Two Wars at a Time: The War within the Civil War

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2018-2019, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


On September 4, 1957, Ford Motor Company introduced a car that it predicted would revolutionize American automobiles. That car was the Edsel, and rather than revolutionize American automobiles, the Edsel was, without exaggeration, a spectacular failure, so much so that the name Edsel is now synonymous with commercial failure. As part of the marketing campaign for the Edsel, Ford Motor Company coined a slogan to describe its new car, specifically, the car of the future. That dynamic slogan was intended to instill in people a high regard for the Edsel and to motivate them to purchase one. But the future for the so-called car of the future lasted only two years, because production ceased in 1959, and that slogan became a source of ridicule. In the Civil War, there was a slogan that someone introduced which also sounded dynamic and was intended to instill in soldiers a high regard for the person who introduced the slogan and to motivate the soldiers to buy into that person’s leadership. The Civil War leader in question is John Pope, who truly was an Edsel of an army commander. When Pope was given command of a Union army in the East, he introduced something of a slogan about himself when he wrote that his headquarters would be in the saddle. Pope’s intent with this slogan was to indicate to his men that he would not dawdle when it came to campaigns against the enemy. Instead, he would be aggressive and continuously on the move. But after Pope’s dismal failure at the second battle of Bull Run, many people twisted Pope’s slogan and said that if Pope’s headquarters really were in the saddle, then his headquarters were where his hindquarters should be.

John Pope

After John Pope’s disastrous defeat at Second Bull Run, he disappeared from the Civil War as certainly as if he had fallen off the Earth. Shelby Foote, in his three-volume history of the Civil War, wrote that after Second Bull Run, Pope received orders “to pack his bags for the long ride to Minnesota.” In an earlier book about the Civil War, Bruce Catton wrote that after Second Bull Run, Pope “was under orders to go back into obscurity in the Northwest, far from the Rebel generals.” I remember when I read those words many years ago, I wondered why Pope was sent to Minnesota. This history brief focuses on that.

Taoyateduta (Little Crow)

The reason for John Pope’s trip to Minnesota was precipitated on August 17, 1862, 11 days before the beginning of the second battle of Bull Run. On that day, four Dakota Indians in southern Minnesota were returning from an unsuccessful hunting expedition and came upon a farm owned by white settlers. Minnesota had been a state for only four years, but during that time the white population had continued to increase significantly, and the Dakota were progressively squeezed into smaller territory. Prior to Minnesota’s statehood, treaties had been made between the U.S. and the Dakota which stipulated that the U.S. government would provide annuity payments to the Dakota for the purchase of food from white traders, and in return the Dakota would allow white settlement on land previously used by the Dakota as their source of food. However, these payments were consistently late, which caused the Dakota to frequently live in hunger, and after a poor crop season in 1862, the Dakota faced starvation. Because of this situation, there was a meeting on August 15, 1862 between government officials and members of the Dakota, including their chief, whose Dakota name was Taoyateduta and whose English name was Little Crow. At this meeting the Dakota once again complained about the late annuity payments and made clear that they had a desperate need for food. Although the white traders had ample food in their storehouses, the traders were unwilling to release it on credit. When the Dakota emphasized that many of their people were facing starvation, one of the white traders, a man named Andrew Myrick, reputedly scoffed, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.” (Myrick may have made this remark at the meeting or sometime prior to it. The historical record is not clear when Myrick made this scathing remark, but the historical evidence is clear that Myrick said this, or some variation of this, in the presence of some of the Dakota.) Because of the dire situation that the Dakota were facing, tensions were very high between the Dakota and the white settlers in Minnesota, and when the unsuccessful hunting party happened upon a farm two days after the heated meeting, the four Dakota men killed five white settlers who lived on that farm.

