Treated as Maniacs or Wild Beasts

The Sioux Native American uprising that had begun the previous month in Minnesota continued into September. Natives led by Chief Taovateduta (Little Crow) had withdrawn up the Minnesota River from Fort Ridgely in late August, and Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley arrived to restore order in the area. He dispatched a detail to gather and bury all those killed by the Natives, along with Federal troops as guards. On the night of the 1st, the Federals camped at Birch Coulee, some 15 miles from Fort Ridgely. Strangely, the camp was in a wooded ravine that left the Federals blind to a possible attack.

The next morning, a band of about 200 Santee Sioux warriors led by Chiefs Wambdi Tanka (Big Eagle) and Mankato launched a surprise attack on the Federal camp. The warriors killed all 87 of the Federal horses, which the men used as breastworks to fend off the assault. 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. Sibley left a message: “If Little Crow has any proposition to make, let him send a half-breed to me, and he shall be protected in and out of camp.” Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey was done negotiating: “The Sioux Indians must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”

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 Natives on Fort Abercrombie, about 25 miles south of present-day Fargo, North Dakota. They repelled a second attack three days later, and Governor 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 Number 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, was given command of this new department, with headquarters at St. Paul.

Pope was directed to use “whatever force may be necessary” 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 responded to Sibley’s message. He wrote Sibley that the Sioux had gone to war because of Indian Agent Thomas J. Galbraith, who had reneged on his pledge to allow the Natives to have the food stored at the Lower Agency. According to Little Crow:

“We made a treaty with the government, and beg for what we do get, and can’t get that till our children are dying with hunger. It is the traders who commenced it. Mr. A.J. Myrick told the Indians that they would eat grass or dirt. Then Mr. (William) Forbes told the Lower Sioux that they were not men. Then (Louis) Roberts was working with his friends to defraud us out of our moneys. If the young braves have pushed the white men, I have done this myself. So I want you to let Governor Ramsey know this. I have a great many prisoners, women and children…”

Sibley replied, “You have murdered many of our people without any sufficient cause. Return me the prisoners under a flag of truce, and I will talk with you then like a man.” But Little Crow wanted assurances that Sibley would not carry out Ramsey’s demand that the Sioux be either exterminated or expelled from the state. Instead, Little Crow wrote, “I want to know from you as a friend what way that I can make peace for my people.”

Meanwhile, Chief Wabasha sent Sibley a separate message that blamed Little Crow for starting the uprising. Without mentioning that he had participated in the attacks on Fort Ridgely and New Ulm, Wabasha assured Sibley that he opposed the Native aggression and claimed, “I have been kept back by threats that I should be killed if I did anything to help the whites.” Without disclosing this to Little Crow, Sibley worked with Wabasha to arrange the prisoners’ return.

General Pope arrived in Minnesota to assume command on the 16th. 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.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton directed Major 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 an enemy besides the Confederates–violated their prisoner exchange cartel.

On the 18th, Sibley’s Federals moved up the Minnesota River Valley with 1,619 volunteers to meet Chief Wabasha, camping on the shore of Wood Lake, below the Upper Agency. By this time, Little Crow knew that Sibley had no intention of negotiating with him any further, so he persuaded Big Eagle, Mankato, and about 700 Mdewkanton Santee (Sioux) warriors to attack them. According to Big Eagle, “All our fighting chiefs were present and all our best fighting Indians. We felt that this would be the deciding fight of the war.” 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. Mankato was killed by an artillery shell. 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 Santees off. It was a decisive Federal victory.

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 Natives in retaliation for the uprising. Sibley ordered this stopped: “The bodies of the dead, even of a savage enemy shall not be subjected to indignities by civilized and Christian men.”

The Native chiefs conferred that night and decided that they could not match the Federals. They resolved to join forces with the prairie Sioux in the Dakota Territory. Some, including Wabasha and Big Eagle, stayed behind and surrendered, hopeful that they would be treated fairly if they gave up their white prisoners. Little Crow bitterly told his warriors, “I am ashamed to call myself a Sioux… I cannot account for the disgraceful defeat. It must be the work of traitors in our midst.”

Sibley did not have a cavalry force to pursue the remaining Natives, many of whom quit fighting and dispersed throughout the countryside. The Federals marched into the Santee camp and liberated the white prisoners, after which Sibley ordered all Santees to be detained there by military force. Sibley renamed the area Camp Release and demanded that all Sioux in the Minnesota Valley come in or face annihilation. The Federals eventually rounded up about 2,000 Natives over the next few months.

Sibley proceeded as planned to negotiate with Wabasha, who released 91 white and 150 mixed-race prisoners at Red Iron’s camp near the mouth of the Chippewa River. A military tribunal of five Federal officers was formed to try the Santees implicated in the uprising. Defense counsel for the Natives was not permitted.


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