Sully’s Expedition Against the Sioux: Another Military Campaign in the Aftermath of the Dakota War
“I hope you will not believe all that is said of ‘Sullys’ successful expedition,’ against the Sioux. I don’t think he ought to brag of it at all, because it was, what no decent man would have done, he pitched into their camp and just slaughtered them . . . he killed very few men and took no hostile ones prisoners . . . if he had killed men instead of women and children, then it would have been a success . . .”– Samuel J. Brown to Joseph R. Brown, November 13, 1863
In late 1862, after the Dakota Sioux were defeated in the U.S. – Dakota War, Major General John Pope of the Department of the Northwest laid down plans to pursue and punish the Santee Sioux and any other Native peoples living west of Minnesota toward the Missouri River. The military campaign was a two-pronged punitive expedition launched in the summer of 1863 and led by Major Generals Henry H. Sibley and Alfred H. Sully. Sibley’s expedition, which was covered in an earlier post, was considered a success after several engagements that forced a large hunting party of Sioux west of the Missouri River. Sully’s expedition, however, was delayed making him unable to rendezvous with Sibley as originally planned. But, in August of 1863, as Sibley and his men returned home, Sully overcame the delays and prepared to pursue the combined party of Sioux, Yanktons, Yanktonais, and Tetons that had already fled from Sibley.
On August 14, Sully, commanding a force of 1,200 men, departed his advance base at Fort Pierre and headed north along the Missouri River. After finding Sibley’s old camp, Sully learned from his scouts that the Indians Sibley had pursued had recrossed the Missouri River and returned to their hunting grounds near the headwaters of the James River. Then, on September 3, one of the expedition’s advanced battalions came across a large encampment of Indians at a place called Whitestone Hill. Believing he was being surrounded, the commander of the advanced battalion, Major Alfred E. House, engaged in battle with the Indians. Sully arrived with the main force at about 5pm and charged through the center of the encampment. As it was reported, the Indians fought from the numerous hollows and ravines surrounding Whitestone Hill and put up a “very desperate resistance.” Darkness eventually brought an end to the battle. It is estimated that Sully lost 14 killed and 34 wounded while the estimates of Indian losses range from 150 to 300.
Over the next two days, Sully’s men completely destroyed the lodges left behind by the Indians and took 156 prisoners, most of whom were women, children, and the elderly. Sully reported that the Battle of Whitestone Hill had been a success and returned to his base on the Missouri River. However, as reported in a letter to his father, interpreter Samuel J. Brown said of the battle, “I hope you will not believe all that is said of ‘Sullys’ successful expedition,’ against the Sioux. I don’t think he ought to brag of it at all, because it was, what no decent man would have done, he pitched into their camp and just slaughtered them . . .”
The following spring, Major Pope in St. Paul issued new orders for Sully’s operation. The first part of the plan was to provide for the construction of four military garrisons along the Missouri River in order to secure communication routes to the goldfields. The second, and greater part of the plan, was a military expedition against the whole Sioux nation. In July 1864, after learning that an Indian force of Tetons, Yanktonais, and some Santee Sioux crossed to the west of the Missouri River, Sully and his men, including a detachment of Minnesota soldiers, headed west along the Cannonball River. On July 28 they encountered a large Indian encampment on the side of a high hill known as Killdeer Mountain. Sully made his advance with slight opposition. As his column of soldiers grew closer to the Indian encampment the U.S. soldiers dismounted and were deployed as skirmishers at close intervals. The combined forces of Sioux made what historian William Folwell called a “vigorous but desultory opposition” before retreating from the field. The women and children fled to the mountains leaving large amounts of provisions behind. In the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, Sully’s losses are estimated at five killed and ten wounded while Indian losses are estimated between thirty-one and one hundred fifty killed or wounded.
After destroying the Indian’s provisions and returning to their main camp on the Heart River, Sully’s expedition continued west through the Badlands. On August 8 and 9, the U.S. soldiers encountered moderate resistance from the Sioux who fired arrows at them from a safe distance. Sully repulsed the assaults with cannon and rifle fire while traveling four or five miles through rugged terrain. When Sully’s expedition reached a large, level plain, he was able to finally disperse the Indians. Referred to as the Battle of the Badlands, it was probably more of a running skirmish. From the perspective of the Sioux, they had succeeded in harassing the U.S. soldiers, slowed their advance, and deprived their horses of water.
When Sully’s expedition reached Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River on August 12, they discovered that the Sioux had stampeded or stolen all but two of the horses belonging to the fort. Without horses, and with his men worn-out, Sully decided to abandon his campaign against the Sioux. The expedition returned to Fort Rice where they arrived on September 9, 1864. The Minnesota brigade, relieved of its duty, marched to Fort Ridgely where they arrived on October 8 after marching a total of 1,625 miles in four months and three days.
While some, like Sully and Sibley, declared the 1863-1864 punitive expeditions a success that punished the Sioux for their role in the Dakota War and protected the Minnesota settlements, others saw it as an expensive endeavor that unnecessarily punished innocent people. It was argued that the expeditions were too sweeping and indiscriminate and that the money would have been better spent if given to the Indians in annual installments. In fact, in his annual report in 1866, Commissioner of Indian Affairs D.N. Cooley, as summarized by William Folwell, declared that, “the Sioux generally had not been treated fairly by the government and that the forfeiture of all their annuities by the act of Congress of February 16, 1863, was unjust to a large number who had taken no part in the outbreak of 1862 . . .” Cooley went on to “recommended that Congress at once restore to [the Sioux] the gross sums forfeited in 1863,” for the “justice” of those who had not participated in the Dakota War, and for the “mercy” of the sufferers at Crow Creek and Davenport. Perhaps it’s time that Cooley’s recommendation is revisited.
Read Commissioner of Indian Affairs D.N. Cooley’s entire report.
Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 2. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1924.
Wikipedia. “Battle of the Badlands.” Last edited January 8, 2021. Accessed February 20, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Badlands.
Keenan, Jerry. “The Battle of Whitestone Hill.” HistoryNet. Accessed February 20, 2021. https://www.historynet.com/battle-whitestone-hill.htm.
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.