North Dakota Government site North Dakota Tourism site

Civil War Era in North Dakota

The North Dakota Studies program at the State Historical Society of North Dakota (SHSND) has developed three lessons to teach about the Civil War Era in North Dakota. These lessons will prepare the students to engage in discussions, debates, research, or writing assignments using primary documents, photographs and maps. High school or 8th grade teachers may find these lessons useful in courses on the Civil War, U.S. History, or North Dakota history.

The Civil War Era in North Dakota lessons have been aligned to the North Dakota Content and Achievement Standards for Social Studies.

Note: This interactive lesson requires Flash.  If the display doesn't fit correctly, right click Get the Flash Player
and select "show all."  Or click: Civil War Era  If you do not have Flash, you may access the Civil War Era in North Dakota lessons below.

Civil War Era in North Dakota

In Their Own Words

These quotations are taken from the diaries and letters of the soldiers in General Sibley's or General Sully's commands; form interviews with Dakotas; and from the Generals' reports to their superior officers. The words are written here as they were written in diaries, letters, and reports. The language is often offensive, but their words must be understood in the context of their times. Some soldiers acalled Indians 'red devils' or 'devils,' others called them 'savages.' These were common terms in the mid-19th century. Their langague was inspired by fear of an enemy they did not understand. The soldiers and officers wre concerned about 'winning' these battles. Then, as now, they determined who won by counting how many died on each side.

Primary documents should help us understand what people of another time thought. Their thoughts, espeically as they were recorded in a diary, were not necessarily facts. Their thoughts were also shaped by the political, social, moral, and military events and ideas of their day. Reading these excerpts from diaries shows us that each person in a battle had a different experience.

Clarifying notes are placed in brackets [... ], and if unimportant remarks are removed, ellipses (... ) mark the missing words.

Before the Battles

Article 5, Treaty of Fort Laramie, 1851.

“The territory of the Sioux or Dahcotah Nation, commencing the mouth of the White Earth River, on the Missouri River; thence in a southwesterly direction to the forks of the Platte River; thence up the north fork of the Platte River to a point known as the Red Buts, or where the road leaves the river; thence along the range of mountains known as the Black Hills, to the head-waters of Heart River; thence down Heart River to its mouth; and thence down the Missouri River to the place of beginning.”

Hunkpapas to the federal Indian agent at Fort Berthold, July 2, 1862: "The whites in this country have been threatening us with soldiers.  All we ask of you is to bring men, and not women dressed in soldiers’ clothes.”

Pope’s Order to Sibley, September 28, 1862. “It is idle and wicked, in view of the atrocious murders these Indians have committed, in the face of treaties and without provocation, to make treaties or talk about keeping faith with them.  The horrible massacres of women and children and the outrageous abuse of female prisoners, still alive, call for punishment beyond human power to inflict.  There will be no peace in this region by virtue of treaties and Indian faith.  It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so and even if it requires a campaign lasting the whole of next year.  Destroy everything belonging to them and force them out to the plains, unless, as I suggest, you can capture them.  They are to be treated a maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.”

1863 Sibley Expedition

Daniels: Sunday, June 28th.

“On account of depredations committed at Indian graves the guard instructions are very strict, and none can pass the lines without special permission.”

Daniels: July 10th.

“The drouth has been so terrible that it is thought hardly possible to proceed to Devils Lake.”

Oscar Wall: July 27th.

“Left camp this a.m.  This trail water poor and no grass at all   horses and mules playing out very fast.”

Daniels: July 28th, Camp Slaughter on Apple Creek.

“We should be exhausted with the severe marching, entrenching and guarding.”

Daniels: August 1.

“Homeward Bound!”



1863 Sully Expedition

General Pope to General Sully, August 5.

“Such a failure as you anticipate must not happen as it will be impossible for you to explain it satisfactorily.”

General Pope to Henry W. Halleck, General-in-Chief of the Union Armies.

“General Sully has not made the progress which was expected of him, and which it was in his power to have made.”

General Sully to Headquarters, Report on Expedition against the Indians in Dakota, September 11, 1863.

“. . . the guides who were acquainted with the country stated that ‘a large body of Indians could not live on the other side [west side of the Missouri River] long without going a great distance west; that always at this season of the year the Indians camped on the Coteau, near the tributaries of the James [River], where the numerous lakes or springs kept the grass fresh; here the buffalo were plenty, and the lakes and streams full of fish; and that here they prepared their meat for the winter, moving to the Missouri, where the fuel was plenty , to winter.’  I therefore determined to change my course toward the east, to move rapidly, and go as far as my rations would allow.”</p>";

Drips: July 1863:

“General Sully had promised to show us some Indians to fight before we got back.”

