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Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site

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Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site commemorates a battle fought on July 28, 1864, between troops commanded by General Sully and a gathering of Teton, Yanktonai, and Dakota (Sioux) Indians. The army had returned to northern Dakota Territory seeking Dakota Indians, who had escaped from the 1863 battle at Whitestone Hill (see Whitestone Hill). This assault on an Indian trading village in the Killdeer Mountains was part of the military reprisals against the Sioux that followed the Dakota Conflict of 1862 in Minnesota. Many of the participants, however, were Teton, who were not involved in the Dakota Conflict. The Killdeer Mountain Battlefield is eight and one-half miles northwest of Killdeer, Dunn County.

On the afternoon of July 26, 1864, General Sully, with 2,200 troops supported by several artillery batteries, left a wagon train at the Heart River and began a march to an Indian village in the Killdeer Mountains (see Sully’s Heart River Corral). That afternoon, military scouts fought a brief skirmish with a scouting party of Indians, but the troops pushed on.

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About 11:00 a.m. on July 28, scouts raced back to the column, which had stopped for breakfast on the north side of present-day Killdeer, and told Sully that they had found an Indian camp of about 1,600 to 1,800 lodges a few miles ahead. To assure a combat-ready advance, Sully immediately rearranged the marching order of the command into a phalanx, a huge, hollow square that extended a mile and a quarter on each side. Inside the square were two batteries of artillery, transport wagons, ambulances, and the command staff. Because the terrain was too broken and rough for concerted cavalry maneuvers, much of the cavalry dismounted to fight on foot. Every fourth man took the reigns of his mount and three other horses and waited inside the square until needed.

In this formation, the column started off toward the village site. After four or five miles, the army confronted the Indians, who were arrayed across a shallow valley and along the top of low ridges to the north and the south of the valley. Stories differ about who fired the first shot, but events rapidly unfolded. As the troops drew closer, long lines of Indian warriors rode along the flanks of the phalanx circling around to the rear. Feints and counter-feints were attempted on both sides, as small skirmish lines formed and drifted away from the main column; however, the soldiers’ phalanx continued to move inexorably toward the Indian encampment.

At one point, cannons were brought forward to clear onlookers from a prominent hill, which stood squarely in the line’s advance. At another point, an Indian scouting party, returning to the village, threatened the supply wagons at the rear of the phalanx, until another battery was rushed back to support the harried rear line. Foot by painful foot, the soldiers advanced, and inch by inch, the Indians yielded.

As the day wore on and it became apparent that the full force of both sides were unlikely to engage in a pitched battle, Major Brackett led a cavalry charge that broke the Indian line and drove it into forested breaks in front of and beside the village. Meanwhile, a battery of cannons secured a position overlooking the village. From this vantage point, the cannons literally tore the village and the Indians’ forward lines apart. The troops surrounded the village on three sides and advanced toward the center of the ever-tightening circle.

A battery of field guns, set up to the north, shelled the Indians out of the forested gullies behind the village and onto the exposed hillsides. Seeing that they no longer had any chance of repelling the troops, the Indians abandoned their village and tried to escape over the steep, rugged terrain to the rear. As their families climbed to safety, the warriors valiantly defended them until darkness silenced the guns.

The following morning, Sully left approximately 700 men at the village site to collect and destroy all abandoned materials. With the rest of his troops, he set out to find and kill the Indians who escaped attack, but he was defeated by the deep canyons and steep buttes of the badlands. Soldiers burned between 1,500 and 1,800 lodges, 200 tons of buffalo meat and dried berries, clothes and household utensils, tipi poles, travois, and piles of tanned hides. With bayonets, they punctured camp kettles, buckets, and pails. They also shot abandoned dogs.

Leaving this scene of smoldering devastation at about 4:00 p.m., the troops marched six to eight miles back along their trail. That night, Indians attacked the soldiers’ picket line killing two soldiers, Privates David La Plant and Anton Holzgen, Company D, 2nd Minnesota Cavalry. Later that night, Sergeant Isaac Winget, Company G, 6th lowa Cavalry, was shot and killed by a nervous sentry. Although Sergeant Winget’s body was never found, the other two men were buried the following day in a little valley near the scene of their deaths, and Sully’s command returned to the base camp and wagon train at the Heart River.

Although the destructive force of the Battle of Killdeer Mountain was nearly as profound as that of the Battle of Whitestone Hill, the survivors still had time before the onset of winter to replace some of the their belongings. Probably the most significant outcome was the expansion of bitterness and distrust between Indians and whites on the northern plains. This battle solidified the antagonism of those Indians, especially of the Teton, who had not participated in the Dakota Conflict of 1862, toward the encroaching whites and committed them to continued warfare, which would have dramatic consequences in the years to come.

The modern-day site bears considerable resemblance to the historic battlefield, despite modern intrusions of roads, fences, farms, and ranches. Set against the scenic backdrop of the Killdeer Mountains, a sandstone slab monument and flagpole mark part of the July 28, 1864, battlefield. Two headstones honor soldiers killed in the conflict, Sergeant George Northrup, Company C, and Private Horace Austin, Company D, Brackett’s Battalion, Minnesota Cavalry. An unpaved parking lot is separated from the site by a log barrier.

Although not part of the state historic site, headstones have also been erected at the burial place of Private La Plant and Private Holzgen, a few miles from the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield.

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