Brigadier General Alfred Sully’s 1863 expedition against hostile Sioux who had been involved in the previous year’s uprising in Minnesota and had escaped to Dakota Territory led to one of the most fierce yet overlooked clashes in the Indian wars.
In the waning light of the early September after- noon, Major Alfred E. House, 6th Iowa Cavalry, listened to the report of his mixed-blood scout, Frank La Framboise, advising him that he had located an Indian encampment some three miles ahead, near a high point called Whitestone Hill, so named because of the many white rocks pocking its surface. Wasting no time, House promptly instructed his command—companies C, F, I and H—to load carbines and pistols, after which he ordered the battalion forward at a gallop. A mile from the village they halted, and House deployed for battle, with Company I in line, H and F on the flanks and C in reserve. This done, House resumed the advance, taking up stations behind a ridge some 300 yards from the Indian village. From there, House sent Company H, under Captain Canfield J. Marsh, and Lieutenant George E. Dayton with C to perform additional reconnaissance.
On this day, September 3, 1863, House’s battalion was serving as the point for Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully’s expedition. Sully had come out to Dakota Territory in search of the hostile Sioux who had perpetrated the 1862 uprising that had cloaked southwestern Minnesota in a 37-day reign of terror. Although General John Pope, commanding the Department of the Northwest, had declared the Sioux War over in September 1862, he remained concerned that the hard core of Sioux resistance had fled west to Dakota Territory and would return the following summer. Acting on this premise, he resolved to crush any such movement before it fully developed.
Pope’s plan called for three columns of troops to move into the field simultaneously, catching the Sioux in a giant pincers movement—a strategy that was to be repeated several times during the Indian wars of the post–Civil War period. One column under Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley would march west from central Minnesota, while a second force would move up the Big Sioux River from Iowa. Due to a shortage of troops, however, this column was cancelled. The other expedition, commanded by Sully, would travel up the Missouri River from Fort Randall, near present-day Pickstown, S.D.
Sibley’s orders called for him to march northwest through the Devil’s Lake region. He was supposed to rendezvous with Sully in late July. The combined columns, it was believed, would then be strong enough to destroy the Indians’ effectiveness as a hostile force. Sully’s orders, meanwhile, directed him to move north along the Missouri River to his rendezvous point with Sibley near Devil’s Lake in present-day North Dakota.
After a late start, Sibley finally got underway in mid-June and during the course of the next six weeks clashed with the Sioux, first at Big Mound and a few days later at Dead Buffalo Lake and at Stony Lake. Although Sibley claimed victories, the Sioux managed to escape after each encounter. Finally, on August 1, having heard nothing from Sully and with supplies running low, Sibley decided to return to Minnesota.
Sully, meanwhile, had had his share of trouble. There had been a considerable holdup in obtaining a regiment of Nebraska volunteer cavalry, and low water in the Missouri was delaying the steamers bringing supplies to his advance base at Fort Pierre. He did not even reach the fort until July 25, the day he was scheduled to rendezvous with Sibley. Finally, on August 14, after much prodding by a chagrined Pope, Sully’s expedition got underway, moving north up the Missouri River, despite the fact that the steamboats had not yet arrived. Sully could only hope they would catch up with him at the mouth of the Little Cheyenne River.
Sully’s brigade was composed of the 6th Iowa Cavalry, commanded by Colonel David Wilson, eight companies of the 2nd Nebraska Cavalry under Colonel Robert Furnas and one company of the 7th Nebraska Cavalry. Also on hand was an eight-gun mountain howitzer battery, plus 75 wagons carrying supplies for 23 days. In all, Sully commanded a force of 1,200 men, including teamsters and scouts.
From the outset, it seemed there would be little difficulty in finding Indians. A Mackinaw boat was found adrift in the river, its passengers dead, and fresh signs grew more plentiful with each day’s northward march. On August 25, scouts brought in two Indian women and some children, who said that they were headed for the Crow Creek Agency south of Fort Pierre but had gotten lost. They also brought news of one of Sibley’s fights.
Three days later, the expedition came across a lame old Indian, who was apparently well known to whites in the Sioux City area. This old man, too, claimed to be lost; he said that hostiles had stolen his horse, and that Sibley was headed back to Minnesota. The old man’s story was at least partially confirmed when the column discovered one of Sibley’s old camp sites, now nearly a month old. This finding convinced Sully that Sibley had indeed left the field, in view of which he now had to decide whether to continue the campaign alone or return to Fort Pierre. Sully chose the latter course, but in doing so, elected to first march southeast toward the James River through the Coteau, a high, rolling plains country stretching from the Canadian border nearly to present-day South Dakota. Sully’s scouts reported that the area was a favorite hunting ground for the Sioux, and, indeed, signs pointed to Indians being in the general area. It was these reports that prompted Sully to send House’s battalion out on the scouting mission that had brought the Iowans to this place called Whitestone Hill (23 miles southeast of present-day Kulm, N.D.).
