Thursday, July 19, 2018

Rough and Ready in Illinois. Zachary Taylor's daring exploits in the Prairie State.

President Zachary Taylor
Before becoming Commander-in-Chief, Zachary Taylor spent most of his life securing or expanding our nation's frontier. From the Mississippi and Rock rivers to the Rio Grande and Lake Okeechobee, Taylor commanded troops in battles against Indians, the British, and Mexicans. He was the first President not previously elected to any other public office and when inaugurated on March 5, 1849, had yet to cast a ballot in any election. He was the last Whig elected President and the last Chief Executive to own slaves.

Born in Virginia in 1784, Taylor was raised on a plantation in Kentucky. Although rarely there, he called Baton Rouge, Louisiana, his home, but grew cotton in Mississippi. While President, he fought the expansion of slavery and warned Southern secessionists in 1850 that he would personally hang any rebels against the Union, yet his only son later served as a general in the Confederate Army. Muscular, stocky, and sometimes crude in manner, he gained the nom de guerre "Old Rough and Ready" while fighting the Seminoles in Florida. A year before Taylor was elected President, an Illinois soldier described him during the Mexican War as "short and very heavy, with pronounced face lines and gray hair, wearing an old oilcloth cap, a dusty green coat, a frightful pair of trousers and on horseback looks like a toad."

Taylor was not so seasoned when he served in Illinois. But he was always ready for a good skirmish. He was indicted in 1814 in Edwardsville, Illinois for assault and battery.

In the summer of 1886, the Philipson Decorative Company of Chicago won the contract to finish decorating Illinois' new capitol with eight historic scenes. When one of the State House Commissioners suggested that the Black Hawk War be memorialized, Philipson Secretary Theodore Stuart wrote to former Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis for "any information of your personal connection with that event and any reminiscences that would be useful in making a spirited & truthful group." Stuart felt compelled to remind the aged Davis that he was one of "three Presidents" who "fought" in that war, Abraham Lincoln and Zachary Taylor being the others.

In 1832, Captain Abraham Lincoln served in the Illinois Militia for eighty days under the command of U.S. Army Col. Zachary Taylor. Lincoln was proud of his service but was always self-effacing in his reminiscences. In a speech, during his one term in Congress, he confessed that he never fought any Indians, but he did have "a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes." Sixteen years after his Black Hawk War service, Lincoln protested America's war with Mexico and demanded to see the "spot" where blood was shed on American soil. However, in December 1847 (while the war was still in progress) he started a "Taylor for President Club" and campaigned heartily for this Whig war hero the following year.

When the Black Hawk war began, forty-eight-year-old Taylor had been fighting Indians in Indiana, Missouri, and Minnesota for most of his twenty-four-year army career. (His first combat with Black Hawk in Illinois took place in 1814.) Leaving his wife and family in Galena, Taylor took command of the U.S. 1st Infantry on April 4th and tried to coordinate the use of federal army regulars with the 1,700 Illinois volunteers under Brigadier General Samuel Whiteside in the pursuit of Black Hawk and his followers. Taylor felt that the militia was generally undisciplined and performed poorly under fire. The rout of Isaiah Stillman's force along the Rock River in May of that year confirmed Taylor's suspicions; he would later write that the retreat was one of the most shameful acts the troops had committed.

Taylor's forces followed the Sauks into Wisconsin and were present at their defeat in August at the Battle of Bad Axe. When Black Hawk was captured three weeks later, Colonel Taylor ordered his adjutant, Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, to assist Lieutenant Robert Anderson (later the defender of Fort Sumter) in taking the prisoner to Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. With the cessation of hostilities, Taylor returned to his command of the frontier along the northern Mississippi River. West Point graduate Davis transferred to the First Dragoons and spent the next two years serving in the greater Midwest. In June 1835, Davis resigned from the Army, married his former commander's daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, and moved to Mississippi to commence careers in agriculture and politics.

General Zachary Taylor led Illinois troops into battle in Mexico. At various times in 1846 and 1847, future Illinois governors William Bissell and Richard J. Oglesby were under his command. Long before the Black Hawk and Mexican wars, however, Taylor's first experience with Illinois soldiers took place in 1814 on the Mississippi River.

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain because England had harassed our merchant marine and interfered with our frontier settlements. The Potawatomi, Sauk (Sac), Mesquakie (Fox), and other tribes in and around the Illinois Territory allied themselves with the British in hopes of protecting their hunting lands from the Indians. In response to the killings of Americans at and near Fort Dearborn and other attacks on isolated white settlers, Territorial Governor Ninian Edwards recruited hundreds of volunteer militiamen and rangers. Meanwhile, the U.S. sent federal troops to Missouri to prevent Britain's Indian allies from attacking St. Louis and settlements in today's west-central Illinois.

During the early stages of this conflict, Captain Taylor served admirably in Indiana at Fort Harrison and late in 1812 was breveted a major by General William Henry Harrison. Brevet Major Taylor was sent to St. Louis in April 1814 and took up his duties as second in command. In August, he was ordered to lead a force up the Mississippi to Rock Island to destroy Indian crops and build a fort to control the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers. Two previous expeditions that year had failed.

Departing on August 22nd, the expedition consisted of 8 large fortified keelboats with 40 army regulars and more than 300 Illinois militia serving under captains Samuel Whiteside and Nelson Rector. For the next two weeks this small armada sailed and rowed against the current without encountering the enemy, their only casualty being a private who fell victim to measles and later died. The expedition reached the mouth of the Rock River on a windy Sunday, September 4th, and settled in for the night on one of the many islands between Illinois and Iowa. The largest of these was Credit Island, so named because Indians received manufactured goods there each fall on "credit" and each spring paid back the debt to French and British traders with bundles of plush furs.

