The Battle of Bad Axe – Context

Published on February 15, 2013 by Carol

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1847 illustration of a dead Sauk
and her surviving child being discovered
by a U.S. officer at Bad Axe.

The Battle of Bad Axe was a mostly one-sided affair that has been called a massacre by both modern and historical accounts of the engagement, as well as by those who participated. On 3 August 1832, the day after the battle, Indian Agent Street wrote to William Clark describing the scene at Bad Axe and the events that occurred there. He stated that most of the Sauk and Fox were shot in the water or drowned trying to cross the Mississippi to safety. Major John Allen Wakefield published an account of the war in 1834, which included a description of the battle. His description characterized the killing of women and children as a mistake:

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    “During the engagement we killed some of the squaws through mistake. It was a great misfortune to those miserable squaws and children, that they did not carry into execution [the plan] they had formed on the morning of the battle — that was, to come and meet us, and surrender themselves prisoners of war. It was a horrid sight to witness little children, wounded and suffering the most excruciating pain, although they were of the savage enemy, and the common enemy of the country.”

Black Hawk’s own account, though he was not present at the battle’s second day, termed the incident a massacre. Later histories continued to assail the actions of the whites at Bad Axe. The 1887 Perry A. Armstrong book, The Sauks and the Black Hawk War, called Throckmorton’s actions “inhuman and dastardly” and went on to call him a “second Nero or Calligula [sic]“. In 1898, during events honoring the 66th anniversary of the battle, Reuben Gold Thwaites termed the fight a “massacre” during a speech at the battle site. He emphasized this theme again in a 1903 collection of essays.

Modern-day historians have continued to characterize the battle as a wholesale massacre. Mark Grimsley, a history professor at Ohio State University, concluded in 2005, based on other modern accounts, that the Battle of Bad Axe would be better termed a massacre. Kerry A. Trask’s 2007 work, Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America, points to the writings of Wakefield as evidence that delusional beliefs about doing brave deeds and magnifying manliness spurred the U.S. forces to revel in and pursue massacring and exterminating the Sauk and Fox. Trask concluded that Wakefield’s statement “I must confess, that it filled my heart with gratitude and joy, to think that I had been instrumental, with many others, in delivering my country of those merciless savages, and restoring those people again to their peaceful homes and firesides,” was a viewpoint held by nearly all militia members

Source: Legendsofamerica Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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