Shortly, Marsh and Dayton returned to confirm the earlier report, namely that it was a village of considerable size, containing possibly 1,500 warriors. In the face of this news, House promptly sent the scout La Framboise and two troopers from Company C back to advise Sully of his discovery and that reinforcements might be needed.
En route, La Framboise and his companions ran into a Sioux war party, which bragged that they had already fought Sibley and wondered why more soldiers now wanted to fight them. Why the Sioux did not kill La Framboise is puzzling; perhaps it was because of his mixed-blood heritage; but in any event, they did not attempt to interfere with his mission. No doubt with a great sigh of relief, the scout and his companions pressed on, reaching Sully’s bivouac area at about 4 p.m.
Young Private Theodore Sherman, Company L, 6th Iowa, who would celebrate his 18th birthday two weeks hence, recalled the events of that day many years later. “I well remember him [La Framboise] riding a staggering, winded horse into camp and frantically waving his cap,” wrote Sherman.
Advised of the situation, Sully immediately sounded “Boots and Saddles.” Major John Pearman, commanding the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Nebraska, was ordered to take charge of his own battalion, plus those men whose horses were too fatigued for field work, and remain in camp, placing the wagons in a corral. The remainder of the 2nd Nebraska—eight companies, 350 men—formed in the front of the brigade, while the 6th Iowa (less House’s battalion) was stationed in the rear. The single company of the 7th Nebraska, together with the howitzer battery, was placed in the center of the brigade. With these dispositions made, the brigade moved toward Whitestone Hill.
Originally, House had intended to surround the village and, in accordance with Sully’s orders, keep it contained until the brigade arrived. However, if the village was actually as large as these first reports indicated, House lacked the strength to carry out that order. Before proceeding any farther, he needed a clearer picture of the strength and disposition of the Indian camp.
Accordingly, while awaiting the arrival of Sully, House decided on a further reconnaissance. Captain L. Ainsworth with C Company was sent out to scout the left flank, supported by Marsh’s H Company. In due course, Ainsworth returned with the unsettling report of 10-to-1 odds in favor of the Indians. Captain Scott Shattuck with F Company was then sent off to the right on a similar mission and returned with equally disturbing news.
The Indians, meanwhile, were not unaware of the soldiers, and in the midst of House’s careful reconnaissance, a party of their headmen approached under a flag of truce and attempted to open negotiations. The Indians offered to surrender some of their leaders if the army would cease its pursuit, but without specific orders, House demanded unconditional surrender of the entire village, a demand that was quickly rejected by the Indians. House suspected trickery, but managed to keep the parley going while awaiting Sully’s arrival.
Led by the cunning and vindictive Inkpaduta, perpetrator of the 1857 Spirit Lake Massacre (see story in the February 2006 Wild West Magazine), and Chief Big Head, one of the principal leaders of the Minnesota bloodletting, the Sioux began to array themselves for battle, taunting House’s troops and boasting of their victory over Sibley. Even as the talks progressed, some of the Sioux were decorating themselves with war paint, preparing for battle, while noncombatants began to pack up, preparing for departure.
The situation was tense. The number of Indians confronting House gradually increased, curling around both flanks of his battalion, clearly outnumbering the Iowans. Meantime, General Sully arrived on the scene at about 5 p.m. in advance of the brigade, looked the situation over and concluded the threat was less than that perceived by House. From Sully’s perspective, the Indians appeared ready to scatter, and if there was one thing field commanders throughout the Indian wars strove to avoid, it was allowing an Indian village to break up and disperse.
Accordingly, Colonel Furnas was directed to bring his 2nd Nebraska forward at a gallop and form on the brigade’s left. At the same time, Colonel Wilson—with the other battalion of his regiment, commanded by Major J. Galligan—was sent out to the right of House’s battalion, where he would constitute the extreme right flank of the brigade. Sully kept two companies of the 6th Iowa and one of the 7th with him in the center position, along with the howitzer battery.
Out on the left flank, Furnas sent Major John Taffe’s 1st Battalion out still farther to the left, toward a ravine where the Sioux had been observed gathering in force. The ravine also offered a good avenue of escape, thus securing it became a priority. Taffe’s battalion on the far left moved to block the head of the ravine, while Captain D. LaBoo, operating on Taffe’s right, advanced toward the village dismounted. At a distance of 300 yards, LaBoo’s battalion opened fire, killing several Indians.
Sully’s arrival had enabled House to push forward, gaining the rear of the Indians now being engaged by the Nebraskans. Furnas, who could see House’s battalion off to his right, took advantage of that situation by ordering his own troops forward. At the same time, the 1st Battalion of the 6th Iowa was also pressing forward on the far right in support of House’s effort. Firing was heavy on both sides. Repeatedly, the Indians attacked both flanks of the Nebraskans, though without success and suffering heavy casualties in the process. But darkness was closing in and if Sully was to secure a victory here, he would have to do so quickly.
House, meanwhile, also being within visual range of the Nebraskans, was rather in the catbird seat. Advancing to within perhaps 100 yards of the Indian rear, he ordered his men to dismount and advance downhill toward the warriors, who were now flanked by Furnas’ Nebraskans and the 1st Battalion of the 6th Iowa and House’s battalion behind them.
