In the shadows of Killdeer Mountain of present day western North Dakota, there lies the site of an 1864 battle between the Sioux and the U. S. Army. Eclipsed on popularity to famous skirmishes like the Battle of the Little Bighorn, this particular engagement strengthened the resolve of the northern plains Indians against an ever-advancing white enemy.
The Stage Is Set For War On The Plains
Brigadier General Alfred Sully had been ordered against the western bands of the Sioux nation to punish them for the Dakota uprising that had occurred in the Minnesota Territory in 1862. Their eastern cousins, the Santee, had staged a violent uprising out of frustration from their poor treatment by the U. S. government. That conflict had resulted in about 800 white casualties including men, women and children.
Predictably, the local population demanded vengeance. The army captured about 2000 prisoners and ended up executing 38 of them by orders from President Lincoln. This would prove to be the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Orders were also prepared for the Army to march westward to locate and punish the perpetrators involved. There had been word of a large camp in present day North Dakota. Ironically, the Santee Sioux who carried out the attack in Minnesota had escaped into Canada.
Though many of its bands had not been involved, Washington considered the entire Sioux nation at blame for the incident. In 1863, Sully’s force of about 1600 cavalry and mounted infantry began its march up the Missouri River. It met up with a column of infantry and cavalry from Minnesota in June of 1864 and began to ascend the Missouri River drainage in search of the enemy.
On July 26, as Sully escorted a wagon train west along the Heart River, scouts reported that a large encampment of Native Americans was spotted along the Little Missouri River north of their current course. Leaving a wagon train on the Heart River with a large protective detail of soldiers, Sully moved in pursuit.
The Battle Of Killdeer Mountain
The two sides met on July 28 in the rough and broken ground near the Killdeer Mountains. The encamped Hunkpapas, Sans Arcs, Blackfeet, Minneconjous, Yanktonais and Santees were forewarned of an attack. Their scouting party had exchanged fire with a scouting party from Sully’s column the day before.
Forming his troops into a squared formation know as a phalanx, Sully advanced on the Sioux camp of approximately 1700 lodges. Its warriors came out to meet them and the battle ensued. On several occasions, warrior parties tried in vain to attack the flanks and rear of Sully’s formation. Supported by artillery in the center of the phalanx, the Army was able to slowly beat back the enemy and weaken its lines. Major Bracket led a cavalry charge to break the Indian line and drive them into forested gullies surrounding the village. Further barrages from the artillery forced a retreat of the Sioux. They quickly abandoned their village and fled over the mountain.
General Sully rode off in pursuit of those that had escaped. Though there were some brief minor clashes, the majority of the Sioux drove into the badlands and used the rough terrain to thwart their attackers. His chance at annihilation of the whole Sioux band gone, Sully returned to the deserted Indian camp and destroyed it.
As the army column moved back to meet its supply train and immigrant trains on the Heart River, straggling warriors were able to attack their picket lines and kill a couple more soldiers on the second night after the battle.
Historical Implications Of The Battle
The significance of the Battle of Killdeer Mountain turned out to be much more than a victory for the army. Granted, the Sioux had suffered a serious defeat. Their bows and muzzleloaders were no match to the superior weaponry of the U.S. Army. On subsequent engagements, they used that knowledge to change their tactics. Instead of direct attacks, they began to favor a more hit-and-run style which largely neutralized the better arms of the military.
More importantly, they were now hardened in their resolve to fight. U.S. commanders did not understand that the Sioux were comprised of several bands that were loosely related. They each had their own lifestyle and they did not necessarily communicate regularly or share the same motivations.
Western bands of the Sioux had not shown a great deal of hostility towards American westward expansion until provoked by the Battle of Killdeer Mountain and the formation of the Bozeman Trail. This trail provided access of white settlers to newly discovered gold deposits in Montana. It also violated a treaty between the Sioux and the United States by allowing emigrant invasion through the valuable hunting grounds of the Powder River drainage in Wyoming.
The end result was the United States inadvertently starting confrontations with Native Americans that were otherwise peaceful and escalating into a full-scale war. Sadly, the northern plains would see battle and carnage drag on for another 25 years after the dust had settled at Killdeer Mountain.