The Battle of Bad Axe
by Peter Shrake
Years ago when I lived in Virginia, it was common to spend a free day hunting the great and obscure fields where Rebels and Yankees, or Redcoats and Patriots had clashed. Upon returning home to the Midwest, however, I found battlefields a rare thing to find. Though Wisconsin has had many great historic moments, warfare has not often found its way into its borders. Yet this region is not entirely void of a violent past, and on a hazy, humid July afternoon, I again found myself on the road hunting for an obscure battlefield. This time it was the Battle of Bad Axe, the last battle of the Black Hawk War of 1832.
Black Hawk, the mighty Sauk war chief, had led a defiant, independent band of his people on a desperate journey through northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin. The previous year, he and his people had been removed from their lands in Illinois and moved into Iowa. Initially, his motives were to return to Saukenuk, his old home village at the confluence of the Rock and Mississippi Rivers. There, his hungry people could harvest the corn left over from the previous fall and perhaps convince the whites now living in the area, who had recently obtained his land, to let him live on his ancient homestead in peace.
Instead, in a cruel twist of fate, the entire white population of the old northwest perceived his actions as a move to wage war. Black Hawk had been a fierce warrior fighting on behalf of the British in the recently concluded War of 1812. Now he had come back with over 1,000 of his people and the settlers of Illinois and Wisconsin were terrified.
Mobilizing an army of Regular soldiers and militia, the federal government chased Black Hawk up the Rock River into Wisconsin. In swampy terrain, near what is today Madison, Wis., the Sank warrior gave his pursuers the slip and headed west hoping to reach the Mississippi and cross into Iowa. As circumstance would have it though, a band of militia under Colonel Henry Dodge discovered his trail and the pursuit was on again. Fighting a holding action near Sauk City, Black Hawk crossed the Wisconsin river and passed through Sauk county on his way to the Mississippi; reaching that river in the last days of July.
I hit the road traveling down highway 60, a beautiful stretch of pavement closely hugging the Wisconsin river all the way to Prairie du Chien. Black Hawk and his followers had followed a similar path for a while. Following his river crossing at Sauk City, he traveled along the west bank of the river as far as Spring Green. At that point, he turned north and traveled overland to the Mississippi River; coming out north of Prairie du Chien near the mouth of the Bad Axe River.
After several hours of driving in stifling heat, (the air conditioner in my truck died some time ago) I finally reached my destination, only to find the battlefield dissected by highways, private property and state land. Despite this, if one is willing to spend the time, you can see the site in its entirety. I traveled first up a back road to trace the origins of the battle; a spot where the Sauk posted 20 men to act as a decoy to distract the pursuing army while the remaining fugitives attempted to cross the mighty river. It was a pretty, airy spot in the highland behind the main river bluffs. Rolling green fields framed by wooded patches created a beautiful spot for 20 warriors to die as they were hit by the Regular army.
Another back road took me up the hollow where the militia, and later the Regulars, under General Henry Atkinson, combined to push the remnants of the Sauk band into the river. It was a running battle through hills, swamps and lowlands, through tangled brambles and brackish water. It was through this hellish terrain that the militia and the Regulars pushed Black Hawk's people with determination and growing ferocity.
The Sauk and Fox had little choice but to fight their way to the river. Perhaps if they survived the onslaught on land, they may be able to swim the swift currents and still get across to Iowa safely. Following the path of the battle, I crossed highway 35, which bisects the battle site, to find that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a campground on the spot where the Sauk and Fox were forced into the water.
Driving through the campground, I passed what had to be hundreds of people enjoying themselves on this hot and beautiful summer afternoon. Deep into the park, I came to a solitary, covered stone marker near the bank of the river marking the spot where the warriors, women and children were forced into the river. That day in 1832 this site was a scene of utter carnage. Those who did not drown were cut down by the relentless militia. Some tried to make it to an island in the channel, but were chased by a detachment of Regulars. It had to have been chaos.
Looking up from the stone marker, I walked to the river's edge and stood for a moment trying to imagine the horror, the smoke and the screams. I heard screams. I heard laughter. I saw people thrashing in the water; but they were not Native American. They were the happy campers who were camping on the once bloody ground. The site where the Sauk and Fox were cut down like dogs is now a beach where children and adults play and enjoy the cool backwaters of the mighty Mississippi.
The irony of the present situation almost seems grotesque when compared with the history of the site. Perhaps I found it galling because only a single, small stone marks the site. Or perhaps I was sickened that almost no one around me was aware or probably cared what had happened on this spot; on the very beach they were playing on. But the more I thought about it, the more my attitude changed. At least the site was preserved. Those who did know the story of the Battle of Bad Axe could access the site. And a place once the scene of savage butchery is now a peaceful place of enjoyment, and that is maybe even more fitting than a grim marker noting the death of so many.
I have seen many cases where places and things are sometimes preserved without people even realizing it. In the end, what is significant about Bad Axe, or for that matter, any historical site or object is that it is
saved for posterity. Saved so that 100 years from now our great grandchildren can see and learn the important lessons of history. I guess how we get to that point is irrelevant.