Civil War Book Review: Birch Coulie: The Epic Battle of the Dakota War

by James Durney on October 1, 2012 · 0 comments

Birch Coulie: The Epic Battle of the Dakota War
by John Christgau

Birch Coulie: The Epic Battle of the Dakota War by ChristgauProduct Details

The largest battle you will ever see is when you come under fire.  This is an intensely personal experience you will never forget.  Later, history might name this experience; even declare it an important event.  If this happens, it becomes part of family lore.  Your descendents can say “Dad was at Pearl Harbor” or “Uncle Jim landed on Omaha Beach” or “My Great-Great Grandfather was with Chamberlain on Little Round Top”.   This is a rare experience.  Named battles, while important at the time and always important to those involved, normally sink into oblivion ending up in footnotes rarely the subject of a book.

The Civil War has many obscure battles that have no important general or famous regiment on the field.  None seem as obscure as Birch Coulie!  In fact, the 1862 Sioux War in Minnesota is almost a nonevent.  The most important thing about the war might be that the War Department used it to exile General Pope far far from Washington.

Having said all of this: why would anyone want to read this book?

First, it is a unique look at how frontier communities were defended.  The “army” that fights this is a collection of regiments in the process of being inducted.  Regiments comprised of civilian volunteers or local militia and equally inexperienced volunteer regiments assigned to police the reservation.  They are commanded by politicians, local community leaders or semi-trained elected officers from the volunteer regiments.

Next, this battle is small enough to detail the personalities involved giving us a real look at the 1862 Frontier.  We can move up and down the Chain of Command making an intensely personal story.  Additionally, the events and tactics can be clearly explained making the action easy to follow and understand.

Lastly, the author presents the battle not as a single event but as part of the regional and personal history.  This includes following some of the participants throughout their lives and the regions commemorations of the battle.

There are some problems.  Sources, at the end of the book, replace end notes.  The sources have a page not item reference.  There are no maps, illustrations or photographs.  Lastly, the Sioux uprising is notable for two things: first it is the “largest mass execution in American history”.  This occurs when thirty-eight Sioux were hanged for murder and rape.  The second is the largest mass rape in American History.  While the author dwells on the executions, he says very little about the rapes.


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