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.
– Abraham Lincoln, 1848, in Congress
Many US presidents have been noted for their martial prowess. The fledgling republic's first ever Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, was a renowned military man, veteran of the French and Indian War as well as the US War of Independence. Andrew Jackson, who fought as a teenager in the Revolution, was known for his leadership in the War of 1812 and the Creek War. Other early war-hero presidents included William Henry Harrison, aka 'Old Tippecanoe' for his victory over Tecumseh's Indian coalition, John Tyler, his successor, who served with the militia during the War of 1812, and Zachary Taylor, a career army man who attained the rank of major general. Even Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, not regarded very highly as presidents, had served in the Mexican War1. So it's not surprising that somebody might ask Abe Lincoln what he did in the fighting line.
It wouldn't be surprising, either, to find that Lincoln would make light of his military service, such as it was. Lincoln wasn't known for his lust for military glory, nor for his approval of war. But he was an odd sort of pacifist. The 6'4" rail-splitter was far and away the strongest man on the Illinois-Indiana frontier in the 1830s, able to accomplish physical feats that amazed onlookers. Some of his best friends were rowdy individuals, such as the Clary's Grove Boys, sort of a biker gang in the days before motorcycles. When Abe first met the Boys, he had to fight their leader, a young man named Armstrong, to gain their respect. After that, Abe was in tight with the gang, and they were his staunch defenders. Once, when Lincoln was making a political speech, a fight broke out between one of the Clary's Grove Boys and a heckler. Lincoln, seeing that his friend was getting the worst of it, jumped down into the crowd, tossed the offender to the side – about ten or twelve feet – then climbed back onto his soapbox and continued speaking. He got a lot of votes that way.
When it came to armed conflict, however, Lincoln was no Napoleon. During his service, Lincoln failed to win any medals. As a militia commander he was popular, but unable to discipline his men. And, as he said, he didn't see any fighting, which was just as well. He did see a few scalped soldiers, and march quite a distance through the wilderness, as he did his bit during the Black Hawk War, which he entered as a captain and ended, honourably, as a private. Did he learn anything that could later stand him in good stead as Commander-in-Chief of the bloodiest war in US history? Somehow, we doubt it. In the end, nothing much came of Lincoln's military career – but that's getting ahead of the story. First, we should ask ourselves: what was frontier military service really like? And how did Abe end up in the army?
177. First Motion. Half face to the right, on the left heel, placing at the same time the right foot square behind the left heel, the hollow of the foot resting against that heel; turn the firelock, with the left hand, the lock outward's, at the same time seizing the small of the stock with the right hand, the firelock being detached from the shoulder, and supported perpendicularly on the palm of the left hand remaining under the butt.
– This, and much more, in United States War Department, Abstract of infantry tactics: including exercises and manoeuvres of light-infantry and riflemen: for use of militia of U.S., 1830.
America's independence was won by militiamen. As the young republic grew, militias continued to be the norm. America's professional army was laughably small, but in an emergency, such as an attack by hostile Indians or British, the generals could always count on a levy of local troops, called out by the governor of the state or territory. Officially, all males between 18 and 45 were in this citizen army. They were required, when called upon, to supply their own horses, guns, ammunition and other equipment. To ensure their combat readiness, these warriors were required to train.
In Illinois, they were required to do this for a whole day, every six months. According to a participant interviewed by Ida M Tarbell in 1895, the penalty for failure to do this was a $1 fine. 'As a dollar was hard to raise... everybody drilled.'2
We can imagine the depth of their military expertise. What a comfort they must have been to then-Colonel Zachary Taylor! Although they had little or no sense of soldiering, as long as they kept their powder dry, he'd cope. He could even deal with the elected officers. Yes, they elected officers. And, of course, the draftees from New Salem, Illinois – including the Clary's Grove Boys and Mentor Graham the schoolteacher, elected Abe Lincoln as their captain. Abe did the best he could, although he had not read that army manual, which made drilling a bit difficult when he had to get the men to march through a gate. It was harder than it looked, and Abe opted for the solution of an inspired amateur:
I could not for the life of me remember the proper word of command for getting my company endwise, so that it could get through the gate; so, as we came near the gate, I shouted, 'This company is dismissed for two minutes, when it will fall in again on the other side of the gate!'
– Abraham Lincoln3
Colonel Taylor and the other professionals knew what to do. They made the officers responsible for the men. Lincoln was twice disciplined because his company failed to keep order in the camp. When his men stole some liquor and were too drunk to fall out in the morning, he had to wear a wooden sword for two days. Since Lincoln loved to tell these stories about himself, we can enjoy the thought of his relating these camp experiences to, say, Ulysses S Grant, while they were planning strategy during the Civil War. It probably broke the tension.
