The American Civil War or an Uncivil War?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The American Civil War era might be better known as one of wars, civil or otherwise. The Natives had lost vast areas of land, due to the U.S. government’s idea of Manifest Destiny. Many were forcibly enlisted into the forces, while those who resisted, met with violence. Many faced forced removals that resulted in internal civil wars. Yet, the question remains: ‘Where are American Indians in the historiography of the Civil War?’

A group of Native Americans pose for a photo.
For the Natives, the era of American Civil War brought about an era of several tribulations and many civil wars. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Native people in Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico engaged in wars that were at once separate from and intertwined with the American Civil War.

The Dakota Conflict

The Dakota—the easternmost division of the Sioux—consisted of four tribes, the Mdewakanton, Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Wahpekute. Their homelands were located in what is today southwestern Minnesota.

At the heart of what is called the Dakota Conflict were gross violations of the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota. Originally signed in 1851, they included land cessions, the establishment of a reservation along the Minnesota River, and the guarantee of annuities in cash and food. Congress, before ratifying these treaties, struck from them the guarantee of reservation lands.

Learn more about Indian resistance in the Ohio Country.

Hanging of 38 Dakota

Tensions climaxed in August 1862. Fighting raged for two months, leaving hundreds of soldiers, white civilians, and Dakota people dead. The tide was turned in favor of the United States when President Abraham Lincoln charged General John Pope to deliver a decisive blow to the Dakota, which he did at the Battle of Wood Lake in late September 1862.

A drawing depicting the execution of 38 Sioux Indians.
On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged in the largest mass execution in United States history. (Image: Internet Archive Book Images/Public domain)

After 1,200 Dakota men, women, and children were taken prisoner, some 800 Dakota warriors surrendered; 303 Dakotas were swiftly sentenced to death for crimes ranging from rape to murder in a farcical mass trial in the fall of 1862. President Lincoln, however, intervened and commuted many of their sentences.

Yet, Lincoln signed an order condemning 38 Dakota men to be hanged in the largest mass execution in United States history. Treated as a spectacle, some 3,000 people gathered in Mankato, Minnesota, to watch it happen on December 26, 1862. Another 326 Dakotas were imprisoned for three years in Davenport, Iowa, where more than one-third of them died.

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Fallout from the Dakota Conflict

A reluctant leader of the Dakota Conflict was a Mdewakanton chief named Taoyateduta, meaning His Red Nation, though he was commonly known as Little Crow. After the Battle of Wood Lake, Taoyateduta fled to Canada and eventually made his way back to Minnesota along with his son only to be shot and killed while picking raspberries in July 1863.

The farmer who did it promptly collected a $500 reward. Little Crow’s scalp and skull were publicly displayed in the Minnesota State Capitol until 1918 when his grandson requested that it be removed. Not until 1971 were his remains returned to the Dakota people for reburial.

Fate of Natives in Colorado

The discovery  of gold along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, in 1858, brought with it a tidal wave of non-Indian settlers. It didn’t take long for conflict to erupt, especially as non-Natives encroached upon land that was set aside for the Cheyenne and Arapaho through the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

By 1861, through the subsequent Treaty of Fort Wise, the Cheyenne and Arapaho had their lands reduced to a useless parcel called the Sand Creek Reserve, near Fort Lyon, Colorado. Within a few years, Cheyenne warriors, known as Dog Soldiers, lashed out at the non-Native invaders.

The Sand Creek Massacre

In the late fall of 1864, a Cheyenne leader named Black Kettle moved his band back to Sand Creek. By moving to the reserve and distancing themselves from the Dog Soldiers, they had every right to believe that they would avoid getting caught in the ongoing hostilities.

Nonetheless, Col. John Chivington—a Methodist minister and Civil War veteran with political aspirations—led the Third Colorado Cavalry on an attack of Black Kettle’s camp on November 29, 1864. Some 270 people—men, women, and children—were massacred.

The local newspapers celebrated scenes such as this as evidence of a great victory. The city of Denver even hosted celebratory parades.

Learn more about the Cherokee nation and the Trail of Tears.

A Fight for Survival During the American Civil War

In the Southwest, the Diné, or Navajo, also fought to preserve their homeland and way of life. To stabilize the New Mexico Territory, consisting of present-day Arizona and New Mexico, and to stymie Confederate incursions, the United States set out to force the Diné to accept a reservation away from their ancestral lands.

In 1863 and 1864, Kit Carson, another veteran of the Civil War, conducted a campaign of total war against the Diné, destroying their sheep, fruit orchards, fields, and homes. A brutal invasion of the Diné stronghold in Canyon de Chelly in the summer of 1863 brought the Diné to the brink of starvation and compelled them to surrender. And, by 1864, the U.S. military inaugurated a massive forced march to an internment camp in a barren land called Bosque Redondo, near Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

A drawing of Navajo Native Americans in Arizona.
Through their resilience, the Navajo secured a treaty in 1868 that allowed them to return to their homelands. (Image: Stocksnapper/Shutterstock)

Resilience in the Face of the American Civil War

In a succession of waves between 1864 and 1868, approximately 8,000 Diné made the 400-mile march. This forced removal has come to be known as the Long Walk, and it claimed the lives of more than 200 men, women, and children. Yet, the Diné held fast and fought back, securing a treaty in 1868 that allowed them to return to their homelands.

Diné historian Jennifer Nez Denetdale writes of this ordeal: “The people still remember those dark years with pain and bitterness. And yet, even as they mourn, they celebrate the courage and resilience of their grandmothers and grandfathers.”

This quote gets to the heart of the many meanings American Indians assigned to the years leading up to the Civil War, to the war itself, and to the war’s repercussions—an era powerfully shaped by competing visions of how to construct an empire in the West—an era of wars civil and otherwise that was only beginning.

Common Questions about the American Civil War or an Uncivil War

Q: Which is the largest mass execution in the history of United States?

On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged in the largest mass execution in United States history.

Q: What was the Sand Creek Massacre?

On November 29, 1864, Col. John Chivington led the Third Colorado Cavalry on an attack of Cheyenne leader Black Kettle’s camp in Sand Creek. Some 270 people were massacred.

Q: Who was Little Crow?

Little Crow was a leader of the Dakota Conflict. He was a Mdewakanton chief.

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