Battle of Apple River Fort
|Battle of Apple River Fort|
|Part of the Black Hawk War|
Reconstructed Apple River Fort, near its original site
|Commanders and leaders|
|Casualties and losses|
The Battle of Apple River Fort, also known as the Siege of Apple River Fort, occurred on June 24, 1832 at the hastily constructed Apple River Fort, in present-day Elizabeth, Illinois, when Black Hawk and his "British Band" of Sauk and Fox stumbled across a group of messengers en route from Galena, Illinois. The small group of militia at the fort, led by Captain Clack Stone, fought off Chief Black Hawk's band in a firefight that lasted for 45 minutes. The withering pace of the gunfire eventually convinced Black Hawk that the fort was too heavily defended to lead a direct attack, and he and his band of warriors retreated.
After the battle, certain individuals were honored above the others for their bravery in assisting the numerically inferior force. Elizabeth Armstrong rallied the settlement's women, who had taken shelter inside the fort, to mold musket balls and reload weapons so that the militia could keep up with the pace of the battle. Fred Dixon rode ahead to warn some 40 settlers of the approaching Sauk and Fox, thus saving their lives. Though the fort was torn down in 1847, a replica was built in its place and still stands in Elizabeth. George Herclerode was the only casualty inside the fort.
As a consequence of an 1804 treaty between the Governor of Indiana Territory and a group of Sauk and Fox leaders regarding land settlement, the Sauk and Fox tribes vacated their lands in Illinois and moved west of the Mississippi in 1828. However, Sauk Chief Black Hawk and others disputed the treaty, claiming that the full tribal councils had not been consulted, nor did those representing the tribes have authorization to cede lands. Angered by the loss of his birthplace, between 1830–31 Black Hawk led a number of incursions across the Mississippi River, but was persuaded to return west each time without bloodshed. In April 1832, encouraged by promises of alliance with other tribes and the British, he again moved his so-called "British Band" of around 1000 warriors and non-combatants into Illinois. Finding no allies, he attempted to return to Iowa, but the undisciplined Illinois militia's actions led to the Battle of Stillman's Run. A number of other engagements followed, and the militias of Michigan Territory and Illinois were mobilized to hunt down Black Hawk's Band. The conflict became known as the Black Hawk War.
The period between Stillman's Run and the Battle of Apple River Fort was filled with war-related activity and events. A series of attacks at Buffalo Grove, the Plum River settlement, Fort Blue Mounds and the war's most famous incident, the Indian Creek massacre, all took place between mid-May and late June 1832. The week preceding the Battle of Apple River Fort was an important turning point for the militia: between June 16–18 two key battles, one at Waddams Grove and the other at Horseshoe Bend, played a key role in changing public perception about the militia after its defeat at Stillman's Run.
|Map of Black Hawk War sites
Battle (with name) Fort / settlement Native village
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Following the militia's disastrous defeat at Stillman's Run in May, settlers in the lead-mining region around Galena panicked; many left the area altogether. The exaggerated claim that 2,000 "bloodthirsty warriors were sweeping all Northern Illinois with the bosom of destruction" sent terror through the region. At the Apple River Settlement, the situation prompted residents to form a 46-man militia under Captain Vance L. Davidson. By late May Davidson was at the Plum River settlement (present-day Savanna, Illinois) and Captain Clack Stone had taken over command; under his lead the Apple River Fort was completed by May 22, 1832. In the days immediately preceding June 18, 1832, Apple River Fort's stables were broken into and horses were stolen during the night. This incident was one of several around that time that led Illinois militia officer James W. Stephenson to clash with British Band warriors at Waddams Grove on June 18.
On June 24, 1832, a supply wagon from Galena arrived at Apple River Fort around noon. Unknown to the men traveling with the wagon, Black Hawk and his British Band, also en route to the fort, had fallen in line with them. Black Hawk's forces were able to elude detection until the time they opened fire. As the wagon team unhitched, four men traveling on the trail from Galena passed by; the women inside the fort were eager to hear their news of the conflict with Black Hawk.
