Dakota War Bibliography

As we lean closer to the first week of September, 2013, individuals invested in history and indigenous genealogy on the northern Great Plains are considering numerous ways to look at the Dakota Wars of 1862-1864. There are a couple books out there that I found worthwhile to put on my shelf, so I thought I’d share them. The first is John Fabian Witt, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (Free Press, 2012). The prologue of this work is succinct and to the point. It opens by placing the reader next to the imagined historical place (perhaps sitting just to the right and behind him) of Francis Lieber, one of Lincoln’s closest military advisers. Witt says to imagine yourself in the modest room of a boardinghouse in Washington, D.C. on Christmas Day, 1862 (the day before the largest mass execution in United States history took place in Mankato, Minnesota, when 38 Dakota were hanged). In Witt’s words,

At a small desk lit by an oil lamp, an aging professor works late into the night. From a distance, the man seems to be a serene oasis of calm amid the mud and the tumult of wartime Washington in winter. But if we look more closely, the illusion of peacefulness gives way to something unsettling. Below a shock of pewter hair, the man’s eyes are dark hollows. His face is drawn into a perpetual scowl. A high white collar and black silk cravat cannot quite hide the old battle scars on his neck. The man’s bearing betrays newer, less tangible wounds as well. In the past week, he has learned the gruesome details of the death of one son fighting for the Confederate Army in Virginia and sent another to fight of the Union in occupied New Orleans. A third son lost his right arm earlier in the year.

Lieber would eventually go on to draft the rules of war for Lincoln, a code that, in theory, was to protect prisoners and forbid executions and assassinations. It also announced distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The four forbidden acts, according to the rules of war, were “torture, assassination, the use of poison, and perfidy in violation of truce flags or agreements between the warring parties.” (Witt, 2012: 2-4). Witt also reminds us that armies could virtually do anything for “securing the ends of the war.”

Now jump to Whitestone Hill just over 9 months later, and a segment in Paul Beck’s latest work, Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864 (U of Oklahoma Press, 2013; and since it is in my car rather in front of me, I’ll paraphrase). As General Alfred Sully directed his U.S. Army riflemen toward a Bison hunting encampment of Dakota, Lakota and Nakota, a Native emerged with a flag of truce. This Native draped himself in the flag and started slowly walking toward the advancing soldiers. But a Dutchman opened fire and cut him down. Witt’s legal work and Beck’s battle narrative help us consider the disparities between the legal theory laid down in Washington, D.C., and how events actually play out on those fields of battle. It all looks so neat and tidy from the board rooms. Today those individual decisions made 150 years ago are still contended with throughout the United States. It is a fallacy to think they will ever be resolved, or that some kind of closure will come. It will be remembered indefinitely, and in an infinite number of ways.

War, no doubt, is horrific and terrible. It is why in 1866 John Stuart Mill, while chair of a committee that looked into how Governor Eyre repressed the Jamaican mutiny, said “a great display of… brutal recklessness generally prevails when fire and sword are let loose.” To put it mildly, Mill was highly unimpressed with Governor Eyre. And he understood what happened when political philosophy failed (that is typically realized just after the bullets start flying).

Philosophically, if we are going to put ourselves in the shoes of Lieber (and we should), we also have to put ourselves in the shoes of the indigenous mothers and fathers of the non-combatants who fell before the U.S. Army rifle and sword during the punitive campaigns throughout Dakota Territory (and in southeastern Idaho, Sand Creek, Colorado and beyond). Perhaps the most effective treatment of the Plains indigene ways, at least in the second half of the 19th century, comes by way of Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2008). Some thoughts and a Lear excerpt linked to here. I’ve yet to crack open David Williams, A People’s History of The Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom (W.W. Norton, 2005), but that will come.


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