Monday, September 9, 2013

Reviews of Beck's "COLUMNS OF VENGEANCE: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864"

Friday, June 28, 2013

Beck: "COLUMNS OF VENGEANCE: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864"

[Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864 by Paul N. Beck (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013). Cloth, 2 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:269/329. ISBN:9780806143446 $34.95]

Numerous studies have been written about the 1862 Santee Sioux uprising in Minnesota, but far less attention has been paid to the subsequent U.S. army Dakota plains campaigns conducted with the intention of securing the frontier and inflicting further punishment on the bands that committed the atrocities. Unfortunately, as Beck demonstrates, the military incursions into the Dakotas served mainly to inflame those Sioux not present during the atrocities committed in Minnesota. Some, like the Yanktonais, were even peacefully disposed toward the whites. The army's desire for vengeance combined with a mixing of friendly and hostile bands (the latter the minority) within large, extended buffalo hunting camps led to several battles, the result of which was the ignition of a wider plains war.

Paul Beck's Columns of Vengeance is a survey history of these punitive campaigns. After conveying the necessary background information about causative events in Minnesota, the book launches into a swift moving account of the two-pronged offensive led by brigadier generals Henry Hastings Sibley and Alfred Sully. The battles [Big Mound, Dead Buffalo Lake, and Stony Lake for Sibley and Whitestone Hill for Sully] are briefly, but ably, described, most in just a few pages of text. Sully's 1864 expedition, with its big battle at Killdeer Mountain, had the additional mission of safeguarding the transportation routes to the gold fields of Montana, a wish that was only partly fulfilled. Beck is largely correct to assert that the punitive expeditions, especially the first one, were organized and fought along Civil War lines, rather than what we would later consider 'Indian fighting'. The 1863 columns were slow moving, with a large infantry component as the hammer, supported by cavalry and artillery. By contrast, the main body of Sully's 1864 punitive expedition was all cavalry (the attached infantry was used to garrison forts established along the way). This force composition was closer to what would come later, but its mobility was still hampered by foot artillery and supply trains.

The existing work most comparable in military content and scope to Beck's is Micheal Clodfelter'sThe Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865 (1998)*, but what setsColumns of Vengeance apart is the manuscript research. Beck was able to incorporate far more personal accounts from the common soldiers into his narrative. In addition to relating their experiences, a variety of motivations are also displayed. Some thirsted for vengeance while others just wanted the campaign to be over with so they could fight their 'real' enemy, the Confederates down south. Several writers considered the expeditions a complete waste of time, lives, and money, with the military presence supported mainly by those wishing to enrich themselves on government contracts.  A variety of tribal sources were also used.  On the down side, it is a shame that only two general overview maps (one for each expedition) were included in the book, with no battle maps at all.

With its unprecedented integration of firsthand accounts written by those who fought in the ranks,Columns of Vengeance is a uniquely valuable addition to the 1862-65 Dakota War literature.  However, the question of whether Beck's work replaces Clodfelter's as the standard single-volume subject study does not have a clear cut answer. With their different emphases and complementary strengths and weaknesses, both are essential reading.

* - Oddly enough, Beck's bibliography does not list Clodfelter's book.

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.