Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dakota War--XII

The Dakota did not simply lay down their arms after the battle at Birch Coulee. Throughout the region, they mounted occasional attacks, but none that resulted in major battles or significant losses on either side.

After the carnage throughout the region, the government's attitude toward the rebel Sioux was simple: get rid of them. Chase them out of the state forever, or, if that couldn't be done, simply kill them all. Extermination. Ethnic cleansing. Mass murder.

In late August and early September, the commander of the government forces, Gen. Sibley, was roundly criticized by Minnesotans for his seemingly sluggish pursuit of the Dakota. Sibley, however, was unwilling to throw his own untested recruits (several of whom simply walked away daily) into a battle with Little Crow's men--he knew both Little Crow and the Native people of the region very well.

When he finally determined to move up to the Upper Agency, his troops had grown to almost 1700 strong. He'd received what he considered to be enough ammunition to move on, and the 90 horses who died at Birch Coulee had replaced. It was September 19 before he left Ft. Ridgely for the Upper Sioux Agency in pursuit of the Dakota, a month after those first deaths on a farm near Acton.

Sibley learned that Little Crow's army was not all of one mind. He'd left a note for Little Crow on the battlefield at Birch Coulee, suggesting that if the Dakota chief wanted to talk, he'd listen: "If Little Crow has any proposition to make to me, let him send a half-breed to me, and he shall be protected in and out of camp."

Little Crow's response was to explain why the Dakota had begun the war in the first place and to suggest that he was inclined to more talk about the many prisoners they'd taken. For a time, the communication between Sibley and Little Crow was invested in the brotherhood that had, oddly enough, existed between the two men before the war, when they'd been not only friends but hunting partners.

Two factors worked against any kind of peaceful settlement, however. First, Sibley himself was confident that the only manner of disposition now was to rid the territory of its first peoples. Second, Little Crow himself was not in full control of the warriors--the "soldier's lodge"--that had been most responsible for the murder and pillaging that went on in those early days was simply not about to be tamed into submission.

Submission, of course, to a warrior culture like the Dakota, is worse than death. What both Little Crow and his most fierce warriors hated worse than anything was any possibility of their being treated as if they were anything else than men, than fighting men. And while Little Crow made it clear to many that he would not be taken alive--he would prefer instead to die as a man than live as a captive--his vehemence was not as deliberate and strong as was some of the others who supposedly served under his leadership. His army hadn't been disciplined in that first bloody week of the war; time made the dissension only worse.

The missionary Stephen R. Riggs, who was traveling with the cavalry, got news of breakdown of discipline in the Dakota camp when the half-breed messengers who parleyed notes back and forth told him that not all of the people in Little Crow's camp listened to their chief. When Sibley heard that, it was clear to him that the kind of discussions he might have liked to have with his old friend about getting the prisoners back and ending the war simply weren't going to happen.

The last battle of the war was a ragtag affair that occured when Sibley camped in a place not all that far from the Dakota warriors, who he'd assumed, incorrectly, were miles away. They weren't, and on the morning of September 20, a party of hungry soldiers decided on their own to steal some potatoes from the garden at the Upper Agency. When they left on the sly, they were attacked by Dakota warriors who'd been sneaking up close to the larger encampment, getting into place to begin a more formidable attack.

What started when the undisciplined soldiers ran their wagon right through the advancing warriors ended two hours later, when the Dakota simply withdrew. When they did, fourteen Indian bodies were left in the prairie 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 wasn't much more than a skirmish--and it actually wasn't near Wood Lake. For the most part, however, it was the end of Dakota War of 1862--at least the end of military conflict.

The story, however, goes on.


Anonymous said...

"The governments attitude toward the rebel Sioux was simple. Chase them out of the state forever, or simply kill them all. Extermination. Ethnic cleansing. Mass murder." "Sibley himself was confident that the only manner of disposition now was to rid the territory of it's first peoples." Would this have also included his first daughter, whose mother was also one of the "first people"? What ever happened to his Native daughter when Sibley was govener of Minn?

Anonymous said...

"The story, however, goes on" today.