Gettysburg of North Dakota
This year we mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, the Gettysburg of the Plains. I have been using that phrase, “Gettysburg of the Plains,” mainly as an attention-getter, but if pressed, I will stand by it. As with the Battle of Gettysburg, in the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, the fates of sovereign nations were at issue—principally the fates of the Yankton, the Hunkpapa, and the United States, but also others.
By regional standards, too, indeed by all standards in Indian-white conflict in the American West, the Battle of Killdeer Mountain was big. I say this on the basis of forty years’ study of Great Plains history: the Battle of Killdeer Mountain was the largest military engagement ever to take place on the Great Plains of North America.
It also was a heck of a battle—in my opinion, the classic engagement of Dakota-Lakota akicita versus US soldiers. There were roughly two thousand combatants on each side. The natives prepared for and fought the battle according to their own talents and discipline, displaying good discretion and tactics; the whites did the same, and brought unprecedented firepower to bear.
The result was a spectacular stalemate on the plains and slopes alongside Killdeer Mountain, with not many casualties on either side, but masterly maneuvering on both. Then a magnificent battle, distinguished by expertise and courage on both sides, turned ugly.
Large numbers of women, children, and other noncombatants were observing the battle from atop the mountain. In order to break the stalemate, Brigadier General Alfred Sully, commanding US troops in the battle, directed the fire of his 12-pound mountain howitzers onto the noncombatants. This inflicted hundreds of casualties and broke the battle, as the native fighters broke off in order to get their people out of harm’s way.
It might be said that this is the way with war, particularly total war as prosecuted in the modern era of the nineteenth century. Certainly total war, as practiced by the Union and Confederate armies, stretched the boundaries of acceptable action in ugly directions.
Never in the annals of Union-Confederate conflict, however, did anything happen that was comparable to the turning of the big guns on the noncombatants at Killdeer Mountain. This was not collateral damage, women and children being hit by fire directed against fighting forces. This was deliberate targeting of noncombatants, something that would not have been tolerated if the targets were not people of color. There was, you see, a color line in nineteenth-century total war.
It is not for me, a white guy historian, to do all the talking about the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. We must hear, deliberately and reflectively, from native historians, drawing on native memory, in the reconstruction of these events. I look forward to this fall’s Lakota History Conference, in Fort Yates, with its events specifically devoted to Killdeer Mountain, for that conversation.
I will say that having pointed out how swiftly warfare on the plains can degenerate from spectacular to genocidal, I am not interested in fashioning a new narrative of victimization. The native combatants at Killdeer Mountain were beaten, but not defeated. The Hunkpapa would return to fight with potency less than two weeks later, in the Battle of the Badlands.
The narrative I am interested in is one of agency, not victimization. I want to know the story of how native peoples struggled intelligently for their lives and interests, and how their resilience carried them through to present. This will be good history.