Sunday, February 11, 2007

Clodfelter: "The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux 1862-1865"

[ The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865 by Micheal Clodfelter (McFarland, 1998) Hardback*, Library binding, illustrations, maps, photos, notes, appendices, pp. 247.]

Although the story of the 1862 Santee uprising is told well in both Duane Schultz's Over the Earth I Come: The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862 and the Minnesota Historical Society's publication of Kenneth Carley's The Sioux Uprising of 1862[I haven't read the more recent works by Jerry Keenan and Hank Cox], the continuation of the war westward into the Dakota territory from 1863-1865 is largely ignored in the literature. Thankfully, Micheal Clodfelter has provided us with a first-rate overview history of the Sibley-Sully campaigns with his book The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865.

While most studies end with the mass hanging at Mankato, Clodfelter details the several campaigns that served to drive the hostiles out of Minnesota and into Canada and the Dakota plains. In 1863, General John Pope directed a two-pronged campaign against the Sioux (most of the individuals that participated in the worst atrocities of the 1862 uprising remained at large). One wing under Henry Hastings Sibley followed the Minnesota River toward the Devil's Lake region in the Dakota territory, fighting successful but indecisive battles at Big Mound, Dead Buffalo Lake, and Stony Lake. Instead of destroying the Sioux, the fighting pushed them over the Missouri River to safety. The other wing, commanded by Alfred Sully, was late in its scheduled rendezvous with Sibley but caught the Sioux after they recrossed the Missouri in the wake of Sibley's withdrawal. Sully's larger victory at Whitestone Hill concluded the year's campaigning, leaving the Sioux chastisted but far from defeated.

Sully's 1864 campaign utilized more mounted forces and his command was able to catch the Sioux and inflict fairly significant losses upon them at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. His column then continued on westward into the Badlands before returning to Minnesota. The goal of establishing a fort on the Yellowstone River was unmet. The next year's campaigning accomplished little, and with the end of the Civil War the plains wars really had only begun.

Clodfelter's account of these conflicts demonstrates the difficulty of utilizing large, ponderous army columns (and their slow supply trains) in order to catch concentrations of fleet Indians. The lack of a preexisting network of forts in the territory further hampered efforts to bring the hostile groups to heel; the Indians could always just disperse when confronted by white columns coming from a single direction. Although casualties in these battles were comparatively low by Civil War standards, Sioux losses at Whitestone Hill and Killdeer Mountain were nevertheless significant. In battle, the decisive factor was often the U.S. army's artillery. Certainly, the Sioux had nothing to match it and the psychological effect of exploding shells was crushing. Furthermore, compared with the conflicts of the next decade, the Indians' poor arms (mainly bows and arrows) left them ill equipped to handle any sizeable concentration of bluecoats, who were armed with modern shoulder arms.

The Dakota War packs an impressive amount of information into a study of relatively short length. Unlike most Indian Wars histories, the maps provided are detailed and plentiful, allowing the reader to easily trace the movements of the army columns as they travelled hundreds of miles over the parched plains. Although rather primitively drawn, the tactical battle maps are exceptional in their level of detail.

Well researched, and employing good writing and deft analysis, The Dakota War is noteworthy military history. This book is by far the best work written on the subject and is highly recommended.

* - I believe the hardcover referenced above is out of print, but the publisher has released a paperback edition.


  1. I'm pleased to read of the publication of The Dakota Wars. I've been looking for such a book for years.

    My grandfather, who died in 1921 at the age of 77, enlisted in the 6th Iowa Cavalry in January 1863, at the age of 19, and served until his regiment was mustered out in October 1865. I have copies of some of the letters he wrote home, and although I know his regiment was involved in a number of battles, the only one I've been able to identify from his letters is the battle of White Stone Hill.

    In the 1970s, Frontier Magazine published a lengthy article about my grandfather, but it was so full of distortions (deliberate?) that it's worthless as far as historical significance is concerned. For example, they wrote that Frank's (my gf) brother was fighting in the Confederate Army and was "killed by Grant's cannons" at Richmond." Not even close. Frank's brother was part of a Pennsylvania regiment, and died of wounds in the 3rd Battle of Winchester (Opequon) on September 19, 1864. He served under General Sheridan. Those kinds of misstatements (and the article was full of them) are maddening to those of us who are interested in accurate history.

    I've also tried to find a biography on General (Alfred?) Sully, but have been unable to fine anything in print, and very little about him on the internet.
    In a letter to his parents written on September 17, 1863 my grandfather, whose name was (Wm) Franklin Niles wrote the following:

    "General Sully has been ordered back to Fort Sill. There is a major general here and Gen. Curtace is coming up here to investigate Sully's affairs. I think Sully will be thrown out of office. There was an order to muster the 6th Cav. out of the service in April and Pollock was trying to get them out, but Sully put him under arrest and kept him in close confinement all summer and kept the 6th in. Pollock has now been relieved from close quarters by Major General. It may be all talk, but that is the story. We all know there was an order to muster us out in April and two orders since to muster us out immediately."

    I did find a history of the 6th Iowa online which is fairly detailed, but didn't mention Sully's problems, and Frank never mentioned this in his letters again.

    My primary interest is in the Civil War, and I've seen snippets of information about Sully, but only in relation to the war between the North and South. Nothing on when he commanded during the battles in the Dakota territories.

    Do you know of any books on Sully?

  2. Thanks for writing. I think it's a book well worth picking up if the price doesn't scare you off first.

    Although Pope was apparently no fan, Clodfelter is certainly an admirer of Sully's skill as an Indian campaigner. In this book, the Battle of Whitestone Hill is the one described in the most detail, and he 6th Iowa Cav certainly played a big part in it (esp. House's battalion). The book doesn't mention any investigation of Sully in late 1863. As to your question about Sully books, I looked through the bibliography for you and found only one, "No Tears for the General: A Biography of Alfred Sully" by Landon Sully (American West Publishing: Palo Alto, CA. 1977).

  3. I am researching an ancester, William A. Ostrander who also served under Sully in the Civil War and involved in the Battle of Whitestone Hill.

    Apprecaited hearing his comments and am wondering if his ancestor's letters mentioned anything about anyone named Ostrander that he might have been serving with.

    Note that I also descend from a NILES family and I agree that it has been frustrating trying to find anything on the internet of worth regarding this regiment and this Sully.


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