Bringing Peace after Destruction: Civil War Era Monuments and the Memory of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

Bringing Peace after Destruction: Civil War Era Monuments and the Memory of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

As the fall semester loomed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, protesters ignited a movement to remove “Silent Sam,” an infamous memorial dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913. The monument honored students who served in the Confederate armed forces during the Civil War. After the anguish of Charleston in 2015 and Charlottesville in 2017, some community members urged the university to remove “Sam,” which had become a rallying point for local activists. By 2018, the perception of the bronze shrine transformed into an eyesore, sparking local debates around the campus that fit into a much larger movement around the United States to remove Lost Cause memorials.[1] On August 20, 2018, protestors toppled the monument, which altered the way students interacted with Civil War memory on their campus.

While Confederate shrines have kindled public debates in the last few years, monuments are not new points of contention. As many argued against Jim Crow segregation and for civil rights in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, Native peoples began addressing monuments glorifying white gallantry and Native suffering in a war that coincided with the Civil War. Hundreds of miles away from the combat at Second Bull Run or Antietam, Minnesotans rallied to fend off displaced and starved Mdewankaton Dakota. After the U.S. government broke treaties and failed to issue annuity payments to the Dakota on time, havoc and death flooded the Minnesota River Valley. Hundreds of whites and Dakotans perished in both battles and imprisonment, and by the end of September 1862, the federal army quelled remaining Dakota attacks.[2]

An 1883 lithograph depicting the execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By the time of their surrender, the Dakota people faced further displacement and even execution. After the mass hanging of thirty-eight Dakota men in Mankato on December 26, 1862, this region experienced political and cultural unrest, leading to a series of expeditions to hunt down and kill all those who did not abide by federal policy and fled imprisonment. By 1863, the Dakota had lost all possession of their traditional homeland; no longer could they honor their ancestors or commemorate those executed in 1862.

At the fiftieth anniversary of the mass hanging, Mankato welcomed a new addition to their historical landscape. Community members gathered around a new granite monument which read “Here Were Hanged 38 Sioux Indians,” a public display continuing the notion of Native defeat in the region.[3] The monument held historical value to the white population, as many believed that it offered the public a clear understanding of a valued event in American history: thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged for their brutal actions against peaceful Minnesotans, which for the longest time was the master narrative in remembering the conflict.[4] In fact, the monument displayed the chronicle of brutality, suffering, and death on the spot where the Dakota men hanged, which they wanted contemporary Natives to remember.

A photo of the Mankato Hanging Monument in 1918. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

As Minnesotans defended this monument, Native people sought change to the landscape to offer not only reconciliation between the Native and non-Native communities, but also a space to honor their fallen ancestors.[5] By the 1950s, Native people insisted on a revision of the public displays that dotted the map around Mankato. While other monuments glorified the white victor, opponents of the “Hanging Monument” headed the movement to alter the historical consciousness. Activists led protests, yet Mankato officials did not budge—besides moving the monument to a more publicly visible location near the interstate in 1965. Not only did this monument provide a biased history of the Dakota War, but visitors to Mankato now saw the shrine as they entered town. Fed up with the bureaucracy, activists painted and poured red paint on the Hanging Monument, symbolizing the brutality the Dakota endured during the nineteenth century.

Official opinions did not change as red paint flowed down the sides of the monument; however, national movements ushered change into the region. The American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) and Vietnam War protests of the 1970s sparked a new interpretation on remembering the past.[6] For example, as civil rights and identity debates flourished around the United States, Minnesota State University students began to debate the school’s mascot, the Indians, as a way to offer ideas of inclusion and diversity. Coinciding with these protest movements, university drama guild students staged a play that provided a discourse on “white man’s mistreatment of the Indians.” After the dramatic rendition of Indian suffering, a display which “plagued audience members’ consciousness,” the actors brought out a replica Hanging Monument to prove how Mankato played a role in America’s colonization and forced assimilation of Native people. An observer of the play mentioned, “We are all sick and tired and sad… and I felt along with the rest of the audience that we also should fight no more forever.”[7] Mankato residents felt the need to not only move forward, but also display their past accurately and impartially. After these events the city relocated the monument, not from community pressure, but because of impending construction work. Since removal, no one knows what happened to the monument—it was buried, destroyed, or hidden out of shame—and many Dakota are okay with that. Verna Wabasha, a retired State Indian Affairs Commission Worker, added that it’s a “derogatory rock, and it should stay buried.”[8]

“Forgive Everything Anyone” is written on a bench at Reconciliation Park, with ceremonial objects attached to the Scroll Monument. Photo courtesy of the author.

On the ground that once provided space for the Hanging Monument, a new park sits to bring reconciliation and peace to all those living in Mankato. Reconciliation Park hosts three monuments: a large bison stands tall, representing an accurate rendition of Dakota culture and the prime animal they hunted; the Winter Warrior monument stands in remembrance of the 125th anniversary of the mass hanging; and a large scroll lists the names of the thirty-eight men executed.[9] Every year during the “38 plus 2 Memorial Ride” the monuments transform from physical reminders to objects of honor, remembrance, and commemoration. Men and women from the Lower Brule Indian Reservation in South Dakota journey hundreds of miles to commemorate their fallen ancestors. The trek ends at Reconciliation Park, where the participants tie, lay, and secure mementos on the monuments which stay safely fastened until the next year’s remembrance ride. In the town that brought death and displacement to the Dakota people, the visual interpretations and anti-Indian displays bring peace to the community and honor those who survived and endured white colonization.[10]

Removing Confederate monuments is a fraught process; one side wants to honor their historical past, while the other side argues against the violence and racism associated with that memory. While there is a difference between Lost Cause shrines and monuments that embodied a notion of white victory over Native peoples, the way in which they extol hatred troubles our movement towards a comprehensive understanding of history. Monuments always shape public memory of the past, but instead of relying on public displays of commemoration, we should work to find healing by telling inclusive stories. Communities like Mankato have reconciled and pushed for peace to understand America’s troubled past—a process that communities with Lost Cause monuments should not ignore.

 

[1] “Confederate Monument,” UNC Graduate School, accessed August 20, 2018, http://gradschool.unc.edu/funding/gradschool/weiss/interesting_place/landmarks/sam.html.

[2] Aaron Sheehan-Dean, ed., A Companion to the U.S. Civil War: Volume 1 (West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2014), 380-381.

[3] “A Gruesome Monument,” Willmar Tribune, Willmar, Minnesota, November 13, 1912, 2; Melodie Andrews, “The U.S.-Dakota War in Public Memory and Public Space: Mankato’s Journey Towards Reconciliation,” in The State We’re In: Reflections on Minnesota History, eds. Annette Atkins and Deborah L. Miller (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010), 52.

[4] Gary Clayton Anderson and Alan R. Woolworth, Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988), 1.

[5] Atkins and Miller, 57.

[6] Ibid., 54.

[7] Marion Struzyk, “Indians brings guilt home,” MSC Daily Reporter, Mankato, Minnesota, June 2, 1971.

[8] Dan Linehan, “Students search for missing monument as part of history class,” The Free Press, Mankato, Minnesota, May 14, 2006.

[9] Atkins and Miller, 56-57.

[10] Ibid.; Tim Krohn, “38 plus 2 memorial ride begins,” The Free Press, Mankato, Minnesota, December 22, 2011; Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, “Introduction: Manipi Hena OWas’in Wicunkiksuyapi (We Remember All Those Who Walked),” American Indian Quarterly 28, no. 1/2 Special Issues: Empowerment Through Literature (Winter-Spring 2004): 158; Atkins and Miller, 57.

John R. Legg

John R. Legg is a graduate student at Virginia Tech studying Native Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Alongside his studies, John also works as a graduate assistant with Paul Quigley in the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. His current research focuses on the public memory and commemoration of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and its connection to Civil War history.

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