Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863–1864

By Paul N. Beck, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2013, $34.95.

The American Civil War was a tragic clash of cultures and lifestyles that seemed irreconcilable between people from North and South. Even greater was the gap in understanding and empathy between settlers on the northwestern frontier and the likewise expansionist Sioux, whose differences exploded into violence in Minnesota in August 1862. Even after that bloody uprising was crushed, the Army followed up with punitive expeditions in Dakota Territory that many participants, such as Maj. Gen. John Pope, wished to pursue as a war of extermination.

Sharing Pope’s sentiments were many of the Minnesota volunteers who accompanied the Regulars. Some regarded the uprising as an unwelcome diversion from the more important war back East; many were keen to avenge the deaths of friends and family. “The ashes of many houses is all that remain of a once happy family,” wrote Ebenezer Rice of the 2nd Minnesota Cavalry in his diary. “Father, Mother, Babe youth and manhood gone.” Soon after passing that massacre site, George Doud of the 8th Minnesota Infantry noted that fellow soldiers found earlier Sioux graves. “Thay Dug up the bodies of the red man and woman and kicked them around as thay pleased and left them above the ground,” wrote Doud. Most could have cared less that a good many of the Siouan tribes caught up in the campaign had had nothing whatsoever to do with the bloody events in Minnesota.

Author Paul Beck, a history professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee, spends less time on the “big picture” of the punitive expeditions of 1863 to 1864 than he does on such personal insights, thanks to a wealth of writings, memoirs and statements from the soldiers and civilians involved, as well as many Indians on the receiving end. At book’s end, however, the author concludes with a perspective of the campaign’s impact and consequences, both as a reflection of and a factor in both the Civil War and the conflict between whites and Indians that would sweep the northern Plains for years thereafter.


Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.