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Home History of the West Civil War and the West The Indian Campaigns Part Three: The War Turns to Some of the Bloodiest Fighting

The Indian Campaigns

Part Three: The War Turns to Some of the Bloodiest Fighting

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In 1862, the town of New Ulm, Minnesota was a small, quiet settlement, mostly made up of German immigrants who had come to America eager to find a new life in the New World. They were farmers, shopkeepers and tradesmen. They were families-mothers, fathers and children-busy working and playing, all of them excited about the future ahead of them.

On Aug. 19, war came to New Ulm.
 
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Called the Dakota Conflict, or the Dakota Uprising, many factors led up to the Sioux war of 1862. Promised money and goods in an 1851 treaty for turning over their land, the Dakota people soon found themselves on a reservation with little food.

A meeting was held on Aug. 15 between the Sioux and the Lower Sioux Agency. Requests for supplies were bluntly rejected. A trader by the name of Andrew Myrick went into the pages of history that day when he reportedly said: "So far as I'm concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung."

The insult was too much for the proud Dakota.

On Aug. 18, after an earlier raid by four young Sioux warriors ended in the death of five whites, Chief Little Crow led an attack on the Lower Sioux Agency and settlements in the area. Myrick was later found dead, with his mouth stuffed with grass.

Thus began the war of the Minnesota River Valley, or the Dakota Conflict. Farms up and down the river were attacked, and some experts say as many as 800 settlers and soldiers were killed.

Refugees fled to
Fort Ridgely, about 12 miles from the Agency, and New Ulm, about 15 miles farther south.

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News of the attacks grew the town's population from 900 to about 1,500. On Aug. 19, a force of about 100 Dakota warriors attacked the town, which by now had tried to put up barricades. What guarded the town that day was a force of about 250 volunteers, most poorly trained in fighting, some armed only with pitchforks. After a brief encounter, and three houses being set on fire, the Indians withdrew.

On Aug. 23, after having failed to take Fort Ridgely, around 650 warriors returned to New Ulm. Fighting raged throughout the day, and Sioux forces entered the town, occupying several buildings. A desperate charge of about 50 townsmen pushed the Sioux from the houses, which the townsmen quickly burned down. The Indians withdrew.

In the end, the town lost about 34 people, with around 60 wounded, and the destruction of 190 buildings. New Ulm was nearly overrun. For the next several weeks, Indian raids took place throughout the region.

Finally able to regroup with enough volunteers who had not gone off to fight in the Civil War, Henry Hastings Sibley, who had been the first governor of Minnesota, and now was a colonel in the militia, advanced up the valley with around 1,500 troops.

On Sept. 23, just missing the full brunt of an ambush by Little Crow and about 700 braves, Sibley and his forces gained a major victory at the Battle of Wood Lake. It marked a turning point in the war.

Three days later, and now promoted to brigadier general, Sibley was able to capture about 1,600 Dakotas. He instituted a series of trials, and when they were over, 303 Dakota were condemned to death by hanging.

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The news raced eastward. President Abraham Lincoln stepped in and ordered that only 39 of the 303 hangings would proceed. In the end, 38 of the condemned (one was released) were hanged at the town of Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862, at what would become the nation's largest mass execution in its history.

Other Battles in the West

The battle at New Ulm and the Dakota Uprising weren't the only fighting that took place in the West's northern regions.

In Idaho, the fighting at Bear River between the Shoshoni and Army troops was a massacre. On Jan. 29, 1863, under the command of Col. Patrick E. Connor, troops attacked a mostly sleeping winter camp of 65 to 75 lodges at dawn. The entire village would have consisted of some 450 to 500 Indians. Only about half, given statistical averages, would have been male, and many of those would have been too old or too young to be considered "warriors."

While the Shoshoni gave the soldiers a good fight early on, and had the best of the troopers initially, the Shoshoni soon ran out of ammunition and were slaughtered wholesale in close combat, with the Indians having only tomahawks and knives, bows and arrows, even sticks as weapons.

Witnesses at the scene said at least 90 of those killed were women and children. Babies were killed; women raped, unarmed, helpless and wounded were dispatched with axe blows to the head. There were incidents of torture and other cruelty. While the US Army referred to it as a "battle" for many years, even they now recognize it as a massacre.

Casualties that day were perhaps 325 Indians (best estimate) and 22 troopers. The Battle of Bear River has another name: The Massacre at Boa Ogoi.

"Boa Ogoi" (Big River) is the historic Shoshoni name of the stream the white men named the Bear River.

In what is now North Dakota, the Army continued its war against the Sioux.

Troops fought the Sioux through much of the latter part of July 1863, and into September 1864, and faced a variety of Plains Indians tribes. The fighting included the battles of Big Mound, Dead Buffalo Lake, Stony Lake, Whitestone Hill and finally at Killdeer Mountain.

It was at Killdeer Mountain that Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully, leading a force of around 2,500 volunteers, marched to engage an encampment of maybe 5,000 to 6,000 Sioux. At first, Sully met with some of the tribal leaders, but nothing came of the meeting. Sully decided to attack.

The fighting was intense, but the Army's use of artillery and long-range weapons turned the tide in favor of Sully's troops. The Army's victory at Killdeer Mountain demoralized the Sioux, but it did not end the conflict. In fact, many historians says it was only the prelude for fighting that would continue into the 1870s.

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In Colorado, one of the worst massacres in American history took place at Sand Creek.

According to the National Park Service's Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, hatred was growing between whites and Indians due to scattered Indian raids.

"In the autumn, Territorial (Colorado) officers had offered a vague amnesty if Indians reported to army forts. Chief Black Kettle with many Cheyenne and a few Arapahos, believing themselves to be protected, established a winter camp about 40 miles from Fort Lyon," the commission reported.

"On Nov. 29, Col. John Chivington, who advocated Indian extermination, arrived near the camp, having marched there from Fort Lyon. In spite of the American flag and a white flag flying over the camp, the troops attacked, killing and mutilating about 200 of the Indians, two-thirds of whom were women and children," it concluded.

The fighting at Sand Creek would also become known as the Chivington Massacre. On June 1, 2007, the National Park service opened the
Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

What was still ahead for the country was the battle of the Washita River, the battle of the Little Big Horn, and the massacre at Wounded Knee. The fighting that began during the early days of the Civil War would continue for many years.

Call it Manifest Destiny, call it economic development, call it whatever you want. The Indian way of life was doomed when the first white settlers came into the West. Dreams of fortunes to be made from gold and silver discoveries, European immigrants eager to start farms and ranches, and the East's desire for a transcontinental railroad were just some of the crushing forces that ended the tribes' freedoms.

The American Civil War, and the impact it had on Native Americans living in the western states and territories, merely sped up what was inevitable.


 
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