Massacre clouds story of the soldier on Minnesota's pedestal

A statue of Josias King sits outside of the Cathedral of St. Paul.
A statue of Josias King stands below the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn. on Wednesday, Sept. 19.
Evan Frost | MPR News

As a state on the winning side of the Civil War, Minnesota has escaped some of the turmoil surrounding war memorials in the South — like the events last August at the University of North Carolina, where protesters pulled down a century-old statue of a Confederate soldier.

Minnesota's most prominent Civil War statue, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, stands just down the hill from the Cathedral of St. Paul. Erected in 1903, it shows a Union soldier in a greatcoat, standing at parade rest atop a stone column.

Not much fodder for protest there. Not, that is, until you look a little more closely.

The statue's face is that of Josias King, a Union officer who served with the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. He holds the distinction of having been the first soldier to volunteer in the Union cause. King fought with the First Minnesota in a number of bloody engagements, and at one point had his horse shot out from under him.

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Captain Josias King, c.1864.
Captain Josias King, circa 1864.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

But King wasn't with the First Minnesota during its finest, or at least its most famous, hour at Gettysburg. That's because he spent part of that year, 1863, back home, in and around Minnesota, engaged in what today might be considered ethnic cleansing. Or a war crime.

"We're looking at something that we might have seen in Hungary after 1939, when the Nazis came in and did not consider the people they were killing as human beings," said Laura Waterman Wittstock, a longtime Minnesota journalist, radio host and Indian activist. "They were simply an enemy that needed to be eliminated."

"Lincoln himself fought in an Indian war. He didn't hurt anybody," Wittstock said. "But there were other military men who had the will to kill Indians, that didn't consider them humans in the same way they would consider somebody from Kentucky or somebody from Minnesota. They were not the same. So when they killed them, they didn't really have an ability to see them as human beings."

For a time in 1863, Josias King was aide de camp to Gen. Alfred Sully, who led troops on a campaign to punish Native Americans for the U.S.-Dakota War of the previous year. King was with Sully on Sept. 3, when the general's scouts reported finding a village of several hundred teepees at a place called Whitestone Hill, in the Dakota Territory.

An item on the Minnesota Historical Society website describes the bloodbath that followed: "On September 3, 1863, at Whitestone Hill, Dakota Territory, as reprisal for the Dakota Conflict of 1862, [Sully's] troops destroyed a village of some 500 tipis that lodged Yankton, Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota, and Blackfeet. Men, women, and children were killed or captured. The troopers' casualties were small. One of Sully's interpreters, Samuel J. Brown, a mixed-blood Sioux, said 'it was a perfect massacre' and 'lamentable to hear how those women and children was massacred.'"

A plaque tells the history of the statue of Josias King.
A plaque tells the history of the statue of Josias King next to the St. Paul Cathedral in St. Paul, Minn. on Wednesday, Sept. 19.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"The violence was indiscriminate, so noncombatants were killed," said Peter DeCarlo, a research historian with the Historical Society. "In particular to this massacre, it occurred late in the day. The U.S. Army had surrounded the encampment, and they surrounded it throughout the night as well. And if the soldiers heard movements, they fired at those movements, as King recounts in his own experience of the massacre. And then in the morning they went through the encampment, and there's accounts of wounded Native people being shot and killed."

But the Army wasn't finished. Soldiers did what they could to make sure any survivors would suffer in the coming winter.

"And afterwards their lodges were burned, their ponies were rounded up, the dogs that they used for transportation were killed," DeCarlo said. "The army proceeded to destroy their tools and their kettles and cooking utensils and burn their food and then take what was left. This is purposeful. It's meant to bring about the death of a people."

DeCarlo estimated the number of Native Americans killed outright at between 150 and 300, women and children among them. