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The role of American Indians in the Civil War amounts to more than just a historical footnote. Organized  groups of warriors, with allegiances to either the Union or Confederacy, took part in battles at Pea Ridge, Arkansas; Chustenalah, Honey Springs and Doaksville in Indian Territory; and elsewhere in the trans-Mississippi region. Other Indians, including Ely S. Parker, Ulysses S. Grant’s military secretary, joined the forces of the North or South individually, acted as scouts or formed Indian Home Guard units. Some tribes in the West engaged in uprisings against settlers and the government, and in a few cases were victimized by military actions amounting to massacres.

The Sioux uprisings of 1862 and 1863 was the most visible of these revolts and continued in some form through the end of the Civil War and beyond. The disturbances drew the focus of Union units on the frontier away from the Confederates and prevented other volunteers from heading east to join the principal armies of the North. Because they took manpower and materiel away from the war effort, these uprisings were included in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

The two states with sites involved in the uprisings, North Dakota and Minnesota, have a number of charming small towns and large expanses of unspoiled prairie landscape. Most of the following sites are in these areas. I can think of at least three good reasons to visit them in their Civil War context. First, residents of these and nearby states can get a glimpse of some of the war’s battle locations without having to travel longer distances to the eastern or southern United States. Second, the tour encompasses areas that interpret other frontier and transitional history. Finally, the tour can end both geographically and historically on the front step of later uprisings of the Sioux and allied tribes. Several famous Civil War personalities played significant roles in these actions.

This tour will start in Minneapolis-St. Paul and end in western North Dakota. From that point, one can continue to explore these states and any of the many national parks and other historic sites in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. Led by the state historical societies in both Minnesota and North Dakota, government and private agencies have preserved important landmarks and pieces of history. Difficult terrain has placed some of the sites off-limits. Still others, because of their distance from logistical centers, are restricted or closed to preserve their resources and significance. But all the major events of the period are represented by locations of historical importance.

In the headwaters region of two of America’s great rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri, the area of this tour also abounds in natural beauty, water-based recreational activities and plentiful travelers’ amenities. Although winter is not the best time to visit these sites (and some are open seasonally), the area is a wonderland of winter recreation.

By the 1860s, the Sioux had become the predominant Indian tribe of the Great Plains. Except on reservations, they had abandoned seasonal cultivation and concentrated almost exclusively on the hunt for buffalo. The coming of civilization continually cut into their hunting grounds. Indian agents, sent by the federal government, set up trading posts and agencies to encourage cultivation of the land and conduct affairs with the Sioux. The Santee Sioux (now known as the Dakotas) had sold most of their lands in southern and western Minnesota to the federal government in 1851, and their people were moved to a reservation along the Minnesota River. They witnessed the reduction of Regular Army units in the state as the Civil War began to draw forces from the Western states and territories. Many men also joined volunteer units and were shipped out. As a result, the Sioux were shocked to discover that white immigration to the state continued to increase.

The breaking point came in August 1862. The Santee Sioux lashed out over poor rations, cheating by fur traders, a bad crop season and a delay in their federal annuity stipends. Under Chief Little Crow, they attacked settlers near the Lower Sioux Agency, southeast of the reservation, killing more than 800 and taking several prisoners, destroying property and driving the survivors into Fort Ridgely. On August 18, they attacked the agency. An army expedition under Captain John S. Marsh attempted to respond but was driven back to the fort, and Marsh and 24 of his soldiers were killed. The Sioux followed and attacked the fort on August 20 and 22, but the garrison, including the 5th Minnesota (the “Renville Rangers”), Regular artillery and civilians, held. Two attacks took place on the German settlement of New Ulm on August 19 and 25. The settlers drove off the attackers, although much of the town was destroyed. On September 2 at Birch Coulee, Sioux warriors surprised a camp of Minnesota volunteers under Major Joseph R. Brown and pinned them down for 36 hours until relief arrived.

Alarmed at these developments, the governor of Minnesota commissioned an ex-governor, Henry Hastings Sibley (a distant cousin of Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley), as a colonel and put him in charge of newly enlisted Minnesota volunteers. On September 19, Sibley’s expedition of 1,400 set out from Fort Ridgely to put down the uprising. On September 23 at Wood Lake, near the Upper Sioux Agency, the soldiers of the 3rd, 6th and 7th Minnesota and the Renville Rangers dealt Little Crow’s warriors a serious defeat, capturing 2,000 and scattering the rest. Little Crow fled with a number of his followers to Dakota Territory. The Minnesota uprising was contained.

