The Same War, But Different: The Civil War in the Dakota Territories

                Mostly when we think about the American Civil War, we think about a man who lives in one of the Northern states marching south and fighting gigantic battles against a raging Confederate army. While this was the case for thousands of young soldiers, there were battles fought against other adversaries on different fronts, as a young man living in Eastern Iowa was about to find out.

 Humble Beginnings  

                John M. Gates was born and raised in New England. He started his working life as a carpenter. Gates moved on to other things, even running a museum for a few years. Eventually, he moved to Illinois and bought a mill. Unfortunately, that mill burnt down. So, in 1855, at the age of thirty-seven, he made his way west into Iowa and settled in DeWitt.

               The 1850’s were a turbulent time in the history of the United States. The slavery issue had been debated for several years, and the tension between those who were for and those who were against the institution had strained to the breaking point. In 1861, it finally snapped. The American Civil War had begun.

Volunteer Soldier

                President Lincoln asked for volunteers to join the war effort. Patriotic fervor swept through the state of Iowa, and certainly not least among those caught up in it was Clinton County, along the states eastern border. Many stepped up to serve their country, and Gates was among those that answered the call.

                 He promptly enlisted in the 1st Iowa Volunteer Cavalry. Within the next year, he had been promoted twice and become an army recruiter. He was very successful in that capacity, even recruiting enough men to form Company C of the 6th Iowa Volunteer Calvary. In recognition of his efforts, he was promoted to the rank of Captain, and placed in Company A of the 6th Iowa.

                But, instead of heading south to fight the Confederacy, the 6th Iowa were sent elsewhere.

 The Dakota War  

                 In 1861, Abraham Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, had founded the Dakota Territory in the Midwest. This large tract of land was the home of the Dakota Tribes, a Native American people who became widely known as the Sioux. While there were some European settlers who came and were friendly, there were many who viewed the natives as inferior and did not treat them very well.

                Unfortunately, this was the prevailing thought of that time, which helped to guide the policies of the United States Government in dealing with the American Indians. Several treaties were made, and then subsequently broken time and time again. As more and more whites moved westward, the further west the natives were pushed. By the 1860’s, westward expansion had finally come to the homeland of the Sioux.  

                The winter of 1861-62 was a bad one. Crops yield was poor, so the Dakota weren’t able to store much food. Hunting was also poor, as the reservation lands did not support a large population of game animals. To make matters worse, the settlers were hunting the same game, making competition fierce. Thomas Gilbraith, an Indian agent, wouldn’t give out any food to the Dakota people, either. The Dakota were starving. And some of them were very angry.

              On August 17, 1862, relations between the two groups had worn down to violence. On that day, a group of five white settlers were murdered by four young Dakota men. Hurriedly, they ran back to the protection of their village. Shortly thereafter, warrior leaders in the tribe appealed to their leader, Little Crow, to go to war against the whites.

             Little Crow had negotiated treaties with the American government during the 1850’s and had adopted some European customs, such as living in a wood frame house and wearing European style clothing. However, he was a Dakota at heart and steadfastly refused to give up his native beliefs. After hearing the appeals of his people, he agreed to go to war.

             The next day, August 18, Mdewakanton warriors began a swath of carnage though Renville and Brown Counties. In addition to attacking government officials and white traders, the angry warriors killed over 200 settlers, and took over 200 more women and children captive. A group of white soldiers were sent to stop them, but were repulsed. Little Crow used his knowledge of white customs and culture to guide his warriors.

            Thousands of refugees were evacuated from the Dakota Territory. As they entered eastern Minnesota, they began to tell tales of horrible atrocities committed by the Sioux. The problem with that was is that some stories were real, while others were not. Either way, these stories sowed panic in the minds and souls of the settlers.

            On August 19, the Governor of the Dakota Territory, Alexander Ramsey, enlisted the aid of a man named Henry H. Sibley to take command of a volunteer militia to repulse the angry Sioux.

           Sibley was a former fur trader who had first-hand dealing with the Sioux people. Early in his life, he even had a relationship with a Sioux woman named Red Blanket Woman. After his fur trapping days, Sibley went on to become a successful businessman and helped to negotiate treaties with the Dakota.

          Over the next several days, the Sioux continued to attack white settlements. However, not all the Dakota were interested in waging war with the whites. On August 26, 1862, a group of warriors in the Upper Dakota Territory came together to oppose the war, forming the Dakota Peace Party in the process.

