Friday, June 28, 2013

Beck: "COLUMNS OF VENGEANCE: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864"

[Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864 by Paul N. Beck (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013). Cloth, 2 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:269/329. ISBN:9780806143446 $34.95]

Numerous studies have been written about the 1862 Santee Sioux uprising in Minnesota, but far less attention has been paid to the subsequent U.S. army Dakota plains campaigns conducted with the intention of securing the frontier and inflicting further punishment on the bands that committed the atrocities. Unfortunately, as Beck demonstrates, the military incursions into the Dakotas served mainly to inflame those Sioux not present during the atrocities committed in Minnesota. Some, like the Yanktonais, were even peacefully disposed toward the whites. The army's desire for vengeance combined with a mixing of friendly and hostile bands (the latter the minority) within large, extended buffalo hunting camps led to several battles, the result of which was the ignition of a wider plains war.

Paul Beck's Columns of Vengeance is a survey history of these punitive campaigns. After conveying the necessary background information about causative events in Minnesota, the book launches into a swift moving account of the two-pronged offensive led by brigadier generals Henry Hastings Sibley and Alfred Sully. The battles [Big Mound, Dead Buffalo Lake, and Stony Lake for Sibley and Whitestone Hill for Sully] are briefly, but ably, described, most in just a few pages of text. Sully's 1864 expedition, with its big battle at Killdeer Mountain, had the additional mission of safeguarding the transportation routes to the gold fields of Montana, a wish that was only partly fulfilled. Beck is largely correct to assert that the punitive expeditions, especially the first one, were organized and fought along Civil War lines, rather than what we would later consider 'Indian fighting'. The 1863 columns were slow moving, with a large infantry component as the hammer, supported by cavalry and artillery. By contrast, the main body of Sully's 1864 punitive expedition was all cavalry (the attached infantry was used to garrison forts established along the way). This force composition was closer to what would come later, but its mobility was still hampered by foot artillery and supply trains.

The existing work most comparable in military content and scope to Beck's is Micheal Clodfelter's The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865 (1998)*, but what sets Columns of Vengeance apart is the manuscript research. Beck was able to incorporate far more personal accounts from the common soldiers into his narrative. In addition to relating their experiences, a variety of motivations are also displayed. Some thirsted for vengeance while others just wanted the campaign to be over with so they could fight their 'real' enemy, the Confederates down south. Several writers considered the expeditions a complete waste of time, lives, and money, with the military presence supported mainly by those wishing to enrich themselves on government contracts.  A variety of tribal sources were also used.  On the down side, it is a shame that only two general overview maps (one for each expedition) were included in the book, with no battle maps at all.

With its unprecedented integration of firsthand accounts written by those who fought in the ranks, Columns of Vengeance is a uniquely valuable addition to the 1862-65 Dakota War literature.  However, the question of whether Beck's work replaces Clodfelter's as the standard single-volume subject study does not have a clear cut answer. With their different emphases and complementary strengths and weaknesses, both are essential reading.

* - Oddly enough, Beck's bibliography does not list Clodfelter's book.

More CWBA reviews of OUP titles:
* Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865
* Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th edition
* George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox
* Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres
* A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865

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