In this series honoring the 2012 Dakota Commemorative March, so far we’ve seen written evidence supporting the contention that soldiers charged with guarding Dakota prisoners of war in October and November of 1862 war were, at the very least, deeply conflicted people.
All of them wrestled with the social roles they were assigned as men in Euro-American culture. Chief among these was their duty to protect and defend their own women and children.
Men like Abraham J. Van Vorhes were expected to hold Fort Ridgely to protect the hundreds of settler women and children who sought refuge there. Van Vorhes arrived armed with a gun, and defending a Federal military installation placed powerful weapons like howitzers on his side of the fight. So some men, like Van Vorhes, could emerge from the war a Hero the common way: by fighting.
Settler-survivor soldiers like Louis Thiele were anti-heroes because they survived. In the ethos of the day, it was more noble to die in the line of duty than to survive by shirking it. In a 19th century novel, a heroic husband would step into the line of fire and intercept a bullet intended for his wife or child.
But in Renville County, the men were mostly unarmed farmers and were taken by surprise. Confronted by armed Dakota warriors, some men, like Thiele, ran away and from hiding watched as their wife and children were attacked and killed or were carried away into captivity. Only “cowards” survived to give witness. Hunting and exacting revenge upon imagined perpetrators –Dakota people –offered settler-survivors like Thiele social redemption.
But even those soldiers, like Hubert Eggleston, who had not suffered personal trauma, must have been traumatized by everything they witnesses between the day they enlisted and the day they finally arrived at Camp Release. These soldiers relieved the civilian survivors of the siege of Fort Ridgely. They were assigned to burial parties to search for and inter dead settlers. They had been party to surprise battles at Birch Coulie and Wood Lake. And, as one of those soldiers graphically described below, they were present when the captives were turned over at Camp Release.
I offer none of these observations as excuses for how soldiers behaved toward the Dakota people they were guarding in 1862. Rather, understanding these settler-soldiers’ trauma and need to defend their masculinity, I wonder: How can we non-Dakotas be so quick to dismiss Dakota oral history about abuse at the hands of soldiers?
I am not surprised that stories like the one Thomas Watts tells below continue to surface, backing up what Dakota people have been saying for 150 years.
That point of view is my own.
But want to give credit where credit is due. Military historian Stephen Osman shared Thomas Watts’s campaign stories with my working group for Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Exile Begins in 2008. Stephen was the first to cite it in print in his Trails essay, “Sibley’s Army in November 1862.”
The editor’s introduction the Watts’s story, which appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune July 15, 1923, reads: “Thomas Watts of Minneapolis was a boy of 18 when he enlisted in 1862 and was sent to fight the Indians in the outbreak of that year. Last Sunday he described how he and his companions rescued the survivors of the luckless battle of Birch Coulie. Today the narrator describes the horror he felt when they got to the Indian camp from which they were able to rescue the women and children who had been held prisoner by the savages. It was with difficulty their officers kept them from lynching. These personal reminiscences will be continued in next Sunday’s Tribune.”
“About one half of the regiment formed two lines at the exit of the [Dakota] village [at Camp Release] and white prisoners were brought out between those lines. They were sobbing hysterically and clinging to their rescuers with a deathlike grip, as if they were not quite sure of their emancipation. The occasion was so momentous and full of feeling that I might have cried myself had I not been a soldier. I scanned the faces of my nearby comrades and instead of tears was a set jaw and a determined look on each face that boded no good for those responsible for all this suffering.
The released prisoners, numbering 250 in all were made as comfortable in a camp hurriedly established with our lines. Immediately after the prisoners were released, a strong detachment entered the village and disarmed every Indian. The guns were brought in wagons to our camp and corded up in a pile and left free to any who wished one, but the most of us thought one gun enough to carry so only very few availed themselves of the opportunity to become doubly armed.
After the Indians had been disarmed we were allowed to visit their camp in small squads. There were many cattle they had stolen, and the tepees were well supplied with carpets and other household goods taken from those they had murdered.
Scheme for Revenge
That afternoon a scheme was incubated among our men that if carried out would have left a great stain on our escutcheon that time would not erase. It was intended to kill every living soul in that Indian village. Of course the horrible tales told by the released prisoners added fuel to the flames.
Our two gun battery was planted on a knoll commanding the Indian Camp, and we still had a few horsemen with us. The plan was that at a given signal the guard surrounding the camp was to retire, then the battery was to shell the camp and the infantry was to do its work, and what was left, if any, the cavalry was to finish.
Before the plan was complete, the news of which reached General Sibley’s ears, he caused a wagon to be placed in the middle of our camp, mounted it and made a speech which was rather in the nature of a threat. The men retired to their camp fires to talk it over. The general response was, “To Hell with Sibley.” Our older men almost invariably opposed the diabolical plot. Such men as Daniel B. Turner and Z.L. sergeant, of our company, each about 50 years of age, said and did everything possible against it. When reminded there were some good Indians in the lot, the reply came that there are no good Indians but dead ones; and when pleadings were made in [several words on this line illegible] children, the answer to that was, “Nits make lice.”
After supper, speeches were made against the plot. Among the speakers were Lieut. Col. William R. Marshall and Lieutenant Colonel Averill, both very popular men in the command. Marshall was subsequently made governor of our state, and Averill a member of Congress. They caused many to be ashamed of themselves.
It was promised that the Indians should be court marshaled immediately and that we should have the privilege of hanging the guilty ones. Finally the men, feeling a little sheepish, crawled into their tents to sleep over it. As time wore one more mature minds overcame the radical.
The next day a heavy guard entered the Indian camp and arrested every adult male and brought them to our camp, where they were placed under a strong guard. Logs were cut in the nearby timber on the Minnesota river and a log pen about ten feet high was constructed and they were placed there for safe keeping. A military court martial, with Colonel Crooks as president, was appointed to try them, and men were sent to the timber to cut logs to make a gallows to hang them on. This somewhat appeased the wrath of the radicals.”