1862 was the Union’s most troublesome year during the Civil War. Putting an end to any remaining anticipation that the War Between the States would resolve quickly, the spring battle at Shiloh was the war’s deadliest, obliterating the romantic ideals that had spurred men to seek out glory on the battlefield. By August, the war still had not turned in the Union’s favor. General George B. McClellan was ordered to withdraw from southeastern Virginia, ending the Peninsula Campaign, and Confederate Generals Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith began their invasion of border state Kentucky. The Second Battle of Bull Run brought the month to a close and a “humiliating, demoralizing defeat” to the Union war record. But General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was not the only military force of concern in late summer 1862. On August 18th, violence came north to Minnesota as white settlers and local Dakota tribesmen clashed in a six-week struggle known as the Sioux Uprising or Dakota War of 1862.
The traditional history of the 1862 Dakota War reflects a regionalized understanding of the causes and consequences of the event, usually framed as a brief chapter in Minnesotan state history or North America’s Indian wars, a historical label that includes all manner of white settler-Native American conflicts ranging from before the American Revolution until the very end of the nineteenth century. The category is, by this definition, incredibly broad and tends to obscure connections between “Indian wars” and other concurrent historical episodes. But the Dakotas’ war was a conflict of national significance as well, although the simultaneous Civil War often over shadows it in the American historical narrative.
Measured in terms of the number of civilian lives lost, the 1862 rebellion was one of the bloodiest in American history, and “it launched a series of Indian wars on the northern plains that did not end until 1890 with the battle of Wounded Knee in South Dakota.” The conflict between Dakota tribesmen and American settlers in Minnesota also required the involvement of local militia and federal troops and resulted in legally questionable military trials of the defeated Dakota, requiring the intervention of President Lincoln. This article takes a closer look at some of connections between the Dakota War of 1862 and the American Civil War, connections that articulate the national stature and relevance of the 1862 Minnesotan frontier Indian war. Additionally, the Dakota War of 1862 offers a unique vantage point from which to examine the expansion and legitimacy of federal power in the Civil War era, as well as reconsider the consequences of two concurrent wars of rebellion.
Timeline of Events: The Dakota War of 1862
- August 17, 1862: Five white settlers are killed following an altercation with four young Dakota men
- August 18, 1862: The Sioux Uprising/Dakota War of 1862 begins with attacks on Upper and Lower Sioux Agencies, as well as Redwood Ferry. While most Dakota chose not to fight, those who did tended to be young men belonging to the Mdewakanton band, led by Chiefs Sakpe (Shakopee), Wakanozhanzhan (Medicine Bottle), Taoyateduta (Little Crow), Wamditanka (Big Eagle) and Mankato.
- August 19, 1862: First attack on New Ulm
- August 20 and 22, 1862: Attacks on Fort Ridgely
- August 23, 1862: Second attack on New Ulm
- September 2, 1862: Battle of Birch Coulee
- September 3 and 6, 1862: Attacks on Fort Abercrombie
- September 23, 1862: Battle of Wood Lake, the last major battle of the war and a critical defeat of the Dakota forces.
- September 26, 1862: The Dakota surrender and release their captives.
- September 28, 1862: A military commission is appointed to try those Dakota who participated in the uprising. In all, 303 men were tried for the murder and rape of civilians. President Abraham Lincoln later commuted the sentences of 264 prisoners.
- November – December 1862: Dakota families are imprisoned outside Fort Snelling. Nearly 300 died as a result of settler reprisals and disease.
- December 26, 1862: 38 Dakota men are hanged at Mankato after a lack of rope delayed the executions. The hangings remain the largest mass execution in American history.
- Spring 1863: The Dakota are banished from Minnesota to a new reservation, Crow Creek, in Dakota Territory. The trip is arduous and deadly.
- April 1863: The federal Dakota Expulsion Act is passed, abrogating all treaties and outlawing Dakota residence in the state of Minnesota. This law is still in effect in 2015.
- Summer 1863 – 1864: Sibley and Sully Expeditions take place against Dakota Indians thought to have participated in the Dakota War of 1862.
Check out the Minnesota Historical Society’s comprehensive timeline for the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. An interactive timeline of events is available as well. To see where these events took place, enjoy the Minnesota Historical Society’s interactive map of the conflict.
Causes: A Civil War Opportunity? A Confederate Plot?
The 1862 Dakota War was the culmination of a number of serious and longstanding grievances. Some of the war’s causes were profoundly local. First settled by white Americans in the 1820s, Minnesota experienced tremendous growth by the 1850s, starting with a population of 6,000 in 1850 and growing to more than 150,000 by 1857. This influx of Americans and recent immigrants strained relations between white settlers looking for available land and the area’s long-standing Dakota and Ojibwe inhabitants. Responding to the need to secure more land for white settlement, the U.S. initiated a series of treaties with the Dakota that slowly moved the Santee Sioux off their traditional lands. In 1851, the Dakota signed the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, which involved the cession of their “southwestern Minnesota Territory, along with significant acreage in the southeast” for which they “were to receive just over three million dollars in cash and annuities, to be paid out annually over fifty years.” After giving up nearly 24 million acres of fertile agricultural land, the Dakota were then relocated to “two reservations, each twenty miles wide and about seventy miles long, bordering the upper Minnesota River,” further decreased by land cessions in 1858.
Often waiting to receive the annuities owed to them, the Dakota were intimately familiar with the sluggishness and corruption of a federal Indian system that offered the tribes it managed no process to register their grievances. As the prominent Episcopalian Bishop of Minnesota, Henry Benjamin Whipple, warned, “A nation which sowed robbery would reap a harvest of blood.” And when blood first started to spill in August 1862, some Minnesotans were quick to see the war’s beginnings “in the thievish and dishonest conduct of Government Agents, Officers, Traders, and the vile confederates that procure their appointment and share their plunder and then gloss over and hide their iniquity.” The concurrent American Civil War played a part in delaying the payment of the Dakotas’ annuities in 1862, as the federal government, waging war against the Confederacy, was short on the hard currency required to pay the pensions. Already starving in the later summer of 1862, the Dakota could not afford to wait much longer for the money owed to them, particularly when local traders refused to extend additional lines of credit to the hungry Indians.
But the Civil War continued to affect the lead-up to the Dakota War beyond the tardy arrival of treaty annuities. Influencing both the Dakota’s decision to attack and the American settlers’ abilities to counter the Indians’ offensive, the Civil War “played a decisive role in convincing the Sioux that the time was ripe for their own war against the Union.” Dakota writings demonstrate that there was considerable awareness that “the war with the South was going on then, and a great many men had left the state and gone down [South] to fight” and “it began to be whispered about that now would be a good time to go to war with the whites and get back [their] lands.” Often a third party to the conflict between two other national powers, Native American tribes have historically often used power balances to preserve “the patina of Indian autonomy and seemingly strengthen their bargaining position.” In the Civil War-era Dakota context, the war between North and South, which kept the federal government busy and required the deployment of most of Minnesota’s state troops, left Minnesotan settlers uncharacteristically defenseless and offered a unique opportunity for the Dakota to take back their traditional lands.
Civil War era events in surrounding states and territories also played a role in convincing the Dakota the time was ripe for rebellion. Confederates were very interested in the American western frontier, comprised of Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas. Southern leaders also “recognized the Indian Territory’s strategic importance and sought immediately to control it.” Southerners, in need of manpower once enlistments began to suffer as the war continued past the first six months, were also interested in Indian Territory for recruitment purposes. The Union government, on the other hand, took a hands-off approach to their southern Native American alliances, focusing on the Confederacy proper. Feeling abandoned by President Lincoln, various Indian tribes were bitter over the betrayal and “Confederate attempts to win over the Indians might have had less success had it not been for some serious grievances the tribesmen held against the federal government.”
The Dakota’s loyalties to the federal government were likewise tenuous and soon after war began rumors started circulating throughout Minnesota that the Confederacy had sent agents to convince the Santee Sioux to rebel and draw federal attention westward. As one volunteer to the Minnesota militia recorded in his memoirs, “the Sioux and the Chippewa had always been deadly enemies, but for the time being they had been persuaded by ‘Copperheads’ to unite to drive the white settlers across the Mississippi River and regain their hunting grounds.” The historical evidence of direct Confederate involvement with the Dakota is slim and most historians agree Confederates were not actively engaged in fomenting Indian rebellion in Minnesota. Although some contemporary Minnesotans were skeptical of the plausibility of a Confederate plot with the Santee Sioux, rumors of active Confederate involvement did build settler panic once the Dakota were at war and was a listed reason in requests for federal assistance. Between rumors of C.S.A. agitation among the Dakota and the vulnerable position in which white settlers found themselves as a result of the war in the east, it is clear the American Civil War helped prompt the Dakota’s war in 1862 and affected its outcome.
Conflict: The Violence of War
Indian war involving civilian populations was new to Minnesota in 1862, but the mechanisms by which both Dakota and American settlers responded to the initiation of hostilities were not original. As was true for Americans personally affected by the Civil War, loyalties in Minnesota conflicted at every turn and war became a contest between two opposing visions for the future. The parallels between the conduct of those engaged in the Dakota War and the Civil War, especially in western states like Missouri plagued by guerilla warfare, and the shared methods of dealing with violence in both contexts, connects the two military offensives to a national war narrative.
The waging of the Dakota War was a violent but conflicted affair. Most Dakota, particularly those engaged as farmers, never even participated in the destruction to lives or property in 1862. Many Dakota proved unwilling to forego all ties with Minnesotans they had developed bonds of friendship and trust. While killings were largely arbitrary during the early hostilities, many Americans survived because Dakota fighters recognized various kinship bonds between the two peoples, forged either through marriage or friendship. Minnesotans found themselves woefully unprepared for the conflict since most “could not believe that the Indians were bent on anything as serious as murder.” Delays in communication and confusion over loyalties also put many settlers at a disadvantage when it came to their protection. Such was the problem for Paul Kitzman, a German farmer from Renville County, who had joined with twelve other families hurrying for the safety of Fort Ridgely once news of an Indian uprising arrived on the evening of August 18th. On their way to the fort, a Dakota warrior party overtook Kitzman’s group. When “the Indians, at least one of whom Kitzman knew well, assured them that it was the Chippewa who were on the warpath,” Kitzman and his compatriots returned home with an Indian escort. When the settlers reached one of their houses, the Indians turned on them, killing the men and some of the women and children; 25 people died in total.
The story of Paul Kitzman’s fate is not unique. In some cases, the atrocities committed against white civilians were truly horrifying. Letters claimed “infants were nailed to trees alive and were left to die in the sight of their captive mothers.” While some accounts of extreme violence were probably accurate, most were never confirmed. Even Minnesotans living through the conflict were skeptical of the reported killings. Early in his commission, Colonel Henry H. Sibley, Minnesota’s first governor, wrote to his wife: “Do not believe the thousand extravagant reports you hear. People are absolutely crazy with excitement and [heed] every absurdity.”
Extreme forms of violence perpetrated during the war were not limited to the Dakota. Colonel Sibley noted in his diary that his soldiers brutally scalped several Dakota warriors during the Battle of Wood Lake and that he intended to punish them for their indecency. Dakota combatants also recorded that “the whites scalped all [their] dead men” following the battle.Americans scalped on other occasions as well; Little Crow, who eluded the Minnesota militia following the end of the uprising but was killed in 1863, was also scalped following his death. His scalp, dressed with feathers, along with his skull, was placed on public display at the Minnesota Historical Society until 1915.
In the early twentieth century, some Americans found the display distasteful. Dr. Asa Daniels, who served the Dakota reservation until 1861, objected on the grounds that “other states have suffered from their Indian wars, but none have thought it proper to desecrate their State Capitol with the scalp of a fallen foe.” Minnesotans also retaliated with violent acts against the Dakota, even after the conflict had ended and many Dakota men, women, and children were placed in federal custody. When captured Dakota noncombatants were moved to Fort Snelling in the winter of 1862, Minnesotans “armed with guns, knives, clubs and stones, rushed upon the Indians… beating them, and otherwise inflicting injury.” The Dakota War of 1862, like many wars before and after, proved a breeding ground for savagery and inhumanity on all sides of the conflict.
Intensive violence off the formal battlefield was also not limited to Minnesota in the Civil War era; many frontier communities experienced the brutality of irregular warfare. Confederate guerilla forces in Missouri brutally killed and maimed Unionist Kansans, and vice versa, in this same period. Further south, conflicts between Confederate forces and deserters also often ended gruesomely. Such was the case with Benjamin Franklin Knight’s murder in southeastern Mississippi. Twenty-seven years old at the time, Ben Knight, the cousin of Newton Knight, the leader of a band of Confederate deserters, awoke in the early hours of April 15, 1864 to find a group of Confederate cavalrymen in his front yard. Panicked, although he was neither a deserter nor a criminal, Benjamin ran and was immediately shot and wounded. Still managing to flee, the young man was pursued, along with his seventeen-year-old cousin Sil Coleman, and torn apart by bloodhounds. The Confederate cavalrymen eventually caught up with Benjamin and Sil, still struggling to survive, and hanged them. Dakota warriors and Civil War guerrilla fighters similarly faced arbitrarily applied punitive action in 1862. In the chaos of the Civil War, the inconsistent interpretation of military protocol not only affected Native American combatants, but western irregular Confederate forces as well. Even by 1862 “some commanders in Missouri were applying the policy of summary execution not only to Indians but to Confederate guerrillas.” Ultimately, the inability for white Americans to conceive of Native American or guerilla warfare as honorable fundamentally affected the escalation of violence throughout the West and in Minnesota in 1862.
Consequences: Military Commission and Expulsion
On September 28, 1862, Colonel Henry H. Sibley appointed a military commission for “assigning culpability to those Indians identified as having perpetrated crimes during the uprising.” These trials, considered controversial in 1862 and which remain so today, not only dictated the fate of the Dakota warriors brought to court, but also marked the beginning of the end of the Dakotas’ protected right to live in Minnesota. Military commissions had been used earlier in the Civil War before their application in the aftermath of the Dakota War; in January 1862 General Halleck set up one such commission in the Department of Missouri. Just days before Sibley ordered the trials, newspapers across the country printed “Lincoln’s September 24th proclamation authorizing military commission trials of rebel insurgents and ‘their aiders and abettors.’” Thus, in 1862, aided by the necessities of civil war, the military commission became the U.S. Army’s standard practice and Sibley’s chosen method to bring the Dakota to justice.
As the trials commenced, on November 7th Dakota tribal members were moved from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling, where they could be held indefinitely as they awaited trial. Within a week, the captured Dakota arrived at a fenced camp of teepees where they spent the winter waiting for the government’s decision regarding their future. Attacked by angry locals, the camp also suffered from a measles outbreak as 1862 drew to a close and was not so different from the deadly and disease-infested contraband and refugee camps of the Civil War farther south. As the detained Dakota awaited their sentencing in both physically and psychologically strenuous conditions, commissioners heard more than 300 cases over a six-week period. Most of the defendants spoke limited or no English and were not familiar with American legal procedures, including protections against self-incrimination. Not considered legitimate belligerents, the Dakota were tried as civilian criminals, their war officially labeled a domestic rebellion, a status given to the Confederate conflict as well. Despite the fact that legally the Dakota were a sovereign tribal nation that had conducted war with the United States, those tried were convicted of the civilian crimes including murder. All but 70 of those brought before the commission were convicted, 303 of whom were condemned to death, an outcome popular with the majority of the surviving American Minnesotan community.
Some Minnesotans, however, did advocate for clemency. Bishop Henry B. Whipple, who wrote tirelessly on the Dakota’s behalf, believed the trials to be flawed in many ways:
The trial was conducted on the border, near the scene of massacre. The commission must have felt deep indignation at the scenes they had witnessed. It was conducted with haste. More than thirty men were tried and condemned to die in one day. Officers of the highest character who were present at the trial have assured me that it could not and did not make a careful examination.
–Bishop Harry B. Whipple
Writing to his friend, Minnesota Senator Henry M. Rice, Whipple offered President Lincoln words of caution: “One word as to these prisoners – we cannot hang men by hundreds. Upon our own premises we have no right to do so. We claim that they are an independent nation and as such they are prisoners of war. The leaders must be published but we cannot afford any wanton cruelty to purchase a long Indian war.”Bishop Whipple worried that the execution of over three hundred Dakota would only bring more blood, “I tremble for my country when I remember that God will compel us to reap what we sow.” Whipple did, however, also realize that some of the convicted were in fact guilty. In a letter to the editor of The Pioneer, one of the newspapers servicing St. Paul, Bishop Whipple qualified his calls for mercy, writing, “As to the condemned, I have had no desire to find fault with the court or shield the really guilty.”
- Carol Chomsky, “The United States-Dakota War Trials: A Study in Military Injustice,” Stanford Law Review 43 (Nov. 1990): 13 – 98.
- Marouf Hasain Jr., In the Name of Necessity: Military Tribunals and the Loss of American Civil Liberties (Tuscaloosa, AL: University Alabama Press, 2005)
- Maeve Herbert, “Explaining the Sioux Military Commission of 1862,” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 40 (April 2009): 743 – 747.
- Heather Cox Richardson, “The Largest Mass Execution in American History,” We’re History, accessed August 5, 2015, http://werehistory.org/largest-mass-execution/
- John Fabian Witt, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (New York: Free Press, 2012)
Although more than 300 Dakota originally received death sentences, a popular ruling among Minnesotans, the trials came under the official review before the verdicts were executed, due to their questionable conduct in terms of “the speed of the proceedings, the nature of the evidence, and the identity of the judges.” President Abraham Lincoln himself conducted the audit of the trials, confirming only 38 of the sentences handed down by Sibley’s military court. Reasserting the Dakotas’ status as formal enemy combatants, covered by the rules of war, Lincoln commuted the sentences of all those convicted only of going into battle against the United States. Repercussions of a wholesale execution of the 303 Dakota on the Union’s Civil War fight were an important factor in President Lincoln’s decision. If the U.S. could execute Indian combatants, Union and Confederate forces surrendering would be at risk of execution as well. As a result President Lincoln’s belief that he “could not hang men for votes,” on December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Dakota met their death by the noose, producing in the largest mass execution in American history.
The late December executions, however, did not end most Dakota lives in Minnesota after the war. In April 1863 President Lincoln approved the removal of the remaining Dakota, approximately 1,300 people, in federal custody to a western reservation, Crow Creek, approximately 80 miles above Fort Randall in Dakota Territory. Demographically, the band of exiled Sioux were largely women and children; “only 176 men were among the 1,318 Dakotas deported from Fort Snelling, and many of those were elderly.” The removal of Minnesota’s Dakota people was a harrowing experience; nearly 300 died as a result of the trip alone. On the first leg of the journey all 1,300 Dakota were placed on two steamboats; at Hannibal, Missouri, half the exiles were put aboard a train with sixty persons to a freight car. At St. Joseph, all the Dakotas were “loaded onto the already crowded steamboat for a hot, month-long, torturous trip up the Missouri.” The conditions on these boats were terrible. As Reverend John Williamson, one of the non-military men who accompanied the exiled Sioux to Crow Creek, reported, “[The Dakota] were crowded like slaves on the boiler and hurricane decks of a single boat, and fed on musty hardtack and briny pork, which they had not half a chance to cook… The mortality was fearful.” Reverend Williamson declared the experience to be “nearly as bad as the Middle Passage for slaves.” Thus was one of the fundamental ironies of the results of the 1862 uprising/war: the United States, which had just claimed augmented federal power and used its army to emancipate southern slaves, used that same power to accomplish the removal of a sovereign people. The trials and removal brought neither justice nor peace and the 1862 war proved merely the opening salvo in the decades long Sioux Wars that continued until 1890.
Dividing Lines: Indian War or Civil War?
Describing the nature of the Civil War conflict in the later winter of 1861, the famed southern diarist Mary Chesnut wrote, “We separated North from South because of incompatibility of temper. We are divorced because we have hated each other so.” Those who experienced and survived the war were not the only ones to view the conflict in binary terms. Scholars and popular writers have commonly framed the American Civil War as an epic contest between a free North and slave South. Although the Civil War was at its core a war between the federal Union and Confederate governments over the future of slavery on American soil, it produced and influenced a series of conflicts, including the Dakota War of 1862, that did not always involve federal troops against Confederates but revolved around conflicting understandings of the meaning and practice of American freedom.