- Illinois in the War of 1812
War of 1812, Illinois, Native Americans
Occasionally the notice of a forthcoming history is met with an audible sigh of relief, perhaps alloyed with an array of giddy smiles. Historians of the War of 1812, as well as scholars of the Midwest, have spent years bemoaning the lack of a modern, comprehensive treatment of Illinois’ role in that conflict. Many others, especially outside of academia, would question whether Illinois played any role in that war at all. Into this void steps Gillum Ferguson, an attorney and amateur historian. One says “amateur” in this context with some caution, as Ferguson has published a number of articles on the subject, and in general the research and writing compare favorably with any professional treatment imaginable.
Part of the reason historians have ignored Illinois’ role in the War of 1812—a war that itself has been comparatively neglected—is the fact that there was little activity by British regular troops in the region. In Illinois, the fighting was primarily between Indians loosely allied to Britain and the citizenry of Illinois and the surrounding territories—Wisconsin, Indiana, and Missouri. Ferguson rightly begins with an assessment of the difficulties faced by Illinoisans when the conflict began. As the few Federal troops available were stationed elsewhere, the Illinois Territory’s militia—”every white man between the ages of eighteen and forty-five”—would bear the brunt of the war. They risked more than life and limb to do so. They were required to provide their own arms, which was surprisingly difficult, as firearms were relatively scarce and therefore strikingly expensive in this frontier region. Ferguson notes that, from a strictly financial standpoint, militia service could be debilitating. “Nearly every man called from his farm into active military service was the sole support of himself and his family, and extended service in the field could severely disrupt his ability to meet the unforgiving rhythm of the growing season” (10). The fact that their payment from the Federal government might take months, years, or infinity only made things worse.
Because the war took the form of a frontier “Indian war,” there were few large set-piece battles, but rather a seemingly endless string of raids and counterraids. One of Ferguson’s great achievements, for which we are truly indebted to him, is the painstaking way he compiles and chronicles—from a broad array of sources—these nearly innumerable incidents. [End Page 736] He also introduces the primary characters in this drama, from the Potawatomi chief Gomo, who labored to maintain his people’s neutrality even when they were attacked indiscriminately by Illinois settlers, to the Whiteside family’s two generations of famed frontier fighters. One of the more intriguing characters is Illinois’ appointed territorial governor, Ninian Edwards of Virginia. Edwards comes off quite well in the narrative, painted as a man who put duty above personal gain and strove, with little encouragement or even acknowledgement from Washington, to protect his citizenry. Secretary of War John Armstrong literally would not even answer Edwards’s letters, except to demote his role in military defense. Still, Edwards soldiered on.
The majority of the region’s Indians who took sides fought against the United States, inspired by Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet, and his brother Tecumseh. Ferguson notes that most of the Prophet’s warriors at the battle of Tippecanoe (Nov. 7, 1811) were actually from Illinois tribes. Many of these warriors returned to Illinois after the battle to preach “the gospel of resistance among their own tribes” (41). The fierce Potawatomi warrior–prophet Main Poc and the Sauk warrior Black Hawk, who later became a much larger figure in a much smaller war, also make appearances. The years 1812 and 1813 proved difficult for Illinoisans. Terrifying attacks from warriors of the Kickapoo, Sauk, Fox, Winnebago, Menominee, and Potawatomi nations rained down on settlers, as well as neutral and allied nations. Ferguson is careful to note that the Illinoisans’ position was made far more tenuous by Federal neglect and local...