The Battle of the Sinkhole: International War Comes to Lincoln County

Following the American Revolution, there was near constant conflict between Great Britain and France. Because France was a trading partner of The United States and Britain was interfering with this trade by blocking American ships from getting to France, The US eventually got involved. In 1812, under the presidency of James Madison, Congress declared war on Britain. Although most think of the East coast and New Orleans when thinking about the War of 1812, one of the last battles of the war (The Battle of the Sinkhole) took place in Lincoln County, Missouri on May 24, 1815 - three months after the war ended. (1)

During the War of 1812, the Sauk and Fox led by Black Hawk, allied with the British. They felt that this was a way for them to get their land back. Leading up to Battle of the Sinkhole, Black Hawk and his men raided other places throughout Missouri. There were attacks just south of modern-day Louisiana, MO at Fort Buffalo, which caused the inhabitants to flee to surrounding forts in Lincoln and St. Charles counties. The entire O’Neil family was killed and scalped where Clarkesville now stands.(2) Although the war officially ended on February 18, 1815, Black Hawk and his warriors, who had been supplied weapons by the British continued to raid, moving toward Fort Howard.

United States Rangers were stationed at Fort Howard, which was located in southeast Lincoln County, about a ¼ mile south of Bob’s Creek and a ¼ mile west of Hwy 79. The unit was commanded by Captain Peter Craig, who became a captain July 14, 1814.(3) According to Colonel John Shaw, who was at the Battle of the Sinkhole, on the day of the fighting, five men left the fort to retrieve a grindstone from a nearby house when they were attacked by roughly 50 of Black Hawk’s men. (4) The braves killed and scalped three of the rangers, and left one mortally wounded. (5) Upon hearing the shooting several left the fort and fired across the flooded field at Black Hawk’s men, but it was no use. They were too far away. (6)

Capt. Craig then lead a group of roughly 50 Rangers from the fort to track their attackers. Captain David Musick, who became a Captain on September 13, 1813, in the middle of the war received word that Fort Howard was under attack, and he took his troops to assist Craig. (7) During this fight, some of Black Hawk’s men push toward the fort to fight, while Black Hawk and the other half of his troops moved into a nearby sinkhole near Bob’s Creek to take cover, giving this battle its name. The troops began firing into the sinkhole in an attempt to draw Black Hawk and his men out. According to the Almanac of American Military History, some of the Rangers created “a mobile breastwork from wagon wheels and planks.” (8) This backfired on the Rangers when the Indians just used it as extra protection. One of the major casualties of this battle was Captain Peter Craig. (9) Night came and Fort Howard was still being attacked by the other half of Black Hawk’s tribes - in an effort to draw the Rangers away from the sinkhole. It worked. The Rangers decided to leave the sinkhole and go to the fort to protect it and the people inside. Black Hawk and his men escaped during the night. (10) The next morning a party went back to the sinkhole to discover five dead warriors. Shaw claimed that there was enough blood in the sinkhole that “it was judged that well nigh 30 of the enemy must have been killed or wounded.” (11)

The Battle of the Sinkhole was not a decisive victory for either side, since the war had ended three months prior. It did, however, demonstrate that the War of 1812 was much more than the Battle of New Orleans and Lincoln County played its part in the war that many considered the follow-up to the American Revolution. Following the war, David Musick ended up being a very important political figure in Missouri. He later became a Missouri Representative and once served as a presidential elector. (12) Black Hawk was not done fighting either. In 1832, in response to the murder of one of his peace bearers, Black Hawk led a four-month long war against the US government in Illinois. Before it was over, more than 70 settlers and nearly 500 natives were killed. Black Hawk was captured and his story was told to a reporter who published it in the Autobiography of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk, Embracing the Traditions of his Nation.

1. “The Last Battle of the Forgotten War” Neal Fandeck Page 1 Column 1
2. McCabe, James D, “The Great Republic,” p 978
3. “Letters Received by the Office of The Adjutant General 1805-1821” Folder Number 5050 Year 1814 The letter was Craig’s acceptance letter for his new position.
4. McCabe, James D., “The Great Revolution” p 979
5. Almanac of American Military History Spencer Tucker page 563
6. McCabe, 979
7. “Letters Received by the Adjutant General, 1805-1821” Folder Number 3614 Year 1813
8. “A Glossary of Fortification Terms” “A List of Fortification Terms” Definition of Breastwork- Fortifications made of piled material (logs, fence rails, stones) usually built up to breast height. Typically converted to a rampart if used long-term.
9. Heitman’s Register and Dictionary of the US, US Army Historical Register-Volume 1 page 333 column 2
10. “The Black War: Including a Review of Black Hawk’s Life” Frank Everett Steven page 65
11. McCabe p 381 - It should be noted that this is possibly hyperbole. According to Black Hawk’s autobiography, there were only 18 in the sinkhole and the Rangers only killed one.brave. They did leave his body behind after placing it upon the scalped body of a fallen Ranger.
12. “House of Representatives” Missouri Gazette and Public Advisor July 24 1818