Near the Twin Cities International Airport, at the intersection of Hiawatha Avenue (Minnesota 55) and Minnesota 5, is historic Fort Snelling. The restored 1820s fort, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, was the command post for Union operations against the Sioux in 1862. There is an interpretive center and exhibits. The nearby state park of the same name has dayuse activities. Also nearby is Sibley House Historic Site, where the Wood Lake victor lived and had an office as Minnesota’s first governor. It is a quarter of a mile east of Minnesota 55 on Minnesota 13, at the north end of Fort Snelling State Park. From the metropolitan area, take U.S. 169 southwest, or take Interstate 35 south to Owatonna, then U.S. 14 west and drive to the town of Mankato.

Mankato’s significance dates from the time when the fighting stopped. Of the nearly 2,000 Santee Sioux under guard, 393 were tried by a military commission at Camp Release beginning on September 28. Of these, 307 were found responsible for the uprising and sentenced to death. President Abraham Lincoln pardoned all but 38, who were hanged on December 26, 1862, in the largest public execution in U.S. history. The Red Feather marker and Dakota Warrior statue outside the Mankato Public Library, 100 E. Main St., site of the executions, commemorate the conflict and eventual reconciliation of the whites and Indians. For an overnight stop here, Minneopa State Park on Minnesota 68 has camping and recreational facilities. A vehicle permit is required at Minnesota state parks, and an annual pass is available from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

From Mankato, proceed northwest on U.S. 14 to New Ulm. A walking tour of markers and buildings extant during the New Ulm attacks is available from the Brown County Historical Society. Seven miles west on Brown County Road 29, the Milford State Monument recognizes 52 people who were killed in the August 18, 1862, Sioux attack there. Flandrau State Park, 1300 Summit Ave., was named for a New Ulm defender and has recreational facilities. From this area, take Minnesota 68 west to the intersection of Minnesota 4 and county Road 29. Fort Ridgely Historic Site and Fort Ridgely State Park are on the north side of the river here. The fort was built in 1853, and the 20- acre site contains a restored building and an interpretive walk among the imprints of 16 other fort buildings. There are exhibits and an audiovisual program. Like many sites on this tour, Fort Ridgely maintains full operating hours only from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Use the contact information at the end of this column to get more details and operating hours for these sites.

Continue to crisscross the Minnesota River by taking Minnesota 4 north, then Minnesota 19 west to Morton. Lower Sioux Agency Historic Site is at 32469 Redwood County Road 2. There is an interpretive center here and a restored 1861 stone warehouse. Three miles north of Morton and one mile east of U.S. 71 on Renville County Road 2 is Birch Coulee Historic Site. There are trails and interpretive plaques with illustrations by Albert Colgrove, a Union soldier in the battle. Return to Morton, drive west on Minnesota Route 19-67 and continue north on Minnesota 67 to Upper Sioux Agency State Park. On the way, a detour north on Renville County Road 7 to County Road 15 takes you to the Joseph R. Brown State Wayside Rest, where there are remains of the Birch Coulee commander’s three-story house destroyed in the 1862 uprising. At Upper Sioux Agency State Park there is a restored building (now closed to the public), a walking trail among building foundations and interpretive markers. On the southern edge of the park on Renville County Road 18 is Wood Lake State Monument. A stone monument erected in 1910 indicates the site of the Battle of Wood Lake. From the park, enter Granite Falls and take U.S. 212 west. The final stop in Minnesota is the historic wayside of Camp Release, site of the tribunal, on U.S. 212 just west of Montevideo. Continue west on U.S. 212 to Interstate 29 or take Minnesota 7–U.S. 59 north to Interstate 94 to the vicinity of Fargo, N.D.

In the summer of 1863, Maj. Gen. John Pope launched a two-pronged offensive against the Santee Sioux, who had moved west from Minnesota after the defeat at Wood Lake. Following his defeat at Second Bull Run in August 1862, Pope had been reassigned to command the Department of the Northwest, with his headquarters in Milwaukee. In July Henry Sibley, now a brigadier general, led a force to Dakota Territory in pursuit of the Santee Sioux, who were mingling with some of the Yanktonai and other area tribes. On July 24, after a daylong march, Sibley camped on a dry salt lake bed near a large assembly of braves. After a group of apparently peaceful warriors approached the army camp, a brave killed an army surgeon, Dr. Joseph S. Weiser, and the fighting began. Sibley advanced with a force on a large mound rising from the landscape, and this thrust and others supported by artillery scattered the Sioux. After the Battle of Big Mound, Sibley pursued the warriors and broke the force in two more actions, at Dead Buffalo Lake on July 26 and Stoney Lake on July 28. After failing to rendezvous with the other column organized by Pope, Sibley returned to his base.

