Sioux Battle Customs
One of the customs of the Sioux was to mutilate and dismember their victims, sometimes while they were yet alive. Scalps were kept as trophies, and proof of their exploits so that their chief would award them prestigious eagle feathers. The dismembering and mutilation of victims was done because of their religious beliefs, so that their victims would be at a disadvantage in the next life, when they would meet again.
The indigenous religious beliefs sometimes worked to the white settler’s advantage. The Indians would hesitate to harm a priest or pastor because they believed it would bring bad things to happen to them. The native Americans believed strongly in spirits. The reason for their war cries during an attack was to drive away the enemy’s guardian spirits. Since this often un-nerved the whites, it certainly seemed to have that effect.
The German settlers knew the Sioux would show them no quarter, and the main reason they turned back the Indian attacks was that they fought stubbornly knowing it was life or death. However, had the Indians adopted the white soldiers tactics they would have been victorious. The Sioux war tactics were an extension of their hunting tactics, which involved stalking or ambushing their prey. These tactics broke down when faced with armed and barricaded opponents. A Sioux chief’s commands, were not followed the same way a white officer’s orders were. The discipline to maintain an assault in the face of mounting casualties was not part of their mindset.
The Indians would remove their dead from the battle ground when possible or bury them right on the spot in unmarked graves. They did not keep records of those lost, so the numbers of Indians killed in the attacks on Fort Ridgely and New Ulm is unknown. Also, in keeping with their customs, the Sioux interviewed in later years were reticent to admit to any losses.
At Fort Ridgely 3 soldiers and 4 civilians were killed; 13 soldiers and 26 civilians were wounded. Only two Dakota deaths were confirmed, but historians agree there were many more. The Sioux assaults at Fort Ridgely were broken up by cannon firing canister at point blank range, and they would not have given up the attack if they had endured only light casualties.
In the battles at New Ulm, 39 defenders were killed and over 60 wounded. The bodies of 10 Indians were found in the chaparel and in houses where they had been killed. They had not been discovered by their comrads, or could not be recovered without great risk. The defenders noted that on the prairie from where the Indians attacked, there was a great deal of blood.