Massacre!

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The Sioux attacked before the first gray of dawn, meaning to kill the sentries noiselessly with bow and arrow and then burst into the sleeping camp. A sharp-eyed sentry spoiled that plan when he saw the grass move; his shot awoke the camp and gave it a brief moment of warning that prevented complete disaster. The Indians rushed in yelling and shooting, and many whites died in the first few minutes. Major Brown ordered a barricade made of the wagons, and all were turned on their sides except the one in which Justina Kreiger lay. The Sioux were checked for the moment, and the defenders worked to improvise breastworks of prairie sod, saddles, dead horses, and even the bodies of their own comrades. And there, almost without water and completely without food, they lay in the dust and grimly held on.

Fort Ridgely was fifteen miles away, and the sounds of the fight were heard there plainly. After some confusion, Coloney Sibley sent out a strong relief force, 240 men with artillery, under a Colonel Samuel McPhail. A few miles from Birch Coulee they met a small group of Sioux making a great deal of noise. Their only purpose was to delay reinforcements to Major Brown, but the timid McPhail set up camp in a good defensive position and sent word to Sibley that he was almost surrounded and needed help.

Sibley, with a thousand men and more artillery, reached McPhail about midnight. Three hours later the united force set out, but so circumspect was this dash to the rescue that it took until almost noon the next day—eight hours—to cover the last four or five miles. The Sioux withdrew with derisive yells, and Brown’s force was relieved. It was in bad shape after thirty-one hours under continuous attack. Thirteen were dead, three more mortally wounded. Another forty-four were seriously wounded, and all were suffering from thirst and hunger.

And Justina Kreiger? Her wagon had been hit so many times that its wood was torn to splinters. The blanket that wrapped her contained more than two hundred bullet holes. But only five bullets had even touched her, and those so lightly that they left only the most superficial of scratches. It is pleasant to record that this charmed woman survived to find peace again. Before the year was out she met and married a man who had lost his wife and children to the Sioux.

After delaying longer at Fort Ridgely while he tried to carry on long-distance negotiations for release of captives, Sibley at last marched out to make war, leading 1,600 men. Four days of cautious advance brought him to Wood Lake, still some twenty miles from the Indian villages. Here the Sioux prepared an ambush, meaning to let Sibley get started the next morning and then to attack from all sides when his columns were strung out for several miles. Between seven and eight hundred Sioux took advantage of tall grass, ravines, and other cover, and the trap was set. It was a good one, but happenstance set it off too soon when men of one of Sibley’s units on a pre-breakfast foraging expedition headed its wagon directly toward the spot where several Sioux were hiding. The latter had no choice but to start shooting.

One soldier was killed. His comrades jumped from the wagons and withdrew, shooting as they went. The men of their regiment hurried to their aid, while the Renville Rangers came briskly up to protect the flank as more Indians poured from hiding. Most of the army did not even get to fire a shot before the Sioux withdrew. Nor did most of the Indians take part; they were still too far away to reach the fighting in time. Some desultory firing continued on the fringes, but it was all over in two hours. This was the Battle of Wood Lake, and Sibley was made a general for his victory.

The Sioux now finally admitted the hopelessness of the war, and most of those who had been deeply involved began a long retreat to the west. Before leaving, Little Crow turned custody of the captives over to Chief Wabasha, who had opposed the war and was not fleeing. Four days later, Sibley reached the site that his men named Camp Release. There were 107 white and 162 half-breed captives, and a number of additional ones were later brought in from other camps.

The army ranged the surrounding country, bringing in Sioux. Sibley’s aim was to hang the guilty ones in large numbers, but most of those whose hands were bloody were far out in Dakota Territory. He did eventually round up some 2,000 Sioux, of whom about 400 were braves under suspicion. Sibley instituted a sort of military court which ground out convictions at a fast clip as soon as it got the knack of it, often taking no more than five minutes to condemn a man to the gallows. The mere fact of presence at a battle was enough to bring a death sentence, even, occasionally, despite testimony that the man on trial actually had protected a white person. By the first week in November the job was done. Almost 400 Sioux had been tried, of whom 306 were sentenced to death for murder, rape, or participation in a battle, and another 16 to imprisonment for the lesser crime of robbery.

The 1,700 prisoners considered innocent, mostly women and children, were sent to Fort Snelling. The next spring they were taken to a miserable tract of land in Dakota, and three years later to a somewhat better reservation on the Niobrara River in Nebraska. The 300-odd convicted men were marched to a prison stockade near Mankato.