         Over the next month, Little Crow and his warriors continued to attack settlers and soldiers. Whites continued to flee Dakota Territory into eastern Minnesota. Sibley took his militia and marched inland to fight them, and would eventually engage them in battle near Yellow Medicine River. Repulsed, Little Crow fled west.

         The Dakota Peace Party, after having successful negotiations with Sibley over the release of over 200 white prisoners, delivered the hostages to the appropriately named Camp Release.

Fragile Peace 

         Although Little Crow had left for now, officials were still afraid of further violence. So, they asked the United States Government for protection from potential attacks and further raids in the region. Before the Civil War, regular soldiers in the United States Army manned garrisons on this northwestern frontier. Once the war had begun however, these professional soldiers were badly needed to fight the Confederates. And so Gates and the 6th Iowa Cavalry went to help.

          They marched across Iowa to Sioux City on the far western edge of the state, and then went north into what was to eventually become North Dakota. The soldiers would gradually fortify the territory by building stockades and manning each of them with a 40-50 man garrison. The hope was that settlers, now knowing they would be protected from any hostilities, would return to farming in the area. The Northern Armies fighting the Confederates needed food, and crops from the Dakotas would help. In September 1863, the 6th Iowa was part of the largest battle of their time on the Dakota frontier – the Battle of White Stone Hill.

White Stone Hill

                General Alfred Sully, whose command included the 6th Iowa Volunteer Cavalry, had discovered that a large group of Dakotas were amassing near their traditional hunting grounds near the upper Missouri River and marched to find them. On September 3rd, they did.

                A group of 300 men under the command of Colonel Albert E. House approached the Dakotas and immediately entered a very friendly and respectful talk with them. The Dakota were there to hunt and build up a supply of meat for the coming winter. After a successful hunt, they had amassed about 400,000 pounds of bison meat and hung it out to dry.

                House respectfully asked that the Dakotas turn over their chiefs to avoid any fighting. The Dakotas wouldn’t give them all their chiefs, but very cordially offered to give them some of them. House, fearing that he wouldn’t procure the strongest and most powerful chief, refused the deal. After several hours, the meeting ended.

                Meanwhile, an army scout left and reported the situation to General Sully, who was several miles away. Hearing the news, he quickly gathered his best men and rode to White Stone Hill. There, he had House surround the village while he and his men charged through it. During this, some old men, women, and children were killed. In a nearby ravine, Calvary troops found a contingent of Dakota warriors, who were prepared to fight them. The soldiers surrounded the warriors and fought them until it was too dark to see.

                The next day, Sully sent out a search party to round up surviving Dakotas. All in all, 150 Dakotas were killed and over 150 more were captured. Sully, like many Civil War generals, believed in the observance of a “Scorched Earth” policy, where any items that could be used to support an adversarial force was burned and destroyed. As such, he had his men destroy anything that could aid the Dakota in waging war, including the hard-earned 400,000 pounds of bison meat.

                While the Scorched Earth strategy was very effective in finally delivering a final and fatal blow to the Confederacy, it turned out that it wasn’t as practical here. In a tragic irony, the U.S. Government shipped 70,000 rations to the Dakota Territory for the Sioux, and they still starved. How much suffering would have been alleviated by letting them keep all of that meat, now turned to ash by the soldier’s fires?

The End of the War

               Following White Stone Hill, the 6th Iowa Cavalry spent their time reinforcing garrisons and guarding against both potential and actual attacks from the Dakota by scouting for hostile natives and protecting the influx of white settlers flowing into the region. Gates would spend about two and a half years in the Dakotas, until he was discharged in 1865.

               He soon returned home to Dewitt, Iowa. In that same year, he bought a big hotel along 6th Avenue and renamed it Gates House. For the next twelve years, Gates successfully ran the hotel, before leaving the business in about 1877.

                The members of the 6th Iowa Cavalry signed up to fight against the Confederacy and ended up going north to fight an adversary that they had probably only heard stories about. Native Americans had largely been removed from the eastern portion of the United States and eastern Iowa by the 1860’s, so it’s quite possible that Gates had never even seen an Indian.

                So while some soldiers marched south to unify the nation, Gates and the 6th Iowa Volunteer Cavalry marched north to defend settlers on the frontier of a constantly expanding nation. They were soldiers and veterans of the Civil War, but the war for them was an entirely different experience than those of their counterparts.


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