Best Defense

Insurgency and COIN, 1862 style

Southern Minnesota, 1862, the Dakota/Lakota Sioux confined to a reservation about a hundred miles long and ten miles wide on the south bank of the Minnesota River.



By Capt. John Byron, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Best Defense Bureau of Indian Affairs

Southern Minnesota, 1862, the Dakota/Lakota Sioux confined to a reservation about a hundred miles long and ten miles wide on the south bank of the Minnesota River. They lived in relative harmony with the settlers in the region, some adopting the whites’ religion and taking up farming … but always in the context of their deep Indian culture.

Acting on pride and youthful hubris, on August 17 of that year four young Sioux males murdered five Norwegian settlers at the edge of the Big Woods, north of the river. They returned to the Lakota village that night and informed the elders of their action. The tribe was alarmed, expecting harsh retaliation from white settlers and the army. Little Crow, leader of the band, did not want to start conflict with the whites, but his leadership role required that he follow consensus and the consensus of the tribe was that the Sioux should make war against the whites who had taken over their territory. White failure to meet treaty conditions and harsh treatment by local white authorities were the backdrop to this decision.

The next day the Sioux rode against the Redwood Agency and killed twenty whites there. Word of this arriving at Fort Ridgley further down the river, its commander Captain Marsh rode out with 45 soldiers to attack the Sioux. Ambushed as his force crossed the river, Marsh drowned and 22 other soldiers were killed.

Thus started the First Sioux War. It raged back and forth along the Minnesota River, ending for that summer with defeat of the tribe at the Battle of Wood Lake and the next year ending for good at Big Mound in South Dakota.

Sioux males were rounded up after Wood Lake and 303 of them condemned to death. President Lincoln intervened and commuted the death sentence for all but 38 of these warriors. On the day after Christmas in 1862, these 38 Indians were hanged at Mankato, Minnesota.

Two fascinating books document this conflict. The War Against the Sioux — Norwegians Against Indians 1862-1863 is a 2015 translation by a pair of scholars at the University of North Dakota of a 21st century work, written in Norway by historian Karl Jakob Skarstein, using primary sources originating in letters back home from Norwegian settlers who’d lived through the conflict. Even-handed and exceptionally well written/translated, this is a sound and easily accessible account of both the war and of its cultural and historic setting. A good read, too.

The second book that has to be read to see the war properly is Through Dakota Eyes — Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862 by Anderson Woolworth, an assemblage of verbatim accounts by the Sioux participants in the conflict. Often poor English and many accounts written decades later, the same war has far different interpretation than that of the Norwegian pioneers. One cannot read these first-person memoirs without a deep sadness.

Three conclusions stand out:

  1. In the broader context of four centuries of Euro-American treatment of Native Americans, we white folks have genocide to answer for.
  2. At the time and place of this war, both sides were caught up in conflict that neither side wanted … but the clash of history and the force of culture required the fight.
  3. This First Sioux War is a small-scale model of insurgency and counterinsurgency relevant to today, a lens through which those of us trying to figure out the low-intensity conflict of this era might see useful lessons from this simpler and more basic struggle of the past.

Most striking to me in today’s context is the role culture played, something poorly understood and more poorly applied in our current conflicts. For the Native Americans living a communal life rich with honor and permeated with religious beliefs but absent concepts of personal ownership of land, both the drive by whites to seize Indian territory and the solution offered the Indians to convert to the culture of their conquerors was baffling and mysterious. So too must be our Western ideas of nationhood and our disdain for Islam to the tribes and sects we make war with in the Middle East.

The final conclusion I find in this model of current history is that there is no kind way to kill people and conquer societies. The Sioux were defeated in this First Sioux War with massive force and total subjugation. And in the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877 further west, the same again — crush the foe, no quarter, occupy their land, render them helpless and poor. We have brought to our Middle East wars both a Western sensibility of kindness and insufficient ruthlessness in strategy to miss our goals and extend the conflict endlessly absent a change in our approach. Either we conquer our foes or we learn to live with them as a set of peoples. Using kinetic means to fight a cultural battle is the game of fools. We have a decade and a half of loss and failure to prove that. 

When this war started, Captain Byron’s great grandfather and great-great uncle, Irish settlers driven to America by the potato famine, fled their new farms next to the Winnebago Reservation east of Mankato. With other pioneer families, they circled the wagons in open prairie (probably the first documented description of this tactic), spending sleepless nights well east of the fighting after they’d heard “the Sioux had broken out.” They returned to their homesteads when things died down. There are still Byrons on that land, but Captain Byron is a city mouse who was raised in nearby Waseca (‘fertile land’ in the Sioux language). The two books cited above provide facts for the folklore he grew up with.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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