The other prong of Pope’s offensive was a force under Army of the Potomac veteran Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully. A month’s delay in arriving in the area prevented Sully from joining Sibley’s expedition as planned, and the Sioux returned to their hunting grounds east of the Missouri River once Sibley departed. On September 3, 1863, at Whitestone Hill, Sully’s men, led by the 6th Iowa Cavalry, routed the Santees from their camp. For two days Sully sent out patrols to look for the enemy and destroy their supplies. The next spring the process of creating a military presence in Dakota Territory continued in anticipation of problems that might stem from increased white immigration. Pope ordered Sully to advance west with 2,500 cavalry, infantry and mounted guns to establish a series of outposts in the area. Fort Rice was built on the Missouri River at the mouth of Chantapeta Creek on July 7, 1864.

Sully’s force continued west, and a large camp of Santee Sioux, Yanktonai and Teton Sioux was found in the Killdeer Mountains. On July 28, Sully attacked the camp at Killdeer Mountain with a phalanx—a large square formed by infantry and dismounted cavalry, protecting cannons and wagons in the middle. A pitched battle ensued, but eventually the warriors gave ground. The Union force occupied the village after the braves evacuated their women and children and finally withdrew. Leaving part of his force to destroy supplies, Sully advanced the next day. On August 9 and 10, the same warriors engaged Sully in a running skirmish known as the Battle of the Bad Lands. The Battle of Killdeer Mountain dealt a serious blow to Sioux resistance, but violence continued and forced the military to keep a visible presence in the area well beyond the end of the Civil War. Continued attacks by the tribes of the Plains would bring Union officers Philip H. Sheridan, Nelson Miles, George Armstrong Custer and others west, and the uprisings would keep military units in the region for many years.

The North Dakota sites are scattered over a wide area, but for those who have the time, a visit to these Civil War settings, combined with other historic and cultural resources in the state, provides a wonderful glimpse into the military development of the region as well as frontier and Indian life. Recreational opportunities abound along the routes to these tour destinations. On the Minnesota border 28 miles south of Fargo via Interstate 29 and four miles east of the interstate at Abercrombie is Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site. This was the main fort in the area at the time of these Federal campaigns. One original building remains, as well as reconstructed blockhouses and palisades. There are visitor amenities and a museum at the site. The park is open during the warm months. More information on this and other locations is available from the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Farther west, most sites are north of Interstate 94. Camp Atchison, Sibley’s base camp, is 21⁄2 miles south of the junction of North Dakota 1 and North Dakota 65 in Griggs County. There is a marker and a small trace of the fortifications the soldiers dug there. Camp Grant was established by Sibley on July 23, 1863, just before the Battle of Big Mound. It is five miles northwest of Woodworth (I-94 exit 230). Big Mound Battlefield is 10 miles north of Tappen (I-94 exit 214) on a road that starts paved but changes to gravel. A granite marker is located at the site where Dr. Weiser was shot at the beginning of the fight. McPhail’s Butte, an overlook from which the colonel of the 1st Minnesota Mounted Rangers directed his forces in the battle, is visible but on private land. Dead Buffalo Lake (I-94 exit 208; take the dirt farm road north and west of the interstate) is on private land, but there are interpretive markers on the east side of the lake and a great view from the west side. Check with the historical society for up-to-date conditions and directions to these sites. Chaska (or Camp Banks), where Sibley camped after failing to meet Sully, is three miles north of Driscoll (I-94 exit 190). It currently is not open to the public.

Three sites relating to Sully’s expeditions are south of I-94. The most important is Whitestone Battlefield State Historic Site in Dickey County, west of U.S. 281 (I-94 exit 259) and six miles southwest of Merricourt. The park has visitor amenities, a small museum and a recreation area. Fort Rice is about 30 miles south of Bismarck and eight-tenths of a mile south of the town of Fort Rice on North Dakota 1806. There are interpretive displays and impressions of the original buildings. Another site used by Sully in his 1864 expedition is in Stark County. It is Sully’s Heart River Corral State Historic Site, 14 miles southeast of Richardton (I-94 exit 84) off North Dakota 8. There are traces of fortifications at this site. Finally, the battlefield of Killdeer Mountain, 101⁄2 miles north of the town of Killdeer (I-94 exit 61; 35 miles north of Dickinson on North Dakota 22 to the gravel road, then west 71⁄2 miles to the site), is indicated by a monument and flagpole. Headstones bear the names of some of the soldiers killed in the battle. The terrain here, with the mountain in the background, provides a splendid glimpse of how the area looked on the day of the battle.


Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here