Big Mound, Dead Buffalo Lake, and Stony Lake

Daniels: July 24th.

The men “were eager for a fight.”

Daniels: July 26th.

The troops halted at Dead Buffalo Lake to camp. “Indians were immediately in our front on ponies, riding backward and forward, and evidently trying to feel us a little or draw us on. Guns were fired occasionally by them, and once in a while a response made by our skirmishers.” It was “sort of a play fight.” When the artillery was fired, “as soon as they [Dakotas] saw the smoke – before the shell reached them they made another beautiful “skedaddle.”

Daniels: July 28th:

[As the soldiers broke camp that morning they heard the Howitzers (cannons).] “Almost in a moment we saw the Indians on the hills all about us and evidently having designed to surprise us in camp, but they were too late.”

Daniels: July 29th.

Camp Slaughter. “I don’t know whether the day’s developments have closed the drama of this campaign or not; tomorrow and General Sibley must prove that; but certain it is that after all our toil, weariness and scanty fare, the savages have eluded our grasp.  We scarcely slept last night, working away in the moonlight, wearied as we were, throwing up great earthworks, while our foe was, with the greatest rapidity, making his escape.” There was “loud and constant firing [across the river.] the [Dakotas] firing . . . in triumph after their successful retreat. . . .”

“There they were, on the bluffs, in swarms, quietly viewing us, and we halted and returned the compliment. Both seemed to realize that the farce was finished – they evidently enjoying the thought with gladness, and we with great bitterness.”

“We must sleep.  All, I think are sick of Indians and Indian war.”

Whitestone Hill

Major A. E. House Report, September 1863.

In camp on battle-field of White Stone Hill. “[While some soldiers completed a reconnaissance,] the chiefs came in under a flag of truce and attempted a negotiation.  They offered to surrender some of their chiefs; but as the commandant did not know who was entitled to speak by authority, he demanded the unconditional surrender of all.  This the Indians refused to do, and having sent away their squaws and papooses, together with their stock of provisions, they placed themselves in battle array.”

Sam Brown to Joseph R. Brown:  November 13, 1863.

“I hope you will not believe all that is said of ‘Sully’s Successful Expedition’ against the Sioux.  I don’t think he ought to brag of it at all, because it was, what no decent man would have done, he pitched into their camp and just slaughtered them, worse a great deal than what the Indians did in 1862 [in Minnesota], he killed very few men and took no hostile men prisoners. . . . and now he returns saying that we need fear no more for he has ‘wiped out all hostile Indians from Dakota.’  If he had killed men instead of women and children, then it would have been a success, and the worse of it, they had no hostile intention whatever, the Nebraska 2nd pitched into them without orders, while the Iowa 6th were shaking hands with them on the one side.”

Sully to Headquarters, Report on Expedition against the Indians in Dakota, September 11, 1863.

“On reaching near the ground [the Dakota village at White Stone Hill] I found that the enemy were leaving and carrying off what plunder they could.”

Drips: September 4, 1863:

“The defeat of the Indians was the worse from the fact that they had made this camp on purpose to put up their winter’s meat and the season being pretty well over they had a very large quantity on hand, all of which was destroyed. To show the extent of their loss in a measure I will just say that it took a party of 100 men two days to gather the stuff and burn it.”

Caldwell: September 4, 1863:

“Sully ordered all property destroyed, tepees, buffalo skins, and all their things, including tons and tons of dried buffalo meat and tallow.  It was gathered in wagons, piled in a hollow and burned, and the melted tallow ran down that valley in a stream.  Hatchets, camp kettles, and all things that would sink were thrown into a small lake.”

Pierce: September 4, 1863:

“I don’t think there ever had been a battle so fierce and destructive to any one tribe as this, we captured a good many of their ponies, all that they needed to make themselves comfortable such as tools for tanning their hides, beads, paints, porcupine quills and trinkets of every name and shape . . . buffalo jerk meat, tens of thousands of pounds nice sweet and good was consigned to the flames and their property kettles, dishes, robes, and trinkets . .. went on the same pile.”

Sully to Headquarters, Report on Expedition against the Indians in Dakota, September 11, 1863.

“. . . the encampment was very large, mustering at least 1,200 warriors.  This is what the Indians say they had, but I, as well as everybody in the command, say over 1,500 [warriors].”

Sully to Headquarters, Report on Expedition against the Indians in Dakota, September 11, 1863.

“[the captives] told Mr. La Framboise, the guide, when he was surrounded by about 200 of them, that ‘they had fought General Sibley, and they could not see why the whites wanted to come to fight them, unless they were tired of living and wanted to die.’”

Sully to Headquarters, Report on Expedition against the Indians in Dakota, September 11, 1863.

“After marching about 130 miles we reached the mouth of the Little Cheyenne on the 11th, where I found the steamboat I had ordered to be there on the 8th [of this month.]  It was lucky she was there, for without the grain she brought up I could not have brought my empty wagons back [because the horses were weak from hunger], for some miles north of Cheyenne and to [Fort] Pierre the grass now is about all gone. . . . I am afraid the loss of horses and mules will be considered very great, but it could not be helped.  When I found it impossible for the rear guard to get an animal along, I had it killed, to prevent its falling into the hands of the enemy.”

Killdeer Mountain

Robinson, October 11, 1864.

At Killdeer Mountain “the troops prepared themselves with plenty of ammunition. . . . I was a little excited.  The quartermaster, surgeon and some others took a drink of whisky, the quartermaster asked me to take a drink.  I told him no, that I would trust my native courage. . .”

Fanny Kelly:

“The next morning the whole village was in motion. The warriors were going to battle against a white enemy, they said, and old men, women, and children were sent out in another direction to a place of safety, as designated by the chief.  Every thing was soon moving. With the rapidity of custom the tent-poles were lowered and the tents rolled up. The cooking utensils were put together, and laid on cross-beams connecting the lower ends of the poles as they trail the ground from the horses' sides, to which they are attached. Dogs, too, are made useful in this exodus, and started off, with smaller burdens dragging after them, in the same manner that horses are packed.”

“I had no means of informing myself at that time with whom the war was raging, but afterward learned that General Sully's army was pursuing the Sioux, and that the engagement was with his men. In three days the Indians returned to camp, and entered on a course of feasting and rejoicing, that caused me to believe that they had suffered very little loss in the affray.”

John Henry Strong, July 29, 1864.

“We went back to their encampment where one regiment was sent to burn their property.  Late in the afternoon, 4 Companies more were sent for the same purpose while others were either on guard or shooting the dogs, some ponies and colts were captured.  The property is immense and would have sold for a number of thousands of dollars if it could have been brought off, but we could not do so and therefore we destroyed it.  It will take a great time for them to gather together again as much as we have destroyed.”

Leonard Aldrich.

“This whole thing is one confounded humbug.  10,000 such expeditions would have no tendency to subdue those hostile Indians, we have only made them mad like sticking a long stick into a hornets nest.”


“I would rather destroy their supplies than kill fifty of their warriors.”

Fort Dilts – Fisk Wagon Train

Captain James Fisk.

“The son of the old chief of the band . . . rushed upon the lines several times with fifteen to twenty men, but a single volley from our boys on the hill to the right and left would hurl them back in confusion.  Finally he dashed deliberately alone, up to within seventy five yards of our [rifle] pits, when he received a ball through the heart, and as he fell, several of his braves rushed out to recover his body, so strong is their habit or pledge of burying of their dead.  But they too bit the dust. . . .”

Captain Fisk.

“When [the bodies of Indians who had eaten the poisoned bread] were discovered around our entrenched camp, and the Indians themselves, having confessed on the truce ground, that they had lost half their tribe by bad bread and bullets, I understood how that deep hate and thirst for revenge that justly has possession of the hearts of Minnesotans had done this work.”

William Larned. September 10, 1864.

“Our late disaster [battle at Deep Creek and Fort Dilts] was the result of inexcusable negligence and disregard of a promise [Fisk] made to all the Sunday previous.  Which was no teams should be left in the rear in case of a break or other mishap.”

Fanny Kelly’s note to Fisk.

“Makatunke says he will not fight wagons, for they have been fighting for two days.  They had many killed by the goods [bread] they brought into camp.  They tell me what to write.  I do not understand them. . . . They say for the soldiers to give 40 head of cattle. Hehutalunca says he fight not.  But they have been fighting.  Be kind to them and try to free me for mercy’s sake.  I was taken by them on July 12th. . . . Unkpapas . . . say for the wagons. . . to go on.  But I fear the result of this battle.  The Lord have mercy.”

Fanny Kelly.

[Fisk replied, doubting her identity.  She responded]:  I am truly a white woman . . .  They say they will not fight, but don’t trust them.  . . . They say they want you to give them sugar, coffee, flour, gunpowder, but give them nothing till you can see me for yourself. . . . They want four wagons . . . 40 cattle to eat. . . . They want you to come here; you know better than that. . . . They say this is their ground.  They say go home and come back no more.”

Battle of the Badlands

Sully. August 6, 1864.

[describing the badlands] “This is Hell with the fires put out.”

John Henry Strong. August 8, 1864.

“The batteries were got into position and commenced throwing shell among the groups gathered together on the hills.  Our boys were driving them out of the ravines.  Occasionally one was seen to fall from his pony. . . . There weapons were bows and arrows, but few of them having guns they were driven back in all directions and the train moved on again, they rushing in every chance they could get, but they could not do much damage.  When we fell back toward the train they would rush up bravely and make their boast that they had been joined by 500 more warriors.  We drove them and when we reached our camping ground we found but very little water or thin mud in a couple of holes.  We were surrounded with hills, and these were covered with Indians.  Our ponies had no water and nothing to eat during the day.”

Sitting Bull. August 1864.

[to the Hunkpapas] “Let them [the soldiers] go home.”

Sitting Bull’s dialog with unknown Army scout, August 8, 1864.

Indian scouts with Sully called out:  “We are about thirsty to death and want to know what Indians are you.”

Sitting Bull: “Hunkpapas, Sans Arcs, Yanktonais, and others.  Who are you?”

Unknown scout:  “Some Indians with the soldiers and one Indian badly shot through the arm. [The soldiers are hungry and thirsty] so just stay around and they will be dead.”

Sitting Bull: “You have no business with the soldiers. The Indians here have no fight with the whites.  Why is it that the whites come to fight with the Indians.  We have to kill you and dry you to death.”

John Henry Strong, August 11, 1864.

“This is the severest day of the expedition.  Our company was rear guard, too, and we had a good chance to see the results of the last few days marching without feed for our animals.  Horses, mules and oxen were left behind. They would [fall] down and lay there and when we came up to them, if they could not be made to travel our orders were to shoot them, and our road today will be marked with their skeletons. . . .  We saw women belonging to the Idaho train pulling grass among the brush in the ravines forgetting the Indians, in their anxiety to save their cattle.  They watered them out of the kegs they had on the wagons and after all were obliged to leave some of their cattle behind.  The water where we camped was strongly impregnated with salts.”

Maj. Ebenezer Rice. August 11, 1864.

“I hear some bitter complaints against the management of Gen. Sully.  Were I to say anything it certainly would be strong language.”

Documents & Maps

Note: These documents require flash. Click images to enlarge

Jerome King's Enlistment Papers

King's Enlistment Paper

1862 JB Maps

1862 JB Maps
Fort Rice Sketch

Fort Rice Sketch

Larned Sketch Larned Sketch
Whitestone Hill Topographic Map  
  Judge Austin Letter 1
  Judge Austin Letter 2
  Judge Austin Letter 3










Image Credits

  1. Fort Dilts  SHSND 2003-P-10-0095f 
  2. Andrew Burke  SHSND A1440-02 
  3. General Alfred Sully  SHSND 0123-29 
  4. General H. H. Sibley  SHSND A3200 
  5. General John Pope SHSND A4269.
  6. George Northrup  SHSND C0003-2 
  7. Sitting Bull SHSND 1952-7445 
  8. Two Bears SHSND 0004-024 
  9. Matilda Galpin  SHSND 1952-1457 
  10. Fort Rice  SHSND C1628-post 
  11. Whitestone Hill  Harper’s  SHSND 10548-1-4 
  12. Sully’s Artillery  SHSND 0004-08 
  13. Sully’s Camp  SHSND 0004-09 
  14. Killdeer Mountain  by Quirk  SHSND 0140-0006 
  15. Sibley’s Expedition Harpers  9-12-1863 
  16. Beaver’s Grave with veterans  SHSND A1293 
  17. Fort Rice with veterans  SHSND 00239-145
  18. Whitestone Hill dedication.  SHSND E0924 
  19. Whitestone Hill Monument SHSND 0739-v1-p61d 
  20. Whitestone Hill Indian monument  SHSND 0004-046 
  21. Soldiers Home, early – SHSND A5456 
  22. Soldiers Home Civil War Statue  SHSND A1429-1 
  23. Whitestone Hill by Takes His Shield.  SHSND Whitestone Color  
  24. Travois.  SHSND 0739-v1-p52a 
  25. Fort Dilts drawing by H. H. Larned.  SHSND A85 
  26. Fort Rice drawing  SHSND 1996.32
  27. Image of Frontier Scout 6.15.1865 SHSND
  28. Homestead.  SHSND 0032-WD-08-09.   
  29. Administration Building at ND Agricultural College. SHSND 0770-013.  
  30. NPRR Train SHSND C1084-NPRR-1883.  
  31. Aaron McGaffey Beede SHSND C0295. 
  32. Miller’s Grave.  SHSND  7/7/2009
  33. William Jayne.  SHSND E0962 
  34. Newton Edmunds SHSND A2848 
  35. Island Park Statue.  Courtesy Fargo Parks Department.  
  36. Sibley’s Expedition on the Coteau.  Harper’9.12.1863


Aldrich, Leonard.  Aldrich was a member of the 8th Minnesota Infantry serving with Sully at Killdeer Mountain.  He wrote to his family about his experiences.

Brown, Sam.  Letter to Joseph R. Brown.  13 November 1863.  Joseph R. Brown Papers, Minnesota Historical Society.  Sam Brown, 19, worked as an interpreter at Crow Creek reservation.  Joseph R. Brown was his father.  Sam Brown, whose mother Susan Freniere was Sisseton, was 1/8 Sisseton Dakota.  The Brown’s home was burned in the US Dakota War and Sam, his siblings, and his mother were captured by the Dakotas.  Brown was employed as interpreter and superintendent of scouts at Fort Wadsworth until 1866.

Caldwell, F.E.  Caldwell was a soldier with the 2nd Nebraska Cavalry.  He wrote his memoir forty years after the battle.  His words were quoted in Richard Rowen, ed.  “The 2nd Nebraska’s Campaign  Against the Sioux,” Nebraska History 44:1 (March 1963): 3-4.

Daniels, Arthur.  A Journal of Sibley’s Indian Expedition During the Summer of 1863 and Record of the Troops Employed.  Minneapolis: James D. Thueson, Publisher, 1980.  Daniels was an private infantry soldier in Company H, 6th Minnesota Regiment.  His diary was published several months after his return to Minnesota, and republished in 1980.  Daniels died of disease in 1864 when his regiment was sent to fight in Arkansas and Missouri.

Drips, J. H. Three Years Among the Indians in Dakota.  New York: Sol Lewis, 1974. quoted in Clair Jacobson, Whitestone Hill: The Indians and the Battle. LaCrosse: Pine Tree Publishing, 1991.  Private Drips was an enlisted soldier.

Fisk, James L.  Fisk led the wagon train that built Fort Dilts.  These quotations are excerpts from his official report of January 13, 1865.

House, Major A. E. House was a subordinate to General Sully.  His reports on the efforts of his troops were sent to Sully and on to headquarters.  These are part of the Records of the War of the Rebellion.

Kelly, Fanny.  Kelly was captured by Dakotas in July 1864.  Between that day and her release in December, she lived with two different Dakota families.  After her release she wrote her memoir Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux.  These quotations are from her book, pages 275 -278.

Larned, William.  Larned was a merchant traveling to Bozeman, Idaho Territory with 8 wagon loads of goods to sell to miners.  With him was his son Horatio who herded the cattle outside of Fort Dilts for a couple of hours each day, William’s wife Julia who tended the wounded in their tent, and several employees.  Larned kept a diary during the journey and over the next winter that he spent with his wife at Fort Rice.  Ray H. Mattison, ed. “The Fisk Expedition of 1864: The Diary of William L. Larned.”  North Dakota History 36:3 (Summer 1969): 209 – 274.

Pierce, a Captain, rode with the 2nd Nebraska Cavalry.  He is quoted in Rowen (see Caldwell).;

Pope, General John.  Pope’s orders are included in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. These records are available online.

Rice, Ebenezer O.  Major Rice kept a diary of the expedition which is now in the Minnesota Historical Society Collections, M646.

Robinson, J. E.  Robinson was a soldier with Sully in 1864.  The quotations are from a letter he wrote about the battle October 11, 1864.  Robinson later became a banker in Steele, ND.

Sitting Bull.  Sitting Bull’s words were remembered by White Bull who repeated them in an interview with Stanley Vestal.  Robert Utley, The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1993, and Stanley Vestal, Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957.

Strong, John Henry.  Strong served as a corporal with the 8th Minnesota Infantry, Company A.  He kept a diary of his experiences in 1864.  Minnesota State Historical Society Collections P1369.

Sully, General Alfred.  Sibley’s reports to his superiors are recorded in the Records of the War of the Rebellion.

Wall, Oscar.  Wall, an enlisted soldier, kept a diary of the expedition which has been microfilmed by the Minnesota Historical Society, Collection M582, Reel 3.  These records have been copied and are also located in the Archives of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Mss 20181.