At this juncture, Colonel Wilson suddenly moved up to take personal command of House’s battalion. Inexplicably, Wilson then ordered the battalion to mount. Perhaps he perceived an opportunity to wrap up a victory with a mounted charge before darkness shut the door. In this, however, he seems not to have been acting under any orders from Sully. Unfortunately, in his zeal to charge the Sioux, he neglected to have his troopers load their weapons. Advancing, first at a trot, then at a full gallop, the Iowans drove toward the Sioux. Some troopers, who had the foresight to load their weapons without any orders to do so, returned the fire.
As the Iowans charged, the Nebraska boys delivered a volley of their own, which according to one soldier did as much damage to the Iowans as it did the Indians. The exchange of fire at this point was intense, causing some of the horses to become unmanageable, breaking the integrity of the charge. Out in front of the battalion, Wilson’s horse received a fatal wound but carried its rider back to his lines. Whether ordered to do so or on his own volition, Major House wisely ordered his battalion to fall back and form a square, with their horses in the center.
Colonel Furnas also withdrew and regrouped on a line of hills 200 yards to the rear. It was now nearly full dark, and Furnas understandably feared that House’s men might inadvertently fire into his Nebraskans. The Sioux moved farther up the ravine and out of harm’s way for the moment.
The disposition of the Indians throughout the fight was more than a little confusing. To begin with, not all bands were concentrated in one single group, but rather were spread out, camped in the numerous hollows and ravines surrounding the high landmark known as Whitestone Hill. Thus, between the fading light and the dispersed Indians, the battlefield was at times chaotic. Meanwhile, even as Furnas and House were engaged, Sully advanced with the center of his line. While so doing, he encountered the Sioux leader Little Soldier, accompanied by some of his band. Little Soldier claimed to be innocent of any wrongdoing against the soldiers; Sully had him escorted to the rear. Resuming his advance, Sully then found Big Head and his band, the latter dressed for battle. Surrounding the chief’s lodges, Sully captured the chief and 30 warriors, as well as 90 women and children.
While Sully was engaged, he was suddenly made aware of firing to his left front, which was in fact House’s battalion attacking the rear of the Indians. In the midst of this, a report reached him that the Iowans had been repulsed. On the basis of this incorrect information, Sully fell back to higher ground, forming a line with the howitzers in the center. All along the brigade’s front, spirited firing continued, until full darkness brought an end to the action. It had been a “respectable engagement,” Sully later reported.
Unable to maneuver in the darkness, Sully had no choice but to re-form his command and prepare for the next day. Given another hour or two of daylight, he almost certainly would have scored a solid victory, but as things stood, the main body of Indians remained at large. On the whole, though, Sully had cause to be pleased with the conduct of the fight, save for Colonel Wilson’s performance, which surely left a sour taste in the general’s mouth. The brigade had suffered an estimated 14 killed and 34 wounded. As for the Indians, estimates ranged from 150 to 300 Santee, Yanktonai and Teton Sioux killed, but as always through the Indian wars, an accurate count of casualties is difficult. “There may have been more Indian casualties at Whitestone Hill than in any other fight in the West,” suggests Indian wars historian Gregory Michno. Whatever the number of Indian casualties, a great many warriors had managed to slip away under cover of darkness, and that was cause for chagrin.
The brigade camped that night on the battlefield, with horses corralled and pickets patrolling the perimeter, prepared for any retaliatory strike by the Indians. Private Theodore Sherman recalled this as “the most terrible night I ever spent.” He explained: “The Indians pillaged the battle-field and scalped the dead soldiers; dogs with travois strapped to their necks ran through the ranks; squaws were screaming and wailing. A major had his horse shot and he was found pinned to the ground. He was heard calling for help in the night, but it was thought to be an Indian who could talk a little English who was trying to decoy some of the ‘boys’ in order to scalp them. We found him the next morning stripped and terribly lacerated. He had just enough life to tell us the sad details.”
In the morning, Sully ordered the wagon train brought forward and sent out patrols to search the area for any remaining Indians. A few were rounded up, but most who had survived the battle were long gone. There was sign aplenty, attesting to many Indian casualties, and the patrols came across several travois pulled by dogs wandering aimlessly across the prairie. The brigade spent the next two days burning some 400,000-500,000 pounds of dried buffalo meat, plus 300 lodges. In all, there were 156 Indian prisoners, 32 of them warriors.
Sully believed he had inflicted a serious blow to the Indians and that if he had had sufficient provisions for another three weeks he would have been able to complete the victory begun at Whitestone Hill. As it was, though, he was compelled to return to his base at Fort Pierre, there to prepare for a second campaign the following summer.
Colorado author Jerry Keenan writes often about the western Indians and the Indian wars. Suggested for further reading: The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865, by Michael Clodfelter; and No Tears for the General: The Life of Alfred Sully, 1821-1879, by Langdon Sully. For information on the Whitestone Hill Battlefield State Historic Site, call 701-396-7731 or visit www.nd.gov/hist/whitestone.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.