While Taylor's force landed and prepared for battle, the British under the command of Lieutenant Duncan Graham transplanted a battery of 30 men on a knoll in Iowa across from Taylor's keelboats. Graham had arrived a few days before with orders to "stir up" and support the Indians, but also to keep their "barbarity" in check and to prevent the scalping or the mutilation of prisoners. He reported to his superiors that his arrival gave the Sauks great satisfaction and convinced them "that their English Father is determined to support them against the ambition and unjust conduct of their enemies."

Before first light, Indians (including Black Hawk) opened fire on Taylor's troops and a pitched battle began on the islands and in the river. Major Taylor instructed Captain Rector to drop down river, ground his boat on Credit Island's western shore, and pour broadside after broadside from his swivel guns into any foe in range. The British battery then opened fire on the Americans, the first shot blasting through the bow of Taylor's boat as a "thousand" Indians appeared from nowhere, howling, shrieking, and firing.

Whiteside, under Taylor's orders, went to rescue Rector whose boat was adrift. After Rector's men had driven back a large number of Indians, Illinois Ranger Paul Harpole leaped into waist deep water to secure a cable to Whiteside's craft. He rapidly fired fourteen rounds from muskets handed to him by his sheltered comrades until he was shot in the forehead and sank below the waters. Taylor, for the only time in his career, gave the order to retreat.

The flotilla raced down river firing on the enemy for two miles. After enemy sightings had stopped, Tavlor landed to treat the 14 wounded (3 would later die) and repair his riddled boats.

Consulting with the other officers, Taylor decided that "334 effective men" could never defeat the British guns and the 3-1 advantage held by the enemy. He ordered his command to fall back to the DesMoines confluence and construct a fort on the high bluff of the eastern bank of the Mississippi, the present site of Warsaw, Illinois. Taylor named it Fort Johnson in honor of his friend Richard Johnson (later Vice-President under Martin Van Buren). Fort Johnson was built in 19 days. Captain Callaway wrote his wife on September 25th saying he had provisions for only ten more days. The construction, occupation, and abandonment, due to running out of provisions, totaled only 42 days. In 1816 a new fort was built 1/2 mile to the north, named Fort Edwards, which also served as a fur and trading post, in honor of Territorial Governor Ninian Edwards.

Sometime after September 7, 1814, Major Taylor left Captain James Callaway in charge of Fort Johnson, and returned to St. Louis with the main body of troops. When he arrived in Missouri he found that General Howard had died and now Taylor was suddenly interim commander. By early October Callaway and his troops had to burn down what they had just built and returned to Jefferson Barracks.

On September 29, 1814, somewhere in Madison County (at that time the county stretched from Collinsville to Vincennes in the south clear to the Wisconsin territory) one Simon Bartrane was assaulted "with force and arms." He was so beaten, wounded, and ill-treated "that his life was greatly dispaired." Indicted for this crime by the October session of the Madison County Grand Jury were Francois (Francis) Valle of St. Louis (formerly of St. Genevieve), Byrd Lockhart of Goshen Township in Edwards County and Major "Zachariah" Taylor of St. Louis.[1]

History does not reveal how Taylor reacted to his indictment or even if he knew he was charged. All of his personal family correspondence was destroyed when Union soldiers burned his family's plantation during the Civil War.

Military records show that he seemed to carry out his normal duties in St. Louis. In November 1814, Taylor accompanied his new commander 250 miles up the Missouri River in response to a perceived Indian threat to a remote settlement. At the end of the month Taylor was sent to take command of the troops at Vincennes, Indiana. With the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, the War of 1812 was effectively over and Illinois had been held as American territory.

The onset of peace brought about an immediate reduction in the standing army. Seeing that he could not hold his rank, nor support his family without promotion, Taylor applied for a discharge and was farming in Kentucky in June 1815 when it was approved." There is no record of his returning to Illinois until the Black Hawk War seventeen years later.

But as Taylor prepared his papers for early retirement from the army, the wheels of justice turned slowly in the Illinois Territory. On January 24, 1815, Madison County Sheriff Isom Gilham was ordered by the "Supreme Court" in Edwardsville to "take Major Zachariah Taylor, if he may be found within your Bailiwick and him safely keep so that you have his body before the Judges (on March 27th)... to answer an indictment... for an assault & Battery on the body of Simon Bartrane... and against the peace and dignity of the United States."

Felix McGlaughland (McGlaulin), a sometimes Illinois Ranger, was called as a prosecution witness to this incident and testified in the cases of Taylor and Valle. Francis Valle came from one of the oldest French families in Missouri and was an officer in the 24th U.S. Army Infantry with Taylor at the battle of Credit Island. Although we don't know what McGlaughland said under oath, the prosecuting attorney dismissed the case against Zacheriah Taylor on June 1, 1815. Byrd Lockhart, who also had served as an Illinois Ranger and Madison County Coroner, was later found guilty. He left Illinois in 1818 and eventually became the namesake of Lockhart, Texas.

It now appears that while a Major in the United States army, future U.S. President Zachary Taylor witnessed or abetted the beating of French descendant Simon Bartrane on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. British war correspondence reveals that in late August 1814, "some French gentlemen from St. Louis" warned the Sauks that Taylor's forces had left to attack Rock Island. Could knowledge of this leak have triggered an assault on Bartrane? Even with the newly found Madison County court documents, we may never know if Bartrane was suspected of espionage or simply the victim of a petty quarrel.

History does show us, however, that although the Illinois militia won no major military victories in the War of 1812, it helped prevent the British from making any territorial claims east of the Mississippi. Whenever called upon, Zachary Taylor and the Rangers proved rough and ready to fight in Illinois.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

[1] Documents recently processed at the Illinois State Archives now reveal an event concerning future President Taylor that has never previously been known.

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