While the battles between the Union and Confederate armies raged across the continent, conflict with the native American tribes also continued. One such episode was the Dakota War of 1862.
The expansion of the United States across the West to the Pacific Ocean continued apace. New lands were settled. States and territories were organized. Immigrants continued to flood into the United States from Europe. All of this created friction with the native American tribes scattered across the vast expanse of the American Prairie.
The United States and Dakota leaders negotiated the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux on July 23, 1851, and Treaty of Mendota on August 5, 1851, by which the Dakota were forced to cede large tracts of land in Minnesota Territory to the U.S. In exchange for money and goods, the Dakota were forced to agree to live on a 20-mile wide Indian reservation centered on a 150 mile stretch of the upper Minnesota River.
However, the United States Senate deleted Article 3 of each treaty during the ratification process. Much of the promised compensation never arrived, was lost, or was effectively stolen due to corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Also, annuity payments guaranteed to the Dakota often were provided directly to traders instead (to pay off debts which the Dakota incurred with the traders).
When Minnesota was admitted to the Union on May 11, 1858, the Dakota lost their reservation along the Minnesota River, and rights to the quarry at Pipestone, Minnesota, was also taken from them. Their lands were divided for settlement into townships and plots. With the introduction of farming into the area, hunting and fishing suffered. Meanwhile, the Federal preoccupation with the American Civil War had led to late or failed payments to the Dakota.
By August 1862, tensions had risen to the breaking point. When the Dakota asked Indian agent Andrew Jackson Myrick, to sell them food on credit. His response was said to be, “[S]o far as I am concerned, let them eat grass.” After the fighting broke out, Myrick was later found dead with grass stuffed in his mouth.
Almost immediately, fighting broke out. On August 18, 1862, Little Crow, the Dakota chief, led a group that attacked the Lower Sioux (or Redwood) Agency. Minnesota militia forces and B Company of the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment sent to quell the uprising were defeated at the Battle of Redwood Ferry.
Twenty-four soldiers, including the party’s commander (Captain John Marsh), were killed in the battle. Throughout the day, Dakota war parties swept the Minnesota River Valley and near vicinity, killing many settlers. Numerous settlements including the Townships of Milford, Leavenworth and Sacred Heart, were surrounded and burned and their populations nearly exterminated.
After their initial success, the Dakota continued to attack isolated settlements along the Minnesota River. The military defended Fort Ridgely along the river but in doing so their limited forces were unable to defend these isolated settlements. The Dakota raided farms and small settlements throughout south central Minnesota and what was then eastern Dakota Territory.
Minnesota militia counterattacks resulted in a major defeat at the Battle of Birch Coulee on September 2, 1862. The battle began when the Dakota attacked a detachment of 150 American soldiers at Birch Coulee, 16 miles from Fort Ridgely. The detachment had been sent out to find survivors, bury American dead and report on the location of Dakota fighters.
A three-hour firefight began with an early morning assault where thirteen soldiers were killed and 47 were wounded, while only two Dakota were killed. A column of 240 soldiers from Fort Ridgely relieved the detachment at Birch Coulee the same afternoon.
Eventually President Lincoln dispatched Maj. Gen. John Pope with troops from the 3rd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment and 4th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The 9th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment and 10th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which were still being constituted, had troops dispatched to the front as soon as Companies were formed.
Pope had been relieved of command in the East after his disastrous defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas (also known as Bull Run) at the end of August. He was assisted by Col. Henry Hastings Sibley (the previous governor).
Once the larger relief force was constituted, the final large-scale fighting took place at the Battle of Wood Lake on September 23, 1862. According to the official report of Lt. Col. William R. Marshall of the 7th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, elements of the 7th Minnesota and the 6th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment (and a six-pounder cannon) were deployed equally in dugouts and in a skirmish line. After brief fighting, the forces in the skirmish line charged against the Dakota (then in a ravine) and defeated them overwhelmingly.
In December, 303 Dakota were put on trial for a variety of offenses, the most serious being rape and murder. Many of the trials lasted less than five minutes. The defendants were neither represented nor were the proceedings explained to them. Lincoln reviewed each transcript personally and eventually 38 were executed by hanging on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota. It remains the largest mass execution in American history.
Some 77 soldiers and between 450 to 800 settlers were killed. Some 150 Dakota died in the fighting while a further 38 were executed. The convicted Dakota who were not executed were interned at Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa, where they were held in prison for almost four years. By the time of their release, one third of the prisoners had died of disease. The survivors were sent with their families to Nebraska. Their families had already been expelled from Minnesota.