Emerging Scholar John Legg

Legg, JohnAs part of our partnership with the American Civil War Museum in Richmond and Civil War Monitor, we’re pleased to introduce the next of our “Emerging Scholars,” John Legg. John will be presenting his work at the museum’s Grand Opening May 4.

The U.S.-Dakota War: A Reconsideration of Civil War Era History

When we think about the American Civil War, famous battles and essential figures come to mind: Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Appomattox; or, Robert E. Lee, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Robert Gould Shaw. In addition to the leaders and engagements that happened between 1861 and 1865, geographic spaces play an intricate role in how enthusiasts study the period, from secession to Reconstruction, from freedom to eradication. When we think about the Civil War, historians tend to break up the conflict into two theatres of combat: the Eastern and the Trans-Mississippi theaters, both of which include battles of immense size, scale, and death. Those intrigued by the Civil War acknowledge its significance as a war of freedom: the breakage of the institutionalized chains of African American slavery.

With all of these avenues of study, to what extent do Civil War historians discuss and incorporate the American West into their studies? To some, the Civil War in the American West (and even far West) has no impact on the more significant conflict further East. To others, more recently, the Civil War in the American West provides nuance in understanding the conflict. As the Union and Confederacy debated and fought on the expansion of slavery into the American West, interactions and conflict with indigenous populations prove that the American Civil War was more than a conflict devoted to freedom, but one geared towards settler-colonialism and expansion.

Historians have begun addressing the importance of the American West during the Civil War era. At the 2018 Western History Association, Civil War era historians, like Ari Kelman, Megan Kate Nelson, Susanna Lee, Khal Schneider, and Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, discussed how indigenous peoples past the trans-Mississippi theater played an intricate role in the American Civil War.[1] The significant engagements of the Eastern and trans-Mississippi theaters overwhelm the casualties numbers and environmental degradation; interactions and conflicts between indigenous peoples and white Americans demonstrated that the Civil War was much larger than a conflict over freedom or states’ rights. In Ari Kelman’s book, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek, conflict between Colonel John Chivington’s volunteer cavalry troopers and Arapaho and Cheyenne populations along the banks of Sand Creek vividly show the violence and extreme nature of total war combat as a means for white expansion west.[2] In Ned Blackhawk’s Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West, the “western theater of the Civil War centered upon Indian subjugation” and violence.”[3] That expansion of the American empire came from large-scale efforts to remove indigenous peoples. From the rivers of Colorado to the ravines of Utah, from the open prairies of Minnesota to the dusty trails of Apache Pass, Arizona, the American West played intricate roles in the Civil War era.

The Dakota War

Minnesota during the American Civil War era seems to be a place of courage, freedom, and sacrifice. Units from the state fought all over the Eastern and trans-Mississippi theaters, the most prominent being the 1st Minnesota Infantry and their gallant, against overwhelming odds, charge on July 2, 1862—a charge in which the regiment lost 88% of its men.[4] In 1862, however, as the 1st Minnesota fought at Second Bull Run and Antietam, another conflict exploded in the open prairies of the Minnesota River Valley. The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 emerged as a defining moment for many Minnesotans but also the Dakota people as hundreds of people died, the landscape destroyed, and large numbers displaced.

The Dakota War started in August 1862 after brewing tensions spilled over when the government promised annuity payments did not show in the Minnesota River Valley. From 1851 treaties between Dakota and the U.S. government, these annuity payments compensated the Dakota for millions of acres of land. However, debt collectors and Indian Agents forced Dakota to sign additional contracts that would allow the federal government to pay the agents directly. By 1862, the failed annuity payments and the attitude of Indian Agents not wanting to allocate much-needed food supplies for staving Dakota, led to all-out war.[5]

The majority of the fighting lasted six weeks, culminating with the surrender of Dakota, removal of thousands, and the hanging of thirty-eight Dakota men. Now known as the largest mass execution in United States history, the hanging in Mankato was meant to signify an end to the conflict between Dakota and white settlers. This narrative has mainly been the case throughout recent historiographical drifts; however, many contemporary historians have neglected to tell the events between 1863 and 1865, but also the broader connections to the Civil War and the legacies of westward expansion. From the mass hanging of thirty-eight Dakota in 1862, to the large-scale destruction of a combined Dakota/Lakota community at Whitestone Hill, the fighting over the war demonstrates keep distinctions between the wrath of the federal army in the mid-1860s.[6]

Why is this significant to the American Civil War?

