In the latter stages of the Dakota War of 1862, Minnesotan members of the United States military were in pursuit of the native Dakota tribe, led by their chief, Little Crow. Within this conflict, there was a multitude of factors that were contributing to hostile attitudes from both sides, from American hostages to the ideas behind “Manifest Destiny”, the Battle of Wood Lake is a conflict that is far more complex than many realize.
To begin, it is important to understand the cause of the Dakota War, especially considering the fact that the forces of the Union were mostly occupied in their efforts against the Confederacy in the Civil War. The war was started due to the United States not upholding their promises from treaties that were signed with the natives in 1851. According to these treaties, the Native Dakota “ceded twenty-four million acres to the U.S. government in exchange for a reservation along the Minnesota River and a settlement of $21 million, in the form of yearly annuities”(Nathanson, 2013). However, with the introduction of the Civil War, the United States found itself unable to keep up with these annuities. Because of this, the native tribe members found themselves suffering from a lack of food due to their decreased land holdings and their lack of monetary wealth in the early 1860s.
Upset with these conditions, the Dakota came together to discuss the possibility of going to war against the United States. These heated debates were carried out between factions that were for war and those who were against using hostilities, and when the Lower Sioux rejected the propositions for war, the hostile factions proceeded anyway, with Chief “Little Crow” (Ta Oyate Duta) appointed as their leader (Lawrence, 2005). The strategy for the Dakota people was simple: drive the Americans out of Minnesota, and at the start of the war, things were looking promising after their victory in Lower Agency. Another victory was gained in their surprise attack of Birch Coulee, as Alonzo P. Connolly recalled in the aftermath of the battle, “we found ninety-five horses killed of our ninety-six; and of the 153 men, 65 were killed or so badly wounded, as to be non-effective, while only six or eight actually escaped being wounded in some way”(Connolly, 1906).
As these violent outbreaks continued, Alexander Ramsey, the governor of Minnesota, appointed Colonel Henry Sibley was appointed to lead the 3rd, 6th, 7th, 9th, and 10th Minnesota Infantry units (a combined force of 1,400). The creation of these units was done rapidly, as Amos Watson described it, after having enlisted on the 14th of August, 1862, and arriving at Fort Snelling a mere 10 days later, “on the 27th we received marching orders; and at 6 o’clock p.m. all of the Seventh Regiment then at the fort started by boat, arriving at Shakopee next morning”(Watson). Many of these soldiers had no experience in the military, and the evidence of that became more apparent as they began their march towards Birch Coulee. As Watson recalled their first night of marching, they found themselves struggling to properly pitch up their own tents. Not only were the volunteer soldiers inexperienced, but so was Sibley, who had no experience with the military; however, he and the forces under his leadership helped play a key role in reinforcing the severely wounded troops at Birch Coulee, driving the natives westward before continuing their harrowing march.
“At dawn on September 23, 1862, hundreds of Dakota warriors prepared to attack from the tall grass near Sibley’s encampment, three miles south of the Yellow Medicine Agency, known today as the Upper Sioux Community. The ambush was thwarted when several men from Sibley’s camp left in a wagon in search of potatoes”(MNHS, 2012).
This quote comes directly from a sign located outside of the present-day Wood Lake Battlefield Monument, and it speaks to the absurd truth of how this battle began. As Watson put into detail, “while the Seventh was eating breakfast, some of the Third boys started ahead with a wagon in order to forage. They went without orders… a half-mile from camp, the Indians attacked them”. The rest of the force, hearing the gunfire from the campsite, gathered their equipment and hurried to join the small group as the Indians rose out of the grass to begin their assault.
This accidental run-in with American soldiers had completely thrown the battle tactics of the Indians into disarray, as their plan had been to use surprise tactics to gain an advantage over the substantially larger Union force, but with the threat of some soldiers being run over by the approaching wagons, they had to rise and fight earlier than anticipated. With their plans foiled, inferior firepower, and the fact that they were massively outnumbered, the Battle of Wood Lake became an overwhelmingly one-sided battle in favor of the United States. So much so that the fighting lasted only two hours, with many Indian forces, including Chief Little Crow, retreating further west, deeper into Native-owned territories. Those who stayed and continued to fight faced devastating consequences, as Watson described it, they found one warrior that “had been pierced by seventeen balls, nine of which were in his body”. By the end of the fighting, Connolly found that the Native Indians had a total of 14 soldiers killed in action, while the U.S. had only 7 killed, but 34 were wounded. The number of Indians who surrendered totaled to nearly 400.