There were 20–25 armed militia inside Apple River Fort at the time of the attack. Another 40 women, children and other settlers were resident in the Apple River Settlement. Stone was in command of the garrison stationed at the fort, most of whom were not present for the battle.
The group of men, George Herclerode, Fred Dixon, Edmund Welsch, and a Mr. Kirkpatrick were part of a military message escort known as an "express". They were travelling from Galena to Dixon, stopped briefly at the fort and then continued on their way. The group was about 900 feet (274 m) east of the fort when the only man with a loaded gun, Welsch, was ambushed by Black Hawk's warriors. He was shot in the thigh and fell from his horse. His companions aimed their unloaded weapons at the band, putting themselves between the wounded man and his attackers. The group recovered Welsch and moved away from their assailants toward the fort. Dixon, who has been credited with saving the lives of those settlers who would otherwise have been caught outside the fort, rode ahead of his companions to raise the alarm before he left the scene to spread news of the attack. At least two of the group attained the safety of the fort, while Dixon fled on horseback into the forest towards the nearby farm of John McDonald, only to find it overrun by Native Americans as well. Dixon then abandoned his horse and traveled to Galena, where he reported the Apple River Fort to be under siege.
The villagers took shelter inside the fort while the 20–25 men stationed there immediately fell back and took up their positions at the portholes inside the blockhouse. A vicious firefight erupted, involving around 150–200 of Black Hawk's British Band. The battle raged for at least 45 minutes with heavy gunfire from both sides. At the battle's onset most of the settlement's women had been huddled in the cabins, but one woman, Elizabeth Armstrong, rallied the others to provide support to the soldiers. She assumed command of the women, assigning them to such tasks as molding musketballs and reloading the weapons while the soldiers tried to keep up their stream of gunfire.
The ferocity of the fight convinced Black Hawk that Apple River Fort was a heavily armed garrison, impossible to defeat at the time, and he abandoned the fight. His band raided cabins near the fort for much-needed supplies, and retreated. Casualties were few, given the intensity of the battle. Herclerode was shot in the neck or head early in the battle and died; it has been documented that he was killed while peering over the stockade wall's pickets. Besides Welsch, the only other garrison casualty was James Nuting, who suffered a non-lethal wound. The number of Sauk casualties is unknown.
The defenders at Apple River Fort awaited the next move by Black Hawk, holding their positions through the night, but dawn came without incident. On the day following the battle, June 25, Colonel James M. Strode arrived at the fort from Galena, with Dixon and a relief party. The next day Black Hawk's band would encounter Major John Dement and his detachment at the Second Battle of Kellogg's Grove. The only militia member killed in the fighting, Herclerode, was buried near the fort; there is no trace of his grave.
Elizabeth Armstrong was praised as a heroine for her actions during the battle, displaying the kind of courage under fire the militia had so badly lacked during the first months of the Black Hawk War. Her actions, in part, helped give Black Hawk the impression the Apple River Fort was heavily defended and a frontal attack would be inane. There has been disagreement regarding the name of the woman who assumed command at Apple River Fort; a 1900 collection from the Wisconsin Historical Society described her as "Mrs. Graham." The same source stated that Armstrong was "cursing & swearing like a pirate" throughout the battle; so angry that even Black Hawk's band purported to hear her. The same collection described such action as "profane" and "a great drawback upon her credit."
The fort was demolished in 1847 and its lumber used to construct a barn, but the building has been reconstructed by the Apple River Fort Historic Foundation. The Apple River Fort Site is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places for its military and archaeological significance.
On January 1, 2001, the state of Illinois took over operation of the reconstructed Apple River Fort and its interpretive center. The state now operates the area as the Apple River Fort State Historic Site. Illinois' purchase was funded, in part, through a US$160,000 grant from the state of Illinois.
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