At the very time he was drafting the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln dispatched one of his generals, John Pope, to Minnesota with orders to suppress a rebellion of the eastern, or Santee, division of the Sioux. The rebellion built on at least two decades of festering tensions that had turned relatively amicable exchange relations with British, French, and American traders—some of whom had intermarried and been incorporated into villages—into hardbitten political conflicts with various federal officials and white settlers (mostly German, Scandinavian, and Irish immigrants) who hungrily eyed the fertile and game-rich terrain of southern Minnesota. In the process, the Sioux (who in this case composed four bands and called themselves Dakotas) had ceded millions of acres, which included ancestral grounds, for a strip of reservation land along the Minnesota River, annuity payments, and supplies. Recalcitrance in the U.S. Congress along with corruption among Indian agents and traders then combined to stretch a series of treaties to the breaking point; by the 1850s, the Dakotas were under great stress and increasingly divided over how best to respond, as some of their bands faced starvation.1
But the federal government’s determination to wage war against the Confederacy caught the attention of many Dakotas and encouraged them to take the measure of the consequences. Although Confederates made no efforts to win them as allies in their rebellion as they had done in Indian Territory and the southern Plains, Confederate sympathizers in their orbit eagerly told of Union defeats in 1861 and the first half of 1862. Then, as federal troops moved in and out of nearby Forts Ridgely, Abercrombie, and Ripley, some Dakota leaders imagined “that the South was getting the best of the fight, and … the North would be whipped.” When, in August 1862, a Union officer came recruiting young men of mixed ancestry (“half-breeds” or “mixed-bloods,” as they were called) for military service, one [End Page 307] of the chiefs, Big Eagle (Wamditanka), concluded that “the whites must be pretty hard up for men to fight the South.” “It began to be whispered about,” he recalled, “that now would be a good time to go to war with the whites and get the lands back.”
The Dakota sack of a federal warehouse in search of desperately needed food exacerbated tensions. “When men are hungry they help themselves,” influential Dakota leader Little Crow (Taoyateduta) explained. “So far as I am concerned,” Indian agent Andrew Myrick scoffed, “if they are hungry let them eat grass.” An unrelated incident that left five white settlers dead and retaliation a certainty finally triggered the decision to rise, and on August 18, Little Crow led a column of warriors toward an agency outpost. There, shouting “Kill all the whites!” they overran the place. One of the first of the victims was Myrick, shot as he ran for the woods and offered the retributive justice he had so amply earned: the attacking Dakotas stuffed a tuft of grass in his now-silenced mouth.2
Other Sioux war parties spread across the Minnesota countryside enacting lethal vengeance. White settlers were murdered, their farms pillaged and burned, and federal forts were threatened. By the end of August, the rebellion had spread west into the Dakota Territory, and alarms were raised further south into Iowa and Nebraska. Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsay began by mobilizing available troops left in the state and then wired Lincoln and his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, for help in the form of men, arms, and horses. “This is not our war,” he screeched. “It is a national war.” Ramsay was soon joined by his counterparts in Wisconsin, Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska who feared that the entire Sioux people, together with the Chippewa and Winnebago, might soon support the rising. “A few thousand” settlers were “at the mercy of 50,000 Indians should they see proper to fall upon us,” the Dakota governor exclaimed, adding his voice to demands that “something must be done at once.”
The last thing the Lincoln administration needed in the late summer of 1862 was a western Indian rebellion. Union armies had just suffered defeat and...