The Sioux Uprising of 1862

August 17, 1862 – In southwestern Minnesota, Dakota Sioux Native Americans rebelled against local settlers and Federal authorities in what became known as the Sioux Uprising, or the Dakota War, of 1862.

The Mdewkanton Santee (Dakota Sioux) Indians had long endured hardships on government reservations due to treaty violations and inadequate annuity payments. By 1862, their territory consisted of just a small plot of land on the south bank of the Minnesota River that lacked adequate wild game and farming soil, leaving the Indians to depend on government handouts. But the war slowed the handouts, leaving the Indians to face starvation.

When the Indians’ crops failed this summer, new Federal Indian Agent Thomas J. Galbraith delayed paying the tribes their $71,000 annuity until Congress decided whether to pay in gold or greenbacks. In the meantime, he locked away all provisions while the Indians grew hungrier.

Starving Indians looted sacks of flour at the Upper Sioux Agency (the reservation’s distribution center) in early August, and the Federal post commander finally persuaded Galbraith to issue some goods on credit pending the annuity payment. Galbraith also agreed to provide for the Indians at the Lower Sioux Agency, but the goods never came.

Dakota Chief Little Crow | Image Credit:
Dakota Chief Little Crow | Image Credit:

The Indians tried bargaining with local traders to get needed food and supplies, but the traders refused to sell goods to them until their annuity payments arrived. Dakota Chief Taoyateduta (Little Crow) angrily protested to Galbraith, “We have no food, but here are these stores filled with food.” If no food came, “we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving. When men are hungry they help themselves.” Perceiving this as a threat, a trader named Andrew J. Myrick replied, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass.”

Two days later, four Wahpeton Sioux young men robbed eggs from a farm in Acton, then began shooting residents on a dare. They killed five white townspeople, including two women, before stealing some horses and riding off. Word quickly spread among the Indian villages, as the leaders debated what should be done with the youths.

Some urged turning them over to the U.S. government, but Little Crow said that “the whites would take a dreadful vengeance because women had been killed.” They finally concluded that the Federals would exact revenge whether the youths were turned over or not, and therefore they should preemptively attack.

Some elder Dakota had long sought a war of extermination against the growing number of white settlers in the area. Little Crow saw the futility of opposing the Federal government, but he agreed to join nonetheless. As Sioux Chief Big Eagle explained, “We understood that the South was getting the best of the fight, and it was said that the North would be whipped. It began to be whispered about that now would be a good time to go to war with the whites and get back the lands.”

The Sioux uprising began in earnest on the 18th when four tribes of the Eastern Santee Sioux (Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Sisseton, and Wahpeton) attacked the Upper and Lower agencies. Myrick was slaughtered with arrows and axes, and his mouth was stuffed with the grass he had told the Indians to eat.

The Sioux then ambushed a Federal recruiting party led by Henry Behnke, sending them fleeing back to New Ulm with horrifying tales of torture, rape, and murder. The Indians allegedly nailed young boys to doors and raped girls before dismembering them. As the Indians rampaged against white settlements in the area, the residents of New Ulm fled 100 miles northeast to St. Paul and Fort Snelling.

Meanwhile, Captain John S. Marsh led 46 soldiers of the 5th Minnesota and an interpreter from Fort Ridgely to try brokering a peace with the Sioux raiding the Lower Agency. The Indians ambushed the Federals at Redwood Ferry, about a mile below the agency.

The troops took cover and exchanged fire until the numbers overwhelmed them. Marsh ordered his men to swim across the Minnesota River to save themselves; he drowned in the effort. The Indians killed 24 of his men and wounded five others. Survivors fled back to Fort Ridgely, where the commander, along with Behnke, called on Governor Alexander Ramsey for reinforcements.

The Indians approached Fort Ridgely on the morning of the 19th, where Little Crow, Mankato, Big Eagle, and about 300 warriors held a council of war. The chiefs urged a halt to slaughtering civilians and to focus instead on attacking the Federal army at the fort. But the warriors argued that they could not counter the Federal artillery and wanted to attack the people of New Ulm, a German settlement 16 miles away. Little Crow and about 100 warriors refused, but the rest attacked without them.

The panicked residents at New Ulm worked with militia to repel several Indian charges. Some buildings were burned in the two-hour fight, but the militia kept the Indians out of town. An evening thunderstorm and the arrival of Federal reinforcements ended the fight. Over the past two days, the Sioux had killed over 350 settlers in the largest massacre of whites in U.S. history. The Indians remained outside the town, intending to put it under siege.

The next day, Little Crow assembled about 400 warriors and attacked Fort Ridgely, which was garrisoned by about 175 Federal troops under Lieutenant Timothy Sheehan and had become a sanctuary for hundreds of settlers fleeing the Indians’ wrath. The warriors surrounded the fort and charged, seizing some buildings and gaining a foothold in the northeast corner. But the Federal howitzers ultimately overwhelmed the Indians and drove them off. A few more charges were repulsed as well. Little Crow called a halt, but during another evening thunderstorm, 400 more Sissetons and Wahpetons from the Upper Agency arrived to reinforce him.

The assault resumed the next day, but the Indians could not withstand the Federal artillery, and their charges were knocked back again. Little Crow, dazed by an artillery shell, decided to break off the fight and instead help in the ongoing siege of New Ulm, a few miles down the Minnesota River Valley.

On the 23rd, the reinforced warriors around New Ulm advanced and captured parts of the town, but Federal troops arrived and drove them out. The destruction of nearly 200 buildings left New Ulm in ruins. Aided by Federals, about 2,000 settlers fled 30 miles down the Minnesota River to Mankato. The Sioux gave up attacking the town on the 25th, but the remaining residents feared more attacks and evacuated.

Meanwhile, reports of the Indian attacks began appearing in eastern newspapers, with many editors (including Horace Greeley of the influential New York Tribune) incorrectly blaming the uprising on a Confederate conspiracy. Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley took command of four new companies of the 6th Minnesota Infantry at Fort Snelling and began moving them toward Ridgely.

Sibley’s forces reached Fort Ridgely and relieved the garrison two days after the Indians stopped attacking. Newspaper editors accused Sibley of moving too slow from Fort Snelling, calling him a coward and “the state undertaker with his company of gravediggers.” Sibley searched in vain for the Sioux, then dispatched troops to bury the dead and investigate the Lower Agency. The pursuit of the retreating Sioux continued into September.


References; Cullen, Joseph P., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 690-91; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8301-11; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 189, 193-98; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 72-85, 88; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 252-53, 255-57


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