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Fort Sisseton was established in 1864, after the Dakota War of 1862. Photo by <a href='' target='_blank'>Chad Coppess</a>.
Fort Sisseton was established in 1864, after the Dakota War of 1862. Photo by Chad Coppess.

What Does the Civil War Have to do With Dakota Territory?

Aug 23, 2012


Think of the Civil War and what comes to mind? We all learned about Bull Run, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh and Robert E. Lee’s final surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. But are you familiar with the Battle of Whitestone Hill? The Battle of Killdeer Mountain? The Battle of the Badlands?

They aren’t as prominent in Civil War history because they didn’t directly affect the outcome of the conflict. But they are important here because all three battles took place in Dakota Territory and greatly affected how this region was settled.

We’re in the midst of commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War as well as the 150th anniversary of the Dakota Uprising in Minnesota (another important regional clash during the Civil War period). To discuss Dakota Territory’s role in the war that divided our nation for four years, a series of programs is planned around the state beginning this weekend and continuing through the fall.

“Back East it was the Civil War. Out here on the Northern Plains it was a whole different situation,” says Brad Tennant, an associate professor of history at Presentation College in Aberdeen and discussion leader for a portion of the series. “I think it’s often overlooked.”

The first tragic event was the Dakota War of 1862, which ended with the executions of 38 Dakota warriors, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Following the uprising in September 1863, the military dispatched Gen. Alfred Sully up the Missouri River through Dakota Territory in pursuit of hostiles who had fled Minnesota. He found an encampment at Whitestone Hill, about 80 miles northwest of Aberdeen. Sully’s troops murdered nearly 300 Yanktonais, Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota and Blackfeet. As it happened, none had been involved in the Minnesota conflict. “It’s North Dakota’s counterpart to Wounded Knee,” Tennant explains.

The next clash between Sully and the Indians came at Killdeer Mountain in June 1864. More than 1,600 warriors fought Sully’s force of 2,200 men. Estimates range from 31 to 150 Sioux warriors killed, compared to five U.S. Army soldiers. The Battle of the Badlands followed in August 1864 near Medora, with another 100 to 300 Indians killed.

Not surprisingly Dakota Territory promoters had a difficult time convincing Easterners to settle on the Plains. Tennant cited a study by former University of South Dakota professor Thomas Gasque that found only three South Dakota cities with a population greater than 1,000 possessing a name of Indian origin: Sisseton, Yankton and Sioux Falls. “That’s not just a coincidence,” Tennant notes. “Most of our places were named after people or geographic features, simply to make it sound less Indian, and to convince Easterners that the territory was not as hostile as they may have been led to believe.”

There’s much more to learn about the Civil War period in Dakota Territory at these upcoming discussion sessions. 

Aug. 26, Sept. 16 and Oct. 7: Klein Museum, Mobridge
Sept. 6, Oct. 18 and Nov. 8: Public Library, Sturgis
Oct. 4, Nov. 1 and Dec. 6: Siouxland Library Main Branch, Sioux Falls
Oct. 11, Oct. 20 and Nov. 4: South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center, Pierre


11:01 am - Thu, August 30 2012
Heidi said:
I wonder if they'll do any Civil War reenactments to remember these Dakota Territory battles.
03:49 pm - Mon, September 8 2014
David Cook said:
I am a Civil war Rein-actor from N. California. I now live in Lead S.D. and would like to join a local Reinacting group but haven't been able to locate one. If anyone knows about a Reinacting regiment or group who needs another member I would love to know about it.
10:04 pm - Fri, March 27 2015
John said:
The Battle at Whitestone Hill in North Dakota was not murder nor a massacre. Although the Indians there had apparently not been involved in the Minnesota Massacre of 1862, they were not just old men and squaws. It was fought against Indian Warriors. It was not a sneak attack and 22 U.S. Troopers were killed and 34 wounded in the action. Most of the women and children had escaped into the hills prior to the battle, as the battle was fought in the late afternoon and near dusk. Indian casualties were 100-200, with some 150 captured in the following days. There were approximately 1000 warriors involved in the battle, per the indians. Sully's forces were strung out in trail, as they had literally stumbled onto the village. He had between 600 and 700 troops on the battlefield.
09:40 am - Mon, June 1 2015
Thomas said:
John, many pseudo-intellectuals and progressives have taken to rewriting history to suit their leftist, politically correct agenda. They hope to fabricate ALL historic Indian battles into Wounded Knee massacres. No thought is given to the atrocities the Natives inflicted upon the settlers.
07:40 am - Wed, June 17 2020
Lilah Pengra said:
The people at Whitestone Hill had surrendered to authorities in Minnesota but after the 1862 uprising were targeted just as much as those who participated in the uprising. They came west to seek refuge. Sully had been stationed at Fort Ridgely in MN and knew them. Plus, one of his scouts and his servant Isaiah Dorman knew the people, too. Sully did not care because he had almost been court martialed in the Virginia campaign, then sent west and wanted to regain his reputation. The descriptions in diaries of the US soldiers present of shooting over 1000 dogs, burning 500 tons of dried buffalo as well as of the battle itself is not "rewriting history" nor a fabrication. It was a massacre.
09:25 am - Wed, June 17 2020
Paul McDonald said:
I invite you to read "Under the Same Stars" by Phyllis Cole-Dai from Brookings. A well-researched historical novel about the uprising. Thumbs up!
02:00 pm - Thu, June 18 2020
Linda Armstrong said:
Thank you for this information, and the reading suggestion. Racism is more than a White/Black issue.
04:42 pm - Wed, June 8 2022
Joseph Evening Star said:
Whelp, Thomas was a racist. John was merely recounting a conflicting and erroneous account of the battle, thenThomas just straight up cut the crap and went straight to the racist angle. We can only hope 7 years and COVID has since rid the world of such ignorance and anger.
02:22 pm - Fri, December 8 2023
Uncle Rico said:
While these battles were atrocities that are stains on the history of the US Government , and are very important, I do not see the connection with the Civil War. Other than they occurred between 1861-1865?

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