The Battle of Wood Lake

September 23, 1862 – Federal forces effectively suppressed the Sioux uprising of 1862 over mistreatment on reservations and drove much of the tribe out of Minnesota.

Battle of Birch Coulee | Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Dakota Sioux Indian uprising that had begun the previous month continued into September. At dawn on the 2nd, a band of Santee Sioux led by Wambdi Tanka (Big Eagle) attacked Federal militia and a burial detail about 16 miles from Fort Ridgely, across the river from the burned Lower Agency reservation. The Federals had strangely camped at Birch Coulee, a wooded ravine that allowed the Indians to approach them unseen.

The Indians killed all 87 of the Federal horses, which the troops used as breastworks to fend off the attack. Colonel Henry H. Sibley arrived with reinforcements during the night, and they drove the Indians off with artillery the next morning. The Federals had been under siege for 31 hours, living off a cracker and an ounce of cabbage. They lost 19 killed and many more wounded.

Meanwhile, two Indian bands led by Chiefs Little Crow and Walker Among Sacred Stones surrounded a Federal detachment trying to protect settlers near Acton. Federal troops under Captain Richard Strout broke through with a bayonet charge, but 20 of the 55 men were killed or wounded. The remaining 35 troops and 20 refugees fled to the fortified town of Hutchison. Fighting continued into the next day.

Also on the 3rd, Company D of the 5th Minnesota withstood an attack by 400 Indians on Fort Abercrombie, about 25 miles south of present-day Fargo, North Dakota. They repelled a second attack three days later, and Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey telegraphed Washington for help. He called the Sioux “assassins” and “ravishers of… wives and sisters and daughters.” He stated that white settlers “will not tolerate their presence… in any number or in any condition.” Ramsey declared, “This is not our war. It is a National War.”

Under General Order No. 128, President Abraham Lincoln created the Military Department of the Northwest, combining the Federal forces in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Nebraska and Dakota territories. Major General John Pope, recently removed as commander of the Army of Virginia after his ignominious defeat at Second Bull Run, received instructions from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “You will receive herewith an order of this Department constituting you commander of the Department of the Northwest,” with headquarters at St. Paul.

Pope was directed to “take such prompt and vigorous measures as shall quell the hostilities and afford peace, security, and protection to the people against Indian hostilities.” Lincoln chose Pope to head this new department despite the general’s recent comments that the president had been “feeble, cowardly, and shameful” for failing to defend him against critics. Pope considered this assignment tantamount to being exiled.

Dakota Chief Little Crow | Image Credit:

Before Pope arrived, Little Crow offered to negotiate a settlement with Sibley, telling the colonel that his tribe held many white prisoners. Sibley also received an offer to end the uprising from Chiefs Wabasha and Taopi, who opposed the Indian attacks. Without disclosing this to Little Crow, Sibley communicated with the two chiefs to arrange the prisoners’ return.

Pope arrived in Minnesota by train and assumed command on September 16. He quickly declared that there was “panic everywhere in Wisconsin and Minnesota… (there will be) a general Indian war all along the frontier, unless immediate steps are taken to put a stop to it… It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so… They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts.” White settlers strongly supported Pope’s declaration and hoped that driving the Sioux out of Minnesota might lead to expelling the peaceful Chippewa tribes as well.

Stanton directed General Lew Wallace to gather up Federal prisoners recently paroled by Confederate forces to join the fight against the Sioux. Stanton ignored Confederate protests that putting paroled prisoners of war back into combat–even if against Indians and not Confederates–violated their prisoner exchange cartel.

On the 18th, Sibley’s Federals moved up the Minnesota River Valley with 1,619 volunteers to meet the two anti-Little Crow Indian chiefs. But as the Federals camped on the shore of a lake below the Upper Agency, Little Crow persuaded about 700 Mdewkanton Santee (Sioux) warriors to attack them. The warriors moved south on the night of the 22nd and positioned themselves to ambush the soldiers the next day.

Federals accidentally discovered the hiding Indians around 7 a.m., and a fierce battle began near Yellow Medicine. Some Federals retreated, but others held their ground atop a plateau. Another Federal unit repelled Indian attacks near Wood Lake, and a Federal charge finally drove the Indians off.

Decisively defeated, Little Crow withdrew to the Dakota Territory. The Federals sustained 41 casualties (seven killed and 34 wounded), while the Indians lost over 25 killed (including Chief Mankato) and many others wounded. Some Federals scalped the dead Indians in retaliation for the uprising.

Sibley did not have a cavalry force to pursue the remaining Indians, many of whom quit fighting and dispersed throughout the countryside. Federals eventually rounded up about 2,000 Indians over the next few months. Sibley proceeded as planned to negotiate with the two friendly Indian chiefs, who released 91 white and 150 mixed-race prisoners at Red Iron’s camp near the mouth of the Chippewa River. This region became known as Camp Release.


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 8311, 8333; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 538-39; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 203-04, 214-15; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83-87, 89; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 260-62, 270-71; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 686; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q362

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