- Historic Sites
General Sully Reports
In vivid paintings and prose a professional army officer recorded a career that spanned nearly forty years and mirrored the history of the American West
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
Then tragedy struck a shattering blow that was to change the entire course of Sully’s career: “You must by this time have received my short letter announcing the death of my Manuela. So sudden, so unexpected was it, that I am just beginning to believe it reality & not a horrible dream. She was well on the 26th [of March, 1851], walking about the house. That morning she brought the child into my room and placed it in bed with me, nibbing her little hands together in perfect child like delight to sec me playing with the baby. She wanted to eat an orange that had been sent her, but I, thinking I know not why they might be bad, told her no. Her mother who was present thought they would do her no harm, she would however ask the Doctor. … The next morning with the consent of the doctor she ate that fatal orange which in a short time brought on vomiting that nothing could stop. Towards night she became better, much better, and I laid down towards ,4 in the morning with the lull expectation of her recovering. I had hardly got asleep before I was woke up by the doctor. There was no more use Tor his service. I had to go hunt a priest. Poor girl, what must have been her feelings, while the Priest was going through the last ceremonies of the Church, to know that she must die, so voting, so beloved, so beautiful. … She was unable to speak, but her eyes when they rested on me told her feelings too deeply. Through the whole day she suffered tortures, apparently unconscious of all around her. Every room in the house was filled by her friends who by their tears showed me how great a loss I was about to suffer. Towards evening she for the first time in the day recognized me, called me by name, put out her little hands to embrace me, but with a gentle smile of resignation sunk back on her bed. … AIy negro boy Sam, who has been with me some three years, was so much attached to Manuela that between sadness and drink [he] became crazy. In this state of mind he believed that in the world to come we would all be united once more together. He came into my room one morning, the 8th of April, crying and talking to me about it, and with the intention (as I have since round very good reason to believe) of sending me to join my wile. As I was very busy I ordered him 10 his room, the door of winch opens into mine. He IeIt my room, locked his door, and a lew minutes alter I heard the report of a pistol. I broke open the door and found him stretched on the floor. … Knowing that his affection for my wife was the cause it cast a greater gloom on my spirits, but I tried to cheer up, thinking that I had another duty—to attend to the boy that Man uela had left me. Donna Angustias took charge of it. At first her milk did not agree with it, but with great care and attention it soon recovered. It was beginning to take notice of me and e to (enter all ihc love I had for the Mother in him. But this consolation was not to be enjoyed by me. On the night of the 14th it was accidentally killed by its Grandmother. She was nursing it in bed, fell asleep. When she woke tip he was dead. She had strangled it in her sleep. The doctor persuaded her that it died of a convulsion, but to me alone he told the true story, and now I am once more alone in the world. … A few weeks ago we were all so happy, so contented. What a change. … I shall leave this place as soon as I ran. I will give tip my rancho & mill, for f have no intention now of leaving the army. …”
The decade following the death of Manuela and his infant son saw Alfred Sully on frontier assignments in California. Minnesota, and the Dakotas. During the first half of the Civil War, in which he rose from captain to brigadier general, he fought in many famous battles, including Yorktown, Kair Oaks, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsvillc. (Evidently he was too busy for art during this period, lor his sketches and paintings were few.) Hut it was his prewar experience in the West that led in May of 1863 to his assignment as commandant of Dakota Territory. That territory was in a very troubled state, with thousands of Sioux threatening to sweep through Minnesola and Iowa. In Minnesota only the year before, other Sioux braves had risen against the whites, massacred many, and forced 30,000 others to fiée their homes.
Sully set up his headquarters at Fort Pierre (just across the Missouri River from present-day Pierre, S. D.), and between forays against the Indians lound time for such paintings as that of the fort in winter (at left), and of the band ol Dakota Sioux (below) breaking camp to move to a new location. His actions as an Indian fighter were highly successful, and it is in the Dakotas that he is chiefly remembered today. Various historical markers in the vicinity of Pierre record his achievements in subduing the savage Sioux.