Friday, September 2, 2011

Michno: "DAKOTA DAWN: The Decisive First Week of the Sioux Uprising, August 17-24, 1862"

[ Dakota Dawn: The Decisive First Week of the Sioux Uprising, August 17-24, 1862 by Gregory F. Michno (Savas Beatie, 2011). Hardcover, 19 maps, photos, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:429/473. ISBN:978-1-932714-99-9 $32.95 ]

The 1862 Great Sioux Uprising in Minnesota is second only to King Philip's War in the scale of white American civilian deaths, yet it has been overshadowed in the popular mind by many other western Indian conflicts. Fortunately, readers have access to a number of useful primary and secondary source publications dealing with the period. Broad overview studies are available from C.M. Oehler, Kenneth Carley, Jerry Keenan, Duane Schultz, Hank Cox, and John Koblas. For its coverage of the entire 1862-65 time span of the conflict, the best military study remains Micheal Clodfelter’s The Dakota War.  Gregory Michno's new book Dakota Dawn, however, is an impressive departure from the more general works on the subject, instead offering an intense narrative of the incredibly bloody first week of the uprising.

Like the other studies, Michno begins his work outlining the sources of Santee Sioux resentment, most specifically the constant delays and deductions attached to the treaty subsidies and the corruption of licensed agency traders who were allowed to subtract their own claims from the annuities before payment to the Sioux. They are familiar tales for those who've read the earlier works, but the background explanations are well done in Dakota Dawn.

What really sets Michno's book apart from all previous studies is his incredibly detailed microhistory of the first seven days of the uprising. The vast majority of civilian deaths occurred during this horrific period, with hundreds of men, women, and children killed by Indian attacks on isolated farmsteads and by coordinated assaults on larger targets like Fort Ridgely, the town of New Ulm, and the Santee reservation's Upper and Lower Agencies. In addition to newspapers, government reports, and a host of other published primary and secondary source materials, the author mined historical society manuscript collections and federal Depredation Claims documents in order to provide the most thorough account yet attempted of the white civilian experience of the uprising. As Michno explains, most of the claims have not survived to the present, but so much material is presented in the book that it almost seems like the circumstances surrounding every death are included. Some readers may view this as overkill, believing representational examples would suffice, but Michno's method is really the only way to effectively convey the scale of the horrors perpetrated on the largely defenseless populace, many of whom were recent immigrants from the German states and Scandinavia.

Along the way, Michno dispels some of the mythology surrounding the events of the period. For example, he found no eyewitness evidence that would support the oft repeated claims in the literature about Andrew Myrick's infamous "let them eat grass" retort to the entreaties of starving Sioux. No individual present at the time of the alleged comment ever mentioned such words coming from Myrick. Along similar lines, the author concludes that the story of Myrick's body being found with the trader's mouth stuffed with grass is similarly apocryphal. The number of civilian deaths has always been subject to a wide range of estimates in the literature, usually between 400 and 1,000. In the book, there is no fresh investigation of these figures. The subject is treated briefly, with Michno comfortable with the former number.

The descriptions in Dakota Dawn of the desperate fighting at New Ulm and Fort Ridgely are among the best available. The differences in military culture are apparent, with the initial heavy numerical superiority of the Sioux dissipated by their lack of organization and unified command. In contrast, the soldiers and civilians at Fort Ridgely and citizens and militia at New Ulm came together quickly, making the most of their small numbers and mixed collection of small arms. Artillery undoubtedly contributed heavily to the success of the Ridgely defenders. New Ulm was even more of a close run thing. In describing the conduct of the town's defense, the leadership of Charles Flandrau is often praised by writers, but Michno found his efforts to be costly and of questionable competence. Disaster was narrowly averted on more than one occasion.

The book's 19 maps, drawn by Michno himself, are an important contribution. While not of great artistic merit, they are rich in detail, pointing the reader to the approximate location of practically every building and house mentioned in the text. The New Ulm and Ft. Ridgely battle maps were also useful. The volume is further illustrated with a photo gallery of period and modern images.

Dakota Dawn is essential reading for students of the Indian Wars of the West, as well as the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi theater. For the first time, the ghastly events of the opening stages of the 1862 Great Sioux Uprising in Minnesota have been sufficiently documented. Hopefully, Mr. Michno will see fit to continue his work, as that terrible week in August 1862 proved to be only the beginning of a much wider conflict, one that would involve thousands of combatants and last until 1865.

[To read an interview with author Gregory Michno, click here]

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