Plains Folk

Columns of Vengeance


Timely, as well as excellent. I’m talking about the new history of the Dakota War by Paul N. Beck, recently published by University of Oklahoma Press, entitled Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864. This is the best book yet covering the Dakota War in Dakota Territory.


Beck, who teaches history at Wisconsin Lutheran College, previously wrote a biography of Inkpaduta, the Wahpekute Dakota who was every white settler’s bogeyman in the 1860s. His new book is much broader, but equally well researched and reasoned.


The title, Columns of Vengeance, refers to the massive military expeditions mounted by generals Henry Sibley and Alfred Sully in 1863-64. These incursions were matters of vengeance because soldiers sought retribution for the violence against white settlers that had taken place in Minnesota in 1862. There were other motives involved, of course, but vengeance, even if it served a larger aim of conquest, was the driving force.


Beck covers most all the significant actions of the Dakota War in Dakota Territory, including Big Mound, Dead Buffalo Lake, Stony Lake, Whitestone Hill, Killdeer Mountain, and the Badlands. Several of these he reinterprets significantly. Beck, indeed, is the first author to give the Battle of the Badlands, wherein the Hunkpapa battled Sully’s troops with schrewd valor in the landscape Sully famously described as “hell with the fires out.”


Beck’s book has other virtues besides comprehensiveness and revisionism. First, he makes fine use of what I call the “green line sources”—documents provided not by officers or journalists, but by ordinary soldiers. The war looks different through the eyes of a corporal than through those of a general. (Beck has less success in tapping what I call the “red line sources,” the native narratives.)


Second, when it comes to what I call the “blue line sources,” the official reports, Beck reads and interprets critically, assessing the limited omniscience of the officers, as well as their tendency toward prevarication.


Third, Beck deals frankly with the subject of race, and the elements of race hatred that charged the conflict and sparked its brutality. This is a hard teaching.


There are elements in the work that knowledgeable readers in this part of the country will pick over. The famous incident of the shooting of Dr. Josiah S. Weiser, which commenced the Battle of Big Mound—you will never convince me that was a random or thoughtless act. There are details about the Battle of Killdeer Mountain that seem not quite right to me.


I don’t want to nitpick, but I do want to point out two ways in which further work on the Dakota War can elevate our understanding. First, I don’t think Beck has gone over the ground, physically. You have to do that in order to understand how engagements unfolded. Second, Beck does not attribute sufficient agency to Indian actors in the events described.


What I mean is, if you follow the narrative of events, and you try to maintain the assumption that Sibley and Sully are in charge and driving history, some things just don’t make sense. Native agents had a larger role in shaping history than Beck admits.


If you’re a user of the online application Goodreads, then open up the page for Columns of Vengeance, and look at the bottom for the discussion thread, “New Work on the Dakota War.” A public discussion of Beck’s important book is going to unfold there.


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