The treatment of Indian soldiers after the fighting ended at Wood Lake was very poor, the emotions of the soldiers had reached a boiling point after what had happened in Birch Coulee and Lower Agency. Alonzo Connolly mentioned that American soldiers “took great pleasure in procuring Indian scalps for trophies”. However, the poor treatment did not stop there, as when American troops were escorted by Indian troops to Hazelwood, about 10 miles away from the battle site, where it was discovered that nearly 300 Americans, mostly made up of women and children, were being held as hostages.
In the aftermath of the battle, a whole slew of events was undertaken, many of which can be thought of as massively controversial and a metaphorical shadow of this country. What is guarded as one of the greater successes of the military in the following weeks was the freeing of American hostages from what became known as Camp Release. As Amos Watson witnessed it, General Henry H. Sibley, as he had been promoted to, “went with an escort and received the white captives, about 300 women and children. I helped get dinner for them. They were a sorry looking crowd”. In their time spent at the camp, soldiers were found to be in much higher spirits, many of which “were content to throw off care for a time and entered upon a season of enjoyment… we became boys again and indulged in all sorts of games”(Connolly). By October 24th, Camp Release had been abandoned, American soldiers having moved the remaining hostages from the camp, and the next set of challenges began.
The next step was transporting the Indian prisoners to Mankato, where they were to be imprisoned and put on trial for their actions during the war. However, the problems were not with the prisoners themselves, but rather the citizens of the cities in which they had to pass through to get to Mankato. There were instances of citizens attacking the convoy of wagons as they passed by, some going as far as to try and murder the prisoners. By November 10th, they had completed the journey, and the worst was still yet to come. Throughout December, between 300-400 prisoners were tried and 303 Dakota soldiers were sentenced to hanging(MNHS, 2012). President Lincoln later reduced the sentences of many of these men, narrowing down the final number to 38 men. There in Mankato, “on the 26th day of December 1862, 38 Indians were hanged from the gallows… in front of the prison, and it was estimated that there were 4000 people on the ground”(Watson). This event became the largest mass execution in all of United States history, and afterward, they were buried in the sand along the Minnesota River. By the next morning, it was found that all of the bodies had been dug up by doctors, presumably for purposes of research.
In the years following, the westward expansion of the United States continued, but the scars of the war still remained, as well as tensions with the Native Indians. As Private John Busch described on his journey towards the Missouri River, “we arrived at Camp Wood Lake where the 3rd Regiment had a battle with the Indians 1½ years ago. The dugouts they are making there are long and stretched out. You can still see the Indian bones and skulls laying around”(Busch, 1864). Tensions between members of the Union and Indians would persist in the years after, however, these did not amount to the return of all-out war.
It would not be until 1907 when the Minnesota government would purchase the land for state use as a memorial to the battle that occurred, as it turned out, near Lone Tree Lake, about three miles East of Wood Lake. They would also take this time to fix several other errors from reports on the front lines, most of which involved the counts of manpower in different contexts, such as casualties and actual manpower involved in the conflicts.
Three years later, in 1910, the Wood Lake Battlefield Monument was erected in the modern town of Echo, Minnesota, in memory of those that fought and died in the battle of Wood Lake, with the front engraving reading “To the memory of the men who here lost their lives in an engagement between Minnesota volunteer soldiers and the Sioux Indians Sept. 23, 1862”. The project was supervised by commissioners which were appointed by the governor of Minnesota at the time, Adolph O. Eberhart.
- Busch, John. John Busch letter, June 9, 1864. Dakota Conflict of 1862 Manuscripts Collections. Minnesota Historical Society.
- Minnesota. Commission on the Wood Lake Battlefield. Report on the Battle of Wood Lake, circa 1907. Dakota Conflict of 1862 Manuscripts Collections. Minnesota Historical Society.
- Watson, Amos B. Reminiscences of the Sioux outbreak, undated. Dakota Conflict of 1862 Manuscripts Collections. Minnesota Historical Society.
- Connolly, Alonzo P, and Grand Army of the Republic. Minneapolis and the G.A.R.: With a Vivid Account of the Battle of Birch Coulee, Sept. 2 and 3, the Battle of Wood Lake, Sept. 23, the Release of the Women and Children Captives at Camp Release, Sept. 26, 1862. A.P. Connolly, 1906.
- Lawrence, Elden. History of Minnesota’s State War and the Battle of Wood Lake, September 23, 1862. 2005.
- Minnesota Historical Society, “The Wood Lake Battle” The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, 2012
- Nathanson, Iric. “Battle of Wood Lake, September 23, 1862.” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society.
- Battle of Wood Lake (Wikipedia)