Some historians argue that conflicts between indigenous peoples and white Americans in the West do not play a significant role in the American Civil War. Surely the battles at New Ulm, Minnesota or Whitestone Hill do not resemble the same catastrophic aftereffects of Gettysburg, Antietam, or Petersburg. However, the Dakota War has several connections to the Civil War, some closely knit together through people and regiments, or more broadly through ideas of settler colonialism, the United States’ war for empire and expansion, and freedom.

As the Union fought to free enslaved peoples in the South, they also fought for expansion and empire in the West. Freedom remained a powerful idea during the century, both for African Americans and indigenous peoples. To Native nations throughout the United States, sovereignty demonstrated their agency and belonging. The Civil War’s quest for freeing enslaved peoples brings up the more significant points of fighting for freedom during the 1860s. Ari Kelman has recently discussed the ways in which the Civil War propagated new avenues of freedom.[7] Freedom for whom? Indigenous peoples during the Civil War era, too, launched conceited military efforts towards the hope of freedom and the demonstration of sovereignty. The Dakota War is another chapter in that book.

Studying the Dakota War offers new avenues of historical inquiry. Not only on the dealings and interactions with indigenous peoples in the American West, but also new threads of Civil War era research. The tactics in which the U.S. Army used against the Dakota people demonstrate that the Civil War indeed is not a total war. While many Civil War enthusiasts consider Sherman’s March to the Sea or Sheridan’s Ride through the Shenandoah Valley as moments of total war—the burning, pillaging, complete destruction of landscape that altered Southern life—the level of full-scale, all-encompassing vengeance against Dakota people demonstrate the ways in which the Civil War cannot constitute a total war. On that notion, the wrath administered by federal troops against Dakota populations—in Minnesota, Dakota Territory, Nebraska, and Iowa—proves that warfare against indigenous peoples had deeper motivations than that of the American Civil War—a war to preserve the union and free enslaved peoples.

Please come listen to the full presentation at the American Civil War Museum’s Emerging Scholars program, in which a more in-depth conversation on the Dakota War and its connection to the American Civil War will be discussed.


About John Legg

John R. Legg is a graduate student in History at Virginia Tech, where he studies Native American history and works in the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @thejohnlegg.


[1] Brian DeLay, et al, “Civil War Era and Native Americans in the West,” CSPAN3 Video, 1:31:35, October 19, 2018, https://www.c-span.org/video/?452570-3/civil-war-era-native-americans-west.

[2] Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 279.

[3] Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 246-247.

[4] “Sacrifice: Remembering the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg,” The Daily Gopher, July 2, 2017, https://www.thedailygopher.com/2017/7/2/15909262/gettysburg-minnesota-picketts-charge.

[5] “Causes of the War,” US Dakota War, accessed March 18, 2019, http://www.usdakotawar.org/history/war/causes-war.

[6] Aaron L. Barth, “Imagining a Battlefield at a Civil War Mistake: The Public History of Whitestone Hill, 1863 to 2013, The Public Historian, Vol. 35, No. 3 (August 2013): 72-73.

[7] Brian DeLay, et al, “Civil War Era and Native Americans in the West,” CSPAN3 Video, 1:31:35, October 19, 2018, https://www.c-span.org/video/?452570-3/civil-war-era-native-americans-west.

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4 Responses to Emerging Scholar John Legg

  1. Thanks for this excellent post. Far too many people fail to fully understand the events in Minnesota during late summer 1862 or their root causes, including treaty violations by the Government, the abysmal treatment of the Dakota by Indian agents, and finally famine resulting from crop failures that summer. The contrast between the war of emancipation and this conflict are dramatic. .

  2. Much is made of President Buchanan’s Secretary of War, John Floyd, and his pre-War “attempted transfer of vast quantities of arms and ammunition to the South from Northern arsenals.” But what got John B. Floyd into strife was his misuse of Indian Bonds (see “New York Times” of 13 FEB 1861 article “The Robbery of Indian Bonds: Report of the Special Congressional Committee. Culpability of Secretary Floyd, Mr. Russell, and Mr. Bailey…”)
    After his State’s secession, John B. Floyd was appointed Major General in the Provisional Army of Virginia.

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