Andrew Myrick

That night, after Taoyateduta and the other Dakota leaders were told of this incident, a council was convened, and the Dakota decided to go to war against the whites. There is evidence that the Dakota were aware that the U.S. was engaged in a civil war, and this influenced those Dakota who favored war, because they felt that the attention of the U.S. government was focused elsewhere. Taoyateduta opposed the decision to go to war and insisted that the Dakota had almost no chance of victory. But he also pledged to lead the Dakota, because he proclaimed in the council that he is not a coward and that he will die with them. Beginning on August 18, the day after the killing on the farm, Dakota war parties attacked whites, first white traders and government employees and then white settlements. The attacks were primarily along the Minnesota River in southern Minnesota, and in the next few days hundreds of whites were killed. One of the first whites to be killed was Andrew Myrick, the man who told the Dakota to eat grass. Myrick’s body was later found with grass stuffed in his mouth. Between the killing of whites and their fleeing from the region in panic, whole townships became depopulated.

Whites fleeing Indians, August 21, 1862

Some of the survivors of the initial Dakota attacks of August 18 fled to Fort Ridgely, a federal garrison on the Minnesota River that was built to protect the settlers in the region, and the white settlers who managed to reach Fort Ridgely told the men there about the Dakota attacks. Captain John Marsh, who had fought in the first battle of Bull Run, but was now stationed at Fort Ridgely, left the fort with 46 U.S. soldiers. This force moved several miles along the bank of the river toward the Dakota, but it ran into an ambush that the Dakota prepared. There was fierce fighting in which a number of soldiers were killed. The survivors attempted to escape by swimming across the river, and some were able to escape this way. However, Marsh was pulled under the water and drowned. In all, 23 of the men in that force were killed. On August 19, the Dakota attacked the town of New Ulm, but a downpour caused them to end the attack after two hours, and the town was spared. The Dakota made two attempts to take Fort Ridgely, but the fort successfully rebuffed both attacks, one on August 20 and one on August 22.

Henry Hastings Sibley

When word of the Dakota attacks reached St. Paul, the state capital, the governor, Alexander Ramsey, appointed Henry Hastings Sibley to lead the militia against the Dakota. (Henry Hopkins Sibley, a distant cousin of Henry Hastings Sibley, commanded a small Confederate army at the battle of Valverde and at the battle of Glorieta Pass, both of which are in present-day New Mexico.) The force of over 1,000 men led by Henry Hastings Sibley reached Fort Ridgely on August 28, and Sibley directed that a party be sent out to look for survivors and to bury the bodies of those who had been killed, because those bodies were still unburied. This party was attacked by the Dakota on September 2 at a place called Birch Coulee. Sibley sent reinforcements, and the battle of Birch Coulee became one of the most intense of the war. Subsequently, the Dakota attacked some settlements further north in central Minnesota, but by this time the residents were prepared to resist the attacks and fared much better against the Dakota.

Alexander Ramsey

In the meantime, Governor Ramsey contacted Abraham Lincoln and asked for assistance from the federal government. But the federal government was not inclined to send troops to Minnesota, because it considered other hostilities a higher priority. Nevertheless, the War Department did designate that region the Department of the Northwest, and on September 6, 1862 John Pope was ordered to assume command of that department and to take overall command of the military effort. The directive that Edwin Stanton sent to Pope told him to make his headquarters not in the saddle, but in “Saint Paul, Minn.” and to “take such prompt and vigorous measures as shall quell the hostilities and afford peace, security, and protection to the people against Indian hostilities.” Although the federal government was reluctant to send troops to Minnesota, it evidently felt that it could spare John Pope. However, there were some Minnesota volunteer infantry regiments that had been organized for the Civil War, but these units were retained in the state for use against the Dakota.

John Pope arrived in Minnesota on September 16, the day before the battle of Antietam. By the time of Pope’s arrival, the war in Minnesota had begun to turn in favor of the U.S. A week after Pope arrived, a force led by Henry Hastings Sibley fought a battle against the Dakota at Wood Lake. At this battle, as at the two clashes at Fort Ridgely, the U.S. used artillery against the Dakota, which was decisive in defeating them. (The battle of Wood Lake occurred on September 23, 1862, the day after Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.) After the battle of Wood Lake, the Dakota under Taoyateduta withdrew westward, and the war that came to be known as the Dakota War of 1862 was essentially over. Although accurate numbers are not known, it is estimated that there were approximately 80 U.S. military casualties, 150 Dakota dead, and 450 to 800 civilians killed during the war. There were more deaths in the Dakota War of 1862 than in the much more well-known Great Sioux War of 1876, which is the war that included the battle of the Little Bighorn.

Prior to the battle of Wood Lake, Sibley learned that the Dakota held almost 300 white captives. Negotiations between Sibley and the Dakota led to the release of almost all of the captives on September 26, and the remainder within the next few days. When John Pope received word of Sibley’s victory at Wood Lake and of the release of the captives, he replied in a dispatch to Sibley, “The horrible massacres of women and children and the outrageous abuse of female prisoners, still alive, call for punishment beyond human power to inflict…It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux…They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.” Shortly after the release of the captive whites, over 1,600 Dakota women, children, and old men were taken into custody, and in early November they were marched to Fort Snelling near St. Paul and held there until the spring of 1863 when they were relocated further west, outside of Minnesota. Two months later the federal government passed legislation, the Dakota Expulsion Act, which made it illegal for any Dakota to live in the state of Minnesota. To this day, the Dakota Expulsion Act has not been repealed.

At the time of the release of the captive whites, many of the Dakota warriors, but not Taoyateduta, surrendered and were held as prisoners. Taoyateduta eventually fled to Canada. One of the real ironies of this war was that Taoyateduta was the person who led the Dakota in battle. Prior to the war, he recognized the necessity of negotiating with the U.S. government if the Dakota had any chance of being treated fairly, and government officials considered Taoyateduta a reliable spokesman for the Dakota. In 1858 Taoyateduta traveled to Washington and met with federal officials to discuss the plight of the Dakota and the failure of the government to adequately fulfill the terms of its treaties with the Dakota, although this meeting did nothing to alter the treatment of the Dakota by the government. Taoyateduta even adopted some white customs, such as the clothes he wore. When the Dakota decided to make war against the whites, Taoyateduta returned to his Dakota clothing. He also admonished the Dakota not to kill women or children. After the Dakota were defeated, Taoyateduta lived for several months in Canada and then attempted to return to Minnesota. Taoyateduta, along with his fifteen-year-old son, Wowinapa, snuck into Minnesota and had traveled to near the town of Hutchinson, which is about 70 miles west of St. Paul. On the morning of July 3, 1863, the day when a Confederate force under George Pickett made a doomed assault on a strong Union position in southern Pennsylvania, Taoyateduta and his son were picking wild raspberries when they were seen by a white man and his son, Nathan and Chauncey Lamson, both of whom shot Taoyateduta. Taoyateduta died of his wounds, and his body was later identified. Nathan Lamson received a $500 bounty for the killing of Taoyateduta. Taoyateduta’s body was mutilated, scalped, and decapitated, and his remains were not returned to his descendants for proper burial until 1971.

The check issued to Nathan Lamson

The Dakota men who surrendered on September 26, 1862 were tried in a military court for war crimes against civilians. Almost 400 Dakota men were tried from September 28 to November 5, 1862. There is no question that the Native Americans in Minnesota were treated atrociously by the U.S. government prior to the Dakota War of 1862. But there is also no question that atrocities were committed by some Dakota during the war. Unarmed civilians were murdered in cold blood, and women were raped. According to one gruesome eyewitness account, a Dakota warrior cut open the abdomen of a pregnant woman and ripped out the fetus. The story of the Duley family demonstrates the brutality that civilians experienced. William Duley became separated from his family when some civilians were fleeing from the Dakota. When the Dakota caught up to the group, two of William’s children, ages ten and four, were killed. William’s pregnant wife, Laura, and his three remaining children, one of whom was a baby, were taken captive. While in captivity, Laura miscarried the child she was carrying, and her baby died. After the war ended, Laura and the surviving children were released, but Laura had endured repeated assaults by Dakota men. Because of many such accounts of atrocities committed by the Dakota, there was profound anger toward them and intense sentiment for retribution. In all, 392 Dakota were tried, 323 were convicted, and 303 were sentenced to death. The men on trial did not have counsel and likely did not fully understand the proceedings, which in some cases lasted only a few minutes. Nevertheless, Pope and Sibley were satisfied that justice had been administered properly, and on November 7 Pope asked Lincoln for approval to carry out the sentences for the 303 who were condemned to die. Pope did this in a lengthy telegram to Lincoln which simply listed the names of those who were to be executed and did not include any of the information in support of the sentences. This long telegram was sent at a cost of $400 ($10,000 in 2018 dollars), an expense for which Pope was strongly criticized.

Rather than hastily comply with Pope’s request for approval to execute the 303 convicted Dakota, Lincoln, on November 10, insisted that Pope send him “as soon as possible the full and complete record of their convictions,” and, as a jab at Pope’s telegraphic monetary excesses, Lincoln instructed Pope, “Send all by mail.” Once in possession of the trial records, Lincoln had this information examined by two lawyers with the goal of determining if the death sentences were justified. After this analysis, Lincoln decreased the number of death sentences from 303 to 39. The principal criterion that Lincoln used in this decision was proof of participation in some kind of atrocity, such as murder of civilians or rape, as opposed to participation in a battle. Ultimately one more death sentence was commuted, and on December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were executed by hanging in Mankato, Minnesota. This remains to this day the largest mass execution in U.S. history. For the execution, a very large scaffold was built, on which there were 40 trapdoors, all of which could be opened by cutting a single rope. In this way all of the condemned men would be hanged simultaneously. On the day of the execution, the 38 Dakota were put in position on the scaffold, and the rope opening the trapdoors was cut by William Duley, the man who lost three of his children and an unborn child in the war with the Dakota and whose wife was held as a captive by the Dakota along with other of his children.

A drawing depicting the execution of 38 Dakota men on December 26, 1862

During the Trent Affair, Lincoln famously said, “One war at a time.” When hostilities erupted in Minnesota in August 1862, Lincoln had a second war thrust upon him and was required to fight two wars at a time. Fortunately for Lincoln, the war in Minnesota, which was a war within the Civil War, was limited in scope and of short duration, certainly compared to the Civil War. But when the Dakota War of 1862 ended, Lincoln faced a major challenge, specifically how to respond to the 303 death sentences imposed on Dakota men, which was the determination that was made in part by John Pope, the person whom the Lincoln administration had chosen to oversee U.S. operations in that war. Lincoln’s decision was to sentence 38 of those 303 to death, because he believed that only those 38 deserved to be executed. However, Lincoln received harsh criticism for this decision, including from members of his own political party and particularly from the citizens of Minnesota, who let Lincoln know of their discontent in the election of 1864. Although Lincoln won the popular vote in Minnesota, his margin of victory was less than in 1860. After the 1864 election, Alexander Ramsey, the Republican governor of Minnesota during the Dakota War of 1862, said that the Republicans would have fared better at the ballot box, “if he (i.e., Lincoln) had hung more Indians.” Lincoln replied to Ramsey’s assertion, “I could not afford to hang men for votes.” In light of the harsh criticism that Lincoln received over his decision, one question to consider is whether Abraham Lincoln correctly handled the situation regarding the Dakota executions. Should Lincoln have ordered the execution of all 303 who were sentenced to death? Or, because of the way that the Dakota were treated prior to the war, should Lincoln have ordered that none of the Dakota be executed, in spite of what they did? Or did Lincoln, by putting 38 men to death, correctly resolve this complex issue, which arose out of the war within the Civil War?

One thought on “Two Wars at a Time: The War within the Civil War”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.