The Civil War obscures a concurrent war fought by the Union, also on American soil: the Dakota War of 1862.
What sparked the violent outbreak between the Dakota (also known as the Eastern Sioux) and white Minnesotans? Increasing numbers of white settlers encroached on Dakota territories, especially after Minnesota gained statehood in 1859. Additionally, the Union’s failure to promptly submit the annuity payments promised to the Dakota in exchange for their land left the tribe hungry and angry.
Mounting tension exploded when Dakota Chief Thaoyateduta, known as Little Crow, answered cries for vengeance with an official declaration of war. The timing was right: the Dakota knew that the Civil War had depleted the number of white soldiers in the area. On August 17, 1862, the Dakota attacked white settlements along the Minnesota River valley. Historians today place the Dakota War’s white death toll anywhere from 400 to 2,000.
Thus while President Lincoln mulled over the Emancipation Proclamation in late 1862, Minnesotans were fully occupied with the concerns presented by a separate minority group altogether. They insisted that the U.S. government disregarded their rights in favor of those of black Americans.
An editor of the the St. Paul Press, a Minnesota paper, expressed his dissatisfaction with how the conflict played out. Charging the Union with misplaced priorities, he wrote:
“The just demands and unquestioned rights of Minnesota have no chance in this Congress. Suffering from the horrors of an unparalleled Indian massacre . . . with her country devastated, her women ravished–murdered a thousand times over–her suckling children hanging crucified to her door posts, her men lying on the plains and in the ditches, the victims of infernal fiends, and implores assistance–redress. The answer is, Wait. ‘Four millions of Southern slaves must have their freedom.’”
The editor took issue with the Union’s decision to make emancipation a main war objective. He depicted Minnesotan’s request for a military intervention as an inherently “just demand.” The rights of the Dakota, stripped of their lands and then delayed payment of the money promised to them as recompense, went unconsidered.
While the details of their histories are quite different, both Native Americans and African Americans experienced rampant discrimination and disenfranchisement. Both were labeled outsiders and non-citizens and treated as such. The Emancipation Proclamation seemed to indicate that the political tide would turn in favor of blacks before it would for Native Americans. Federal legislation differentiated between the two races and Native Americans were excluded from the privileges granted by the Reconstruction amendments. In fact, the Native American road to citizenship remained ambiguous until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.
The Union quickly heeded Minnesotans repeated calls for intervention. They increased troop presence and defeated the Sioux by the end of September 1862. Nearly 2,000 Dakota – including women, children, and the elderly – were taken as prisoners of war. Over 300 were sentenced to death. President Lincoln, however, intervened and forestalled the execution of the great majority.
Nonetheless, on December 26, 1862, 38 were hanged – the largest simultaneous mass execution in American history. By 1863, Congress evicted the Dakota from Minnesota and stripped them of their reservations.
The annals of history have a selective memory. When considering the Civil War era, we must acknowledge the actors that stood outside of the categories of north and south, black or white. Native Americans were present and their struggle continued, but their story has often eluded the dominant historical record.
The Minnesota Free Press quote is drawn from Schwalm, Leslie A. Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009, 91.