About this time, Gen. Whitesides had concentrated a large force of militia at Dixon’s Ferry, and at the solicitation of Major Stillman, permitted him to take out a scouting party of nearly 300 mounted men. They went up Rock river, about thirty miles to Sycamore creek, and encamped within a few miles of Black Hawk’s camp, but were not aware of its position at the time. Indian scouts having intercepted their coming reported at once to Black Hawk that a large army of mounted militia were coming towards his camp; and before the volunteers had entirely completed their arrangements for encampment, outside guards espied three Indians coming in with a white flag. After holding a parley with them, (one of the guards being able to talk a little with them in their own language), they were hurried into camp, and before any explanations were made, the flag bearer was shot and instantly killed, whilst his comrades made their escape during the confusion in getting the regiment ready to pursue the fleeing Indians. These had secreted themselves in ambush as the army rushed by, helter skelter, after another small party of Indians who had followed the flag bearers, and who, when hearing the uproar in camp made a hasty retreat. The entire regiment was soon mounted and started out in squads towards the camp of Black Hawk. The latter having learned by a scout that the army was coming, started at once with less than fifty mounted warriors, his entire force then in camp, to meet the enemy, and on arriving at a copse of timber and underbrush near Sycamore creek, made ready to meet them.
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Capt. Eads’ company, who were the first to start out, killed two of the five fleeing Indians. Soon after crossing Sycamore creek they were surprised by a terrific war whoop from the Indians, who were concealed in the bushes near by, and with deadly aim commenced firing into the front ranks of the regiment, and with unearthly yells (as one of the fleeing party told us on arriving at Galena), charged upon our ranks, with tomahawks raised, ready to slaughter all who might come within their reach. Judging from the yelling of the Indians, their number was variously estimated at from one thousand to two thousand.
The entire party was thrown into such confusion that Major Stillman had no control of any of them, and, with one exception, the entire army continued their flight to Dixon’s Ferry, thirty miles distant, whilst some went back to their homes.
The retreating army passed through their camping ground near Sycamore creek, where they should have halted, and under cover of the timber, could have shot down their pursuers while yet in open prairie. Black Hawk and a small portion of his command gave up the chase, and returned to his camp, while the remainder pursued the fugitives for several miles, occasionally overtaking and killing some soldiers, whose horses had given out.
Among the retreating party was a Methodist preacher, whose horse was too slow to keep out of the reach of the Indians, who adopted a novel plan to save himself and horse. On coming to a ravine he left the track of his pursuers name distance, and followed down the ravine until he found a place deep enough to shelter himself and horse from view, and remained there for two hours in safety. He had the precaution to keep a strict count of the Indians as they went forward, and waited their return. Being satisfied that all had returned and continued on the way to their camp, he quietly left his hiding place, trotted leisurely along and reached Dixon’s Ferry about sunrise next morning.
He reported his mode of procedure and the strategy used to render his safety certain from the Indians who had dispersed and driven the army before them. He was interrogated into the number, and when he reported Twenty, great indignation was manifested by some of the “brave” volunteers who had got into camp some hours before him, and reported the number at fifteen hundred to two thousand! But as he was well known to many of the volunteers and highly respected as a meek and lowly Christian gentleman, they stood by him and prevented any personal violence.
When the report of this fiasco came into Galena the next morning about 8 o’clock, on the 15th of May, our regiment was immediately called to arms, as great danger was apprehended by the citizens. The general supposition was that the Pottawattomie and Winnebago had joined Black Hawk, it being well known that his entire band, including women and children, that had gone up Rock river, did not exceed one thousand persons. Dwellings were vacated and most of the inhabitants repaired to the stockades for safety.
The news of Stillman’s defeat “by 2,000 blood-thirsty Indian warriors” spread fast, far and wide, and the Governor of Illinois called for more volunteers; and when the news reached Washington, the Secretary of War ordered Gen. Scott, then at New York, to take a thousand soldiers and proceed to the seat of war and take command of the army.
This violation of a flag of truce, the wanton murder of its bearers, and the attack upon a mere remnant of Black Hawk’s band when sueing for peace, precipitated a war that should have been avoided.
[In confirmation of the dastardly act of the volunteers in killing the bearer of a white flag, and by which the war was precipitated, we give the following letter of Mr. Elijah Kilbourn, one of the scouts connected with Stillman’s command. Mr. K. is the man Black Hawk makes mention of in his narrative as having been taken captive during our last war with Great Britain, and by him adopted into the Sac tribe; and again taken prisoner by three of his braves at the battle of Sycamore creek.]