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Battle of the Badlands

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Battle of Badlands
Part of the Sioux Wars and the Trans-Mississippi Theater of the American Civil War
Date7–9 August 1864
Result United States victory
United States of America Hunkpapa
Sans Arc
Commanders and leaders
Alfred Sully Sitting Bull
2,200 ~ 1,000
Casualties and losses
~13 dead and wounded ~U.S. estimate 100 dead and wounded (but probably only a few)

The Battle of the Badlands was fought in Dakota Territory, in what is now western North Dakota, between the United States army led by General Alfred Sully and the Lakota, Yanktonai, and the Dakota Indian tribes.[1][2] The battle was fought August 7–9, 1864 between what are now Medora and Sentinel Butte, North Dakota. It was an extension of the conflict begun in the Dakota War of 1862. Sully successfully marched through the badlands encountering only moderate resistance from the Sioux.

General Alfred Sully
General Alfred Sully


In the aftermath of the Dakota War of 1862, the U.S. government continued to punish the Sioux, including those who had not participated in the war. Large military expeditions into Dakota Territory in 1863 pushed most of the Sioux to the western side of the Missouri River and made safer the frontier of white settlement in Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas. An important impetus to another military campaign against the Sioux was the desire to protect lines of communication with recently discovered goldfields in Montana and Idaho. The lifeline for the American gold miners were steamboats plying the Missouri River through the heart of Sioux territory.[3]

During the winter of 1863-1864, Sully's superior, Major General John Pope ordered Sully to establish several forts along the Missouri River and in the eastern Dakotas to secure the communication routes to the goldfields and to eliminate the Sioux threat to the settlers east of the Missouri River. Sully's army was the largest ever assembled to combat the Plains Indians, comprising more than 4,000 men, many of them in support and supply roles along the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.[4]

Sully established Fort Rice on the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota on July 7, 1864. From there, he led 2,200 men into western Dakota Territory. In the Battle of Killdeer Mountain on July 28, Sully defeated about 1,600 Sioux warriors. After the battle the Sioux, along with their women and children, scattered into the Badlands west of Killdeer Mountain, near where the present-day South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located. The Dakota badlands are characterized by "deep, impassable ravines" and "high rugged hills."[5]

Although running short of rations, Sully decided to continue his pursuit of the Sioux. A Blackfoot scout said he knew a route through the Badlands passable by Sully's wagon train. After resting, Sully and his men plunged into the unknown terrain ahead.[6] His objective was to continue to pursue the Sioux through the Badlands and then resupply his expedition by marching north to the Yellowstone River where two steamboats full of rations awaited him.[7] Sully followed the Heart River upstream, entering the Badlands on August 5. "One minute they were rolling along on what seemed like limitless prairie; the next men and horses were lost in a maze of narrow gullies and malevolent steeps." Traveling with Sully was an emigrant wagon train of miners and their wives and children.[8]

Sully pursued the Sioux through the difficult terrain of the Badlands near present-day Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Sully pursued the Sioux through the difficult terrain of the Badlands near present-day Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Lakota leader Sitting Bull described the Indians in the Battle of the Badlands as Hunkpapas, Sans Arcs, and Miniconjou Lakota, Yanktonai, and others.[9]

The battle

On August 6, Sully and his men camped on the banks of the Little Missouri River. The next morning a small group of Sioux opened hostilities by raiding the horse herd of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry, and ambushing one company of the regiment. Hundreds of Sioux warriors appeared on the hilltops near Sully's camp. A few cannon shots dispersed them, but the soldiers spent a nervous night. The next morning Sully and his column moved forward through the badlands. Sully took all precautions for defense, but a large number of Indians warriors—Sully estimated their numbers at 1,000—appeared on the bluffs and hills at his front and flanks. The Indians showered arrows on the soldiers, and attempted to creep close enough to do serious harm to Sully's army, strung out over three or four miles in the rugged terrain. Sully responded with cannon fire and sallies by some of his cavalry. The assault by the Sioux was more desultory than determined. Near the end of the day, Sully's Blackfoot guide was wounded.[10]

Despite the opposition of the Sioux, Sully and his men advanced about 10 miles on August 8. The next day, Sully was again confronted by a large number of Indians at his front who harassed his passage. About noon Sully broke out of the Badlands onto a large, level plain. With room to maneuver and deploy artillery, he soon dispersed the Indians and the battle was over. Sully found the remains of a large, recently vacated Indian camp. The Indians had apparently scattered in all directions.[11]

Sully estimated the Indian loss in the battle at 100 killed. That seems much exaggerated as the Indians remained at long distance. Sully's losses were probably only the Blackfoot scout and a dozen soldiers wounded.


The Sioux strategy in the Battle of the Badlands, which was more of a running skirmish than a battle, appeared to have been to harass the soldiers, retard their advance, and deprive them and their horses of water. That strategy came close to working after the end of hostilities as Sully and his men struggled across parched desert to reach the Yellowstone River, some 50 miles (80 km) distant. The men were on short rations and only a pint of coffee each, made with alkaline water, per day; the livestock of the expedition died of thirst in large numbers. On August 12, the soldiers reached the Yellowstone and found there the two steamboats loaded with supplies. With great hardship because of lack of grass for horses and low water, Sully then marched downstream, finding on his arrival at Fort Union at the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, that the Sioux had stampeded and stolen all but two of the horses belonging to the fort. Lacking horses and with an army of worn-out men, Sully abandoned his plan to continue the expedition against the Sioux.[12]

The Sully expedition of 1864 pushed the majority of the hostile Sioux west of the Missouri River into their last strongholds of the Powder River country and the Black Hills. The U.S. would send another large army against them in 1865 in the Powder River Expedition, but they would successfully resist.

Opposing Forces

United States

Department of the Northwest: MG John Pope (not present in the field)

Division Brigade Regiments and Others

District of Iowa

     BG Alfred Sully[13]

1st Brigade

   Ltc Samuel M. Pollock

2nd Brigade

   Col Minor T. Thomas

Native Americans

See also

  • History of North Dakota
  • Plains Indians Wars
  • List of battles fought in North Dakota
  • "Battle of the Badlands Interpretive Site". United States Department of Agriculture.


  1. ^ "The US Army and the Sioux - Part 2: Battle of the Badlands". National Park Service. Retrieved 2012-04-07.
  2. ^ Micheal D. Clodfelter (28 February 2006). The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865. McFarland. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-7864-2726-0. Retrieved 7 April 2012.
  3. ^ Clodfelter, p. 156
  4. ^ Barsness, John and Dickinson, William. "Cannoneer's Hop: The Sully Campaign, 1864 Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Summer 1966), p. 29
  5. ^ United States War Department. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the official Records of the United States and the Confederacy, Series 1, Vol 41 (part l), p. 135
  6. ^ Clodfelter, pp172-176
  7. ^ Clodfelter, p. 178
  8. ^ Barsness and Dickinson, p. 27
  9. ^ Clodfelter, p. 186
  10. ^ Clodfelter, pp 183-185
  11. ^ Clodfelter, pp 187-188
  12. ^ Clodfelter, pp 189-190
  13. ^ Sully's Official Report

This page was last edited on 23 November 2020, at 13:48
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