- 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End by Scott W. Berg, and; Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863–1864 by Paul N. Beck
Scholarly narratives of nineteenth-century Native history often frame the Civil War as an interlude between the removals of the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s and the drive for coercive assimilation and dispossession in the West from the late 1870s through the 1890s. Stories involving Native communities and individuals during the Civil War are usually presented as an aside to the broader and more historically “significant” Union efforts to defeat the rebellion and to deal with slavery and its aftermath in the post-bellum South. Recently, however, historians have turned their attention to Indian country during the 1860s, and in doing so they have shed light on events and developments that not only affected the Native and settler communities directly involved, but also shaped the Civil War and its legacy.
In 38 Nooses, Scott Berg asserts that violence “between whites and a number of Indian nations was very much a part of the historical fabric of the early 1860s,” and he suggests that the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and the executions of the thirty-eight Dakota soldiers that followed it “sparked the sequence of confrontations called the Indian Wars of the Northwest, [End Page 465] which would culminate in such indelible moments as the Battle of Little Big Horn, the flight of Chief Joseph, the killing of Crazy Horse, and the tragedy at Wounded Knee” (xiii–xiv). Though not trained as a historian, Berg is well versed in the secondary literature as well as the published primary accounts of the U.S.-Dakota War, and the selected bibliography at the end of the book serves as a great compendium of the materials available. 38 Nooses delivers a compelling narrative of the events leading up to conflict in mid-August through the executions in late December, with a special focus on a constellation of central figures, including Little Crow, a prominent Mdewakanton Dakota soldier and a reluctant leader in the conflict; Sarah Wakefield, a white physician’s wife who was held under the protection of Chaska, a Dakota soldier who was later hanged, for the duration of the war; Henry Whipple, an Episcopalian bishop who blamed settlers for the conditions in which the Dakota lived and advocated for Indian policy reform; John Pope, the disgraced general who was placed at the head of the new Department of the Northwest in 1862; Henry Sibley, commander of the Minnesota state militia during the war and in the punitive expeditions immediately after; and Abraham Lincoln. While specialists in Native history will no doubt chafe against Berg’s ultimately essentializing conclusion that it was “deep and lasting personal grievances on all sides that overwhelmed all attempts at systemic reform” in Indian affairs, his book provides a solid starting point for students interested in the U.S.-Dakota War and will prove very effective in the undergraduate classroom due to the author’s talented pen (307–8).
In the final sentence of 38 Nooses, Berg notes that “private revenge” served as the animating force of the U.S.-Dakota War, and in Columns of Vengeance, historian Paul Beck builds upon this notion. He argues that although the “Civil War lasted longer and was vastly more important to the history of the United States, it was the Dakota War of 1862 [and the punitive expeditions against the Sioux in 1863 and 1864, the direct focus of his research] that proved far more destructive to the people of Minnesota—both whites and American Indians” (xi). Beck asserts that while there are several sources that adequately discuss the expeditions, those sources focus primarily on the official reports of the top-ranking officers and tell a...