis Cass, stating that the Indian was a good & true man. Many of the men of the Army said, ‘we have come out to fight the Indians and by God we intend to do so.’ Mr. Lincoln in the goodness & kindness and humanity & justice of his nature stood — got between the Indian and the outraged men — saying — ‘Men this must not be done — he must not be shot and killed by us.’ Some of the men remarked – – ‘The Indian is a damned Spy.’ Still Lincoln stood between the Indian & the vengeance of the outraged soldiers… Some of the men said to Mr. Lincoln — ‘This is cowardly on your part Lincoln.’ Lincoln remarked, ‘If any man thinks I am a coward let him test it,’ rising to an unusual height. One of the Regiment made this reply to Mr. Lincoln last remarks –‘Lincoln — you are larger & heavier than we are.’ ‘This you can guard against — Choose your weapons,’ replied Mr. Lincoln somewhat sourly. This soon put to silence quickly all charges of the cowardice of Lincoln.”15

Prior to Lincoln saving the Indian’s life, Royal Clary, who told the same story as Greene, said they came upon the scene of a battle that had just taken place: “Whites lost 12 killed — found 11 — 25 were wounded. They were horribly mangled — heads cut off — hearts taken out – disfigured in every way… [And some time later, the] Indians had committed depredations on Fox River — had killed some men, women & children… We saw the scalps they had taken [at the Pottawatomie camp] — scalps of old women & children.”16

Two weeks before the August election, Lincoln returned to New Salem. “Having lost his horse, near where the town of Janesville, Wisconsin, now stands,” Greene recalled, “he went down Rock River to Dixon in a canoe. Thence he crossed the country on foot to Peoria, where he again took [a] canoe to a point on the Illinois River, within forty miles of home. The latter distance he accomplished on foot.”17

While campaigning, Lincoln stayed with the Abells, whose cousin later took most of the credit for suggesting he enter politics. “Going to send you to the Legislature,” Greene supposedly had said to Lincoln, who thought he was joking: “You are crazy, William, and all the rest of you who entertain such a thought. What! Run me, nothing but a strapping boy, against such men of experience and wisdom!”18 In the end, though, Lincoln agreed, but he was not optimistic about his chances of being successful. “That is impossible. I should not expect to be elected…”19

A mile north of the Abell farm that summer, Lincoln spoke in the new town which would soon outgrow and eclipse New Salem. Greene stood in the crowd as Lincoln “addressed the people in the town of Petersburg on the election and the causes which he advocated. It was what the world would call an awkward speech, but it was a powerful one, cutting the center every shot.”20

On August 6, 1832, the voters of Sangamon County selected four state legislators from a list of thirteen. Even though New Salem precinct gave him 277 out of 300 votes cast, Lincoln finished eighth in the county where he was generally not known. Grateful for the support given him, Lincoln “was now without means and out of business, but was anxious to remain with his friends who had treated him with so much generosity, especially as he had nothing elsewhere to go.”21


  1. Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858, Vol. I, 106.
  2. Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809 -1858, Vol. I, 120.
  3. “Independent Military Companies of Sangamon County,” (Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 3:23).
  4. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, 76.
  5. Cecil Eby, That Disgraceful Affair, the Black Hawk War, 99 -100.
  6. William M. Thayer, The Pioneer Boy and How He Became President, 245.
  7. Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859 -1865, Vol. II, 164.
  8. Database of Illinois Black Hawk War Veterans on website of the Illinois State Archives.
  9. Thayer, 247 -249.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Fehrenbacher, Vol. II, 164. Lincoln may have been originally elected captain on April 7, 1832 and reelected two weeks later on the farm of Greene’s father; Eby, 108.
  12. Eby, 106.
  13. Ibid., 110 -112. Thayer, 252 -253.
  14. Fehrenbacher, Vol.I, 214.
  15. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, ed., Herndon’s Informants, 18-19.
  16. Ibid., 371-372.
  17. Thayer, 253.
  18. Michael Burlingame, ed., An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, 19.
  19. Thayer, 254 -255.
  20. Wilson and Davis, 20. President Lincoln appointed William Graham Greene the collector of internal revenue for Illinois.
  21. Fehrenbacher, Vol.II, 164.

References (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809 -1858 (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928) Vol. I.

Michael Burlingame, ed., An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays (Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern University Illinois Press, 1996).

Database of Illinois Black Hawk War Veterans on website of the Illinois State Archives (

Cecil Eby, That Disgraceful Affair, the Black Hawk War (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1973).

Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858 (New York: The Library of America, 1989) Vol. I.

Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859 -1865 (New York: The Library of America, 1989) Vol. II.

William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln (New York: Da Capo Press, 1983).

Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 3:23; “Independent Military Companies of Sangamon County.”

William M. Thayer, The Pioneer Boy and How He Became President (Boston: Walker, Wise and Co., 1863).

Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, ed., Herndon’s Informants (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998).