As 150th anniversary approaches, association works to preserve Wood Lake battlefield
Just a few years after America's bloodiest military conflict, veterans from both sides turned to the federal government to preserve Civil War battlefields.
They wanted to remember those who gave their lives and to begin the process of reconciliation, according to Ed Bearss, chief historian emeritus for the National Park Service. Some 146 years after the U.S. and Dakota Conflict, the Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Association believes the time is long overdue to do the same.
"Like any wound you have to clean it out and get to the real causes of it,'' said Dr. Elden Lawrence, author and Dakota scholar with the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe of South Dakota, in cautioning how difficult the process will be.
Both Lawrence and Bearss, who is well known for his role in National Public Television's Civil War series, were among a host of speakers for the third annual symposium hosted Saturday in Granite Falls by the non-profit association. Started by nine people who joined to work toward preserving the battlefield, it now counts over 750 members, according to its president, Tom Hosier.
Today, only a one-acre monument at the site where Col. Henry Sibley and his troops camped commemorates the battle. The monument honors only the U.S. soldiers who fought there on Sept. 23, 1862.
Just a short distance away, on land owned by John and Muriel Coulter, Sibley and his 1,600 soldiers thwarted an attempted ambush by Dakota leader Little Crow and his braves. It was described as the decisive battle that brought about the end of the Conflict of 1862.
Bearss said the Civil War Preservation Trust has identified the battlefield as among 383 most-significant sites of 10,555 Civil War-era battlefields considered for preservation in the country.
Bearss said the story of the Battle of Wood Lake might best be told as part of an ongoing military campaign by the U.S. government against the Dakota. The campaign led to the Battle of Killdeer Mountain in June 1864. The full story could be told all the way to the Massacre at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890, he noted.
Gary Cavender of Granite Falls knows the stories of how the Dakota suffered from first-person accounts. Although he was born in 1939, Cavender told symposium participants during a panel discussion that he grew up hearing his family's own accounts of the Conflict. Little Crow and Chief Mazomani -- a peacemaker who was reportedly killed by cannon fire while carrying a flag of truce at the Battle of Wood Lake -- are among his ancestors.
He told how family members watched their grandmother hop from a wagon to lighten its load so they could move faster and escape harassment. When family members in the wagon realized what she had done, they turned to see soldiers surrounding her on the road some distance away.
They heard a popping noise and saw a cloud of smoke. They returned to find her fatally wounded body looking like "ground meat,'' he said.
"Why did they have to do that?'' asked Cavender. "She didn't cause the war.''
At war's end, all of the Dakota were expelled from Minnesota, though many had no role in the Conflict. Among those exiled and punished were many who risked their lives to save hundreds of white settlers and mixed-bloods, according to Lawrence, author of "The Peace Seekers: The Indian Christians and the Dakota Conflict.''
They were acting on their humanitarian and religious beliefs, and their desire to find a different solution to the wrongs they suffered, according to speakers at the symposium. "The Christian Indians came up with the only solution they could: to save as many victims as they could,'' Lawrence said.
They played an active role in protecting the hundreds of hostages held during the Conflict and handed over to Col. Sibley after the Battle of Wood Lake at Camp Release just outside of present day Montevideo.
Symposium participants heard the stories of how those lives were saved and toured the Camp Release site before joining for a closing ceremony at the Wood Lake monument.
There, Hosier told the crowd of over 100 that it is important to protect the actual battlefield as hallowed ground. We must remember those on both sides who came here "prepared to give their lives for what they believed,'' said Hosier.
He said he wants the battlefield site preserved so that future generations can know what happened here, and so that we all can learn from it and know where we are headed.