September 23, 1862: Battle of Wood Lake Minnesota

It is easy to forget that between 1861-1865 there were other wars fought by the United States in addition to the Civil War.  One of these was the Dakota War of 1862 fought in Minnesota.  Relations between the native Dakota (Sioux) and the white settlers of Minnesota had been rocky for years before 1862.  Late treaty payments, and cheating Indian agents had reduced many of the Dakota to poverty on their reservations.  Alcoholism was rampant as were diseases of the white man.   Constant encroachments on the land of the Dakota by the settlers created a tinderbox. Tensions erupted into open conflict on August 17, 1862 when a member of a Dakota hunting party murdered five whites.  A council of Dakota under war chief Little Crow that evening decided it was time to drive the whites out of the Minnesota river valley.  Over the next few weeks between 450-800 settlers were massacred by the Dakota.  The Dakota made an attempt to take the town of New Ulm but were repulsed.

Regular Army troops, Minnesota volunteer regiments originally mustered to fight in the Civil War and various militia units fought the Dakota throughout the state.   The Americans held Fort Ridgely in the southwestern part of the State from two attacks by the Dakota.  The Dakota won two victories over the Americans at the Battle of Redwood Ferry on  August 18, 1862 and at Birch Coulee on September 2, 1862.

The largest battle of the War took place at the battle of Wood Lake on September 23, 1862.  Colonel Henry Sibley marched from Fort Ridgely up the Minnesota River valley on September 19, 1862 with the Third, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiments, various militia units and a battery of six cannon.  Little Crow planned to ambush Sibley’s force at Lone Lake.  (Sibley’s guide mistakenly thought Lone Lake was Wood Lake, and hence the misnaming of the battle.)  The ambush was discovered when a foraging party from the Third Minnesota approached a group of Dakota concealed in high grass.  The fighting lasted for two hours.  Little Crow had between 700-1200 braves and Sibley had about 1169-2000 soldiers.  As usual, artillery had a big impact on the morale of Indians in combat.  The Americans routed the Dakota.  Casualties were light on both sides with seven Americans kill and 7-15 Dakota.

The Battle proved decisive.  Pacifist chiefs seized the leadership of the Dakota and surrendered on September 23, 1862, returning 269 white captives.  In December 303 Dakota were sentenced to death by military tribunals.  Some of the “trials” lasted all of five minutes, and the Dakota had no defense council and no one explained the proceedings in their native language, to the Dakota who were probably completely bewildered.  President Lincoln personally reviewed the sentences, distinguishing between Dakota who had merely fought in the war from those guilty of rape or murder.  He commuted all but 39 of the death sentences, despite warnings that the white population  would be incensed by his mercy, as they were.  The condemned men, minus one who was given a reprieve, were hung in the largest mass execution in US history on December 26, 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota.  The Republican party was weakened in Minnesota as a result of Lincoln’s clemency.  When this was brought to his attention after the 1864 election, Lincoln responded that he could not afford to hang men for votes.

Published in: on September 23, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments (5)  
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  1. Lincoln responded that he could not afford to hang men for votes.
    I know this is going to be controversial, but in Europe, and especially in Italy (where the death penalty is universally opposed) there is a view that more recent US Presidents felt exactly the opposite. Both Clinton and Bush II are held (Bush II probably quite unfairly) to have had men executed at strategic points during electoral campaigns. I have to say that Lincoln’s view – in the middle of a nineteenth-century civil war – seem almost bizarrely enlightened and upright.

    • The death penalty has usually been pretty popular in the States. I support it myself, although it is not a major issue for me. Both Lincoln and Davis in the Civil War commuted most death sentences that reached them.

  2. To say a political position is enlightened is only to say that one agrees with it.

    • Often times. However, from a historical standpoint it can also mean that in the years since the position has proven to have been the correct one. For example, I would regard Churchill’s opposition to appeasement to have been enlightened.

    • And your point is? I agree with something because I think it true, not because (as you seem to imply) it flatters me.

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