The Punitive Expedition of Henry Sibley: Reevaluating the “Success” of his Campaign

The Punitive Expedition of Henry Sibley: Reevaluating the “Success” of his Campaign

August 7, 1863. – We had three desperate engagements with 2,300 Sioux warriors, in each of which they were routed and finally driven across the Missouri with the loss of all their subsistence. Our loss was small, while at least one hundred and fifty savages were killed and wounded.”

H.H. Sibley, Brigadier General, Commanding
Brigadier General Henry Hastings Sibley. MNHS Collections.

It is relatively well-known that Henry Hastings Sibley—former governor of Minnesota; former fur trader for the American Fur Company—was the military commander in charge of U.S. forces during the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. Following the war, Sibley also established and chaired the military commission that sentenced 303 men to death by hanging, which ultimately resulted in the execution of 38 Dakota in Mankato on December 26, 1862. But what is lesser known, or lesser publicized, is that the war did not end with the hangings in Mankato and neither did Sibley’s role in it. 

Following their defeat at The Battle of Wood Lake, the Dakota, many of whom did not participate in war, had to decide whether to flee their homeland or surrender themselves to U.S. forces. According to historian William Watts Folwell, about 1500 of the Lower Sioux surrendered while about 800 “scattered over the prairies between the Red River and the Missouri, concentrated for the winter on the Missouri River near Fort Rice.” The Upper Sioux, or Santee, who numbered 4,026 people on the 1861 annuity roles and lived along the upper half of the Minnesota River Valley, lingered near their villages before departing north to establish winter camp near Devil’s Lake. 

Learn more about Henry Hastings Sibley

Believing the Dakota who escaped to the west were renegades that would align themselves with the Yankton, Yanktonai, and Teton, Sibley estimated that another Indian war was imminent. In October, 1862, he sent a warning to his commanding officer, Major General John Pope, that 2,200 Sioux warriors would soon descend upon the Minnesota settlements. Pope agreed with Sibley’s prediction and quickly drew up plans for a military campaign against the Santee Sioux, including the Yanktons, Yantonais, and Teton in the western territories. According to the plan, which was approved by the war department, the U.S. would send two advancing columns, “one, largely of infantry, to move from the neighborhood of Fort Ridgely northward to Devil’s Lake; the other, mostly of cavalry, to ascend the Missouri Valley from Fort Randall, to cut off a retreat beyond that river, and at length to diverge northeastward toward Devil’s Lake.” The column of infantry was to be led by Henry Sibley.

The following summer, Sibley readied his column to head west from Camp Pope, located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Redwood rivers. Stretching five miles long, the column departed on June 16, 1863, and consisted of 3,320 soldiers, 225 wagons, and several hundred cattle in order to “furnish beef on the hoof.” The column reached a point about forty miles southeast of Devil’s Lake on July 18 where they were informed by Red River buffalo hunters of a large group of Sioux who had recently left Devil’s Lake and were camped about seventy-five miles to the west. Sibley took his column to the southwest and located the large encampment of Sioux on July 24. As Sibley set up camp, a large number of Sioux could be seen to the west occupying a hill which became known as “Big Mound.” 

A map showing the military expeditions of Generals Sibley and Sully, 1863-64. By Alan Ominsky. From Kenneth Carley, The Dakota War of 1862, 1976.

Sibley and his scouts met with the Sioux on the western hills, but negotiations broke down when Dr. Josiah S. Weiser, a surgeon for the cavalry regiment, was shot through the back. The groups quickly dispersed and Sibley ordered an attack on the Native encampment. Using superior artillery from elevated positions and several charges of cavalry and infantry, Sibley forced the Sioux to retreat after a battle lasting only a few hours. Several regiments pursued the fleeing Sioux for fifteen miles from the original point of attack. After nightfall, the pursuing regiments set up a temporary camp and returned to the main column the next day. The Battle of Big Mound resulted in three U.S. soldiers killed, and nine or more Sioux killed.

On July 26, after a day of rest, Sibley’s column continued their pursuit of the retreating Sioux. After a march of fourteen miles, which was strewn with gear and provisions abandoned by the Sioux, Sibley set up camp at the shore of a lake where there lay the head of a dead buffalo, earning it the name Dead Buffalo Lake. Shortly thereafter, mounted Sioux appeared on the hills surrounding the lake as if threatening an attack. Sibley deployed skirmishers who were supported by cavalry and artillery. The Sioux were quickly repulsed and the battle resulted in the loss of one U.S. soldier killed and 1–15 Sioux combatants killed. 

As the Sioux continued their retreat toward the Missouri River, Sibley continued his pursuit. On July 27, Sibley’s column marched twenty-three miles where they camped at Stony Lake. Early the next morning, July 28, as Sibley’s column began their march, they were encountered by great numbers of Sioux on their front and flanks. Like he had before, Sibley deployed artillery which kept the Sioux at a distance. This was followed by infantry charges that dislodged the Sioux from several hills and forced their retreat. The Battle of Stony Lake resulted in 0 U.S. soldiers killed and an estimated 3 or fewer Sioux losses.

Brig. Gen. H. H. Sibley’s Expedition crossing the Shayenne River by H.F. Knieff. MNHS Collections

After the Sioux abandoned the field at Stony Lake, Sibley’s column marched eighteen miles to the Apple River and then another fifteen miles the next day until they reached the Missouri River. On July 29, Sibley sent two howitzers and his mounted Rangers forward to try and prevent the Sioux from crossing over the Missouri River. However, most of the Sioux had crossed the day before and those remaining hastily made their way to the western side of the river before Sibley’s artillery could have much impact. During this time, two U.S. soldiers who became separated from the main column were captured and killed. On July 30, Sibley sent several detachments forward to recover the bodies and burn the wagons and property on the eastern side of the river left behind by the Sioux.  

On July 31, short on supplies and exhausted from weeks of pursuit, Sibley ordered an end to the campaign. By driving the large encampment of Sioux—estimated between 10,000 and 12,000 people—across the Missouri River, Sibley declared his expedition a complete success that would prevent any further attacks by Indians on the people of Minnesota. In a letter to his officers and soldiers dated July 31, 1863, Sibley stated, “It would be a gratification if these remorseless savages could have been pursued, and received for their crimes and barbarities such a full measure of punishment as they merited, but men and animals are alike exhausted after so long a march, and a farther pursuit would only be futile and hopeless.” The main column returned to Fort Snelling on September 13 after traveling 1039 miles in just under three months and having lost six men killed. Sioux losses have been estimated between 13 and 150, while they also endured the loss of a large amount of their provisions left behind in their retreat.

General Henry Sibley received much praise for the results of his punitive expedition against the combined group of Santee, Yankton, Yanktonai, and Teton Sioux during the summer of 1863. Writing in 1864, historian Harriet E.B. McConkey declared, “If we look to historic facts, we find no more successful campaigns against the Indians, than have been those of Gen. Sibley . . . The name of Henry H. Sibley will live on history’s unsullied page. Posterity will laud him, when those of his calumniators will be lost in the great whirlpool of oblivion” (McConkey, 377). 

Looking back, it has become clear that Sibley’s punitive expedition was sparked by chaos and panic following the U.S. – Dakota War and fueled by the pervasive racist ideology of the time. Those whom Sibley and his column pursued were not a war party, but a community of nomadic hunters that were not involved in the attacks against the Minnesota settlements the previous summer. While it is unclear why Dr. Josiah S. Weiser was assassinated at the beginning of negotiations, the Sioux soldiers involved in battle were not engaging in war. Rather, they sought to delay the pursuit of a large column of sufficiently trained and armed U.S. soldiers in order to allow their women, children, and elderly to retreat to safety. Unfortunately for the Sioux, they lost dozens of lives and immeasurable amounts of goods and property in the process. Furthermore, it was only the beginning of a decades-long conflict with the United States.  

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Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 2. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1924.

West, Nathaniel. The Ancestry, Life, and Times of Hon. Henry Hastings Sibley. United States: Pioneer Press, 1889.

McConkey, Harriet E. Bishop. Dakota War Whoop, Or, Indian Massacres and War in Minnesota, of 1862-‘3. United States: Published for the author, 1864.

“Battle of Stony Lake,” Wikipedia, Accessed Jan. 17, 2021, Last Updated Jan. 8, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Stony_Lake.

Colin Mustful is a Minnesota author and historian with a unique story-telling style that tells History Through Fiction. His work focuses on Minnesota and surrounding regions during the complex transitional period as land was transferred from Native peoples to American hands. Mustful strives to create compelling stories about the real-life people and events of a tumultuous and forgotten past.

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