What Was the Black Hawk War About?
The Black Hawk War was fought during May to August 1832, in Illinois and the Michigan Territory. Black Hawk, leader of a warrior group called the 'British Band'4, along with Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi allies, opposed the US Army, frontier militiamen, and their Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Dakota and Potawatomi allies. At issue were treaty violations on both sides, and dispute over territory. In the end, the United States forces won.
After the war, Black Hawk and his fellow leaders were briefly imprisoned near St Louis5, then taken on a tour of eastern US cities. This was a common tactic used to impress native leaders with the size and power of the new nation. The warrior leaders were shown military parades, a battleship, and various public buildings. In the east, the Indians were treated as visiting celebrities, although they met with a hostile reception in Detroit, nearer the original fighting. The tribes that had engaged in the war were forcibly relocated to Iowa.
The main importance of the Black Hawk War was that it marked the end of Indian resistance in the old Northwest Territory. The unrest also lent public support to Andrew Jackson and other politicians who supported the forced removal of tribal people to the west of the Mississippi. As a politician, Abraham Lincoln, a Whig, would oppose the policies of Andrew Jackson and his Democrats. As a frontier militiaman, Lincoln was obliged to oppose Black Hawk, because to do otherwise would be to doom himself and his neighbours to slaughter.
Zachary Taylor, Troop Motivator
The mostly volunteer force spent weeks chasing around the wilderness after Black Hawk without finding him. Finally, a body of 340 rangers under a Major Stillman went ahead of the army, found Black Hawk's warriors – and were promptly put to flight. This staggering defeat, known as Stillman's Run, disgusted the militiamen. When Colonel Zachary Taylor tried to lead his troops across the Rock River into Indian Territory, they balked. As Illinois militia, they refused to engage in out-of-state warfare. To express their feelings, they held what was called an 'indignation meeting'.
Taylor remained calm. He spoke to the meeting, explained that he respected the rights of freeborn American citizens, etc, etc, but he had his orders from Washington, and he intended to obey them. If the militia wouldn't go with him, the regular soldiers – who were lined up behind them – would. 'Here are the flatboats drawn up on the shore, and here are Uncle Sam's men drawn up behind you on the prairie.' Taylor said. The militia wised up and went.
Abraham Lincoln, Scout
By 27 May, the pursuit of Black Hawk had led the army as far as Ottawa, Illinois. At this point, even Taylor gave up on the militia. The regular commanders dissolved the volunteer units and sent them home. Lincoln, along with a number of former commanders, promptly re-enlisted in the remaining force - as privates. This explains why Lincoln started the war as a captain and ended as an enlisted man. As a private, Lincoln was better off: he got better rations, and he was assigned to an elite scout unit. He might not know the manual of arms, but he knew the countryside.
Lincoln never caught sight of Black Hawk's warriors, but he witnessed their handiwork. On 25 June, he and his fellow rangers came upon the remains of the Kellogg's Grove skirmish. We'll let him tell it:
I remember just how those men looked as we rode up the little hill where their camp was. The red light of the morning sun was streaming upon them as they lay heads towards us on the ground. And every man had a round red spot on the top of his head about as big as a dollar, where the redskins had taken his scalp. It was frightful, but it was grotesque; and the red sunlight seemed to paint everything all over. I remember that one man had buckskin breeches on.
– Abraham Lincoln6
On the way back from the campaign, Lincoln and his friends had their horses stolen. They walked all the way back home. Their only food on the way was a small amount of meal, which they mixed with water and baked in rolls of bark on the campfire. At Peoria, they bought a canoe, paddled down the Illinois River to Havana, sold the canoe and hiked the rest of the way home. Lincoln was no richer, and probably not a lot wiser, than when he'd started.
What Did He Learn?
Lincoln's military service was nothing to boast about. In fact, the man himself used it as a source of stories, mostly amusing, some poignant. Why should anyone care what happened to the future president during the spring and summer of 1832? For one thing, the US Civil War.
The war that took place while Lincoln was President – the war he was personally in charge of – cost 600,000 lives. Lincoln had no formal training for the immense job he took on: the day-to-day running of a massive war effort, controlled by telegraph and correspondence from the White House. But it cannot be said that Lincoln didn't know what war looked like. He may not have had the grand perspective of a Wellington, but he had the in-the-mud view of a footsoldier. Before he knew what it was to send men to die in their tens of thousands – at Antietam, at Gettysburg – he'd looked army life in the face. He'd seen the civilians dropping everything, even their half-risen bread dough, to scurry for the forts, away from the fighting. Lincoln knew what war was: chaos and mass murder. Lincoln was no Caesar: he wasn't even a Zachary Taylor. He may not have learned much in the way of strategy, but he did have army experience to draw on.