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James Calvin Schaap


The Dakota War of 1862

Part 2: The use of memory.

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The things we saw that day were too terrible to describe. Scattered along the road and at burned cabins we found the bodies of settlers, mostly men and boys. Fifty we buried before reaching the ferry. There the most gruesome sight of all awaited us. One the road lay the bodies of 33 young men, most of them in two files where they fell when the Sioux fired from almost point-blank range—killed in their tracks without returning a shot. All had been scalped and the uniforms had been stripped from their bodies. We dug at a furious pace in our haste to conceal the fearful sight.

When Major Brown and his men camped that night at a precarious spot on the top of the river bluffs, they were trailed by Dakota who determined to take them, a few dozen troops. Brown must have assumed that Little Crow's warriors, having suffered defeat at both Ft. Ridgely and New Ulm, had high-tailed for the empty spaces of the Dakota Territory, straight west.

They hadn't.

Birch Coulee looks much the same today as it did 150 years ago—a field of prairie grass surrounded on two sides by wooded ravines, so ordinary and peaceful it's hard to believe one of the most costly battles of this short and bloody war took place here. But people died at Birch Coulee: 13 cavalry and a few Dakota. Dozens were wounded, many severely.

The attack came at dawn, the Dakota surrounding the camp on every side. To them, the action must have seemed, for a time, like shooting fish in a barrel. At least 30 men were wounded in just a few minutes; 90 horses—tethered to the wagons that surrounded the tents—were shot and killed. The soldiers who survived used the horses' bodies—and even their dead comrades—as cover to keep the Dakota at bay.

The sound of gunfire that day ran up the Minnesota River valley, all the way to Ft. Ridgely, where Gen. Henry Sibley himself led a relief detail. By the time they got to Birch Coulee, on September 3, the Dakota had fled. Even though the cavalry had suffered through the longest and bloodiest battle of the war, there was no question about the outcome.

The Battle at Wood Lake

After Birch Coulee, the government's attitude toward the Dakota Indians was simple: chase them out of the state forever, or kill them all. Extermination. Ethnic cleansing. Mass murder.

When the commander of the government forces, Gen. Sibley, determined to move his forces to the Upper Agency, they were 1700 strong. It was September 19 before Sibley left Ft. Ridgely for the Upper Sioux Agency in pursuit of the Dakota, a month after those first deaths on a farm near Acton.

Gen. Sibley and Chief Little Crow had actually been friends before the war, hunting buddies. But even Gen. Sibley wanted to rid the territory of its first nations; and Little Crow had never really been a general; he'd never had complete control of his warriors.

The last battle of the war, The Battle of Wood Lake, was a ragtag affair that began when undisciplined soldiers ran their wagon right through advancing Dakota warriors and ended two hours later when the Dakota simply withdrew, leaving fourteen of their own dead in the grass, some of which were scalped by the cavalry.

"The bodies of the dead," Sibley pronounced after hearing what happened, "even of a savage enemy, shall not be subjected to indignities by civilized & christian men."

The Battle of Wood Lake marked the end of Dakota War of 1862—at least the end of military conflict.

We could only wish it was really over.

Camp Release

When General Henry Sibley came into the Indian village at the Upper Sioux Agency, he marched his troops in parade because he wanted to swagger, to make a statement—not only to the Dakota people, but also to his own troops. But the Dakota from the Upper Sioux area had already defined their position when they simply took over guardianship of 200 or more white prisoners, most of whom were women and children.

Little Crow thought of the prisoners as gold, the worthiest bargaining chip he had. He'd never thought the Dakota could win a war with the whites; what he'd assumed was that white folks wanted the lives of prisoners even more than they wanted the death of the Dakotas.

Life among the prisoners in what came to be called Camp Release was sometimes horrific and sometimes not, Dakota women often protecting them from harm—after all, many had been friends, even good friends. Even so, most prisoners, most of the time, suffered terribly. Many were not fed, and almost all were stripped of their clothes and dressed out as if they were Dakota themselves. In the earliest days of the war, after frontier raids that netted them horses and guns and food and more prisoners, some Dakota warriors drank far too much alcohol, and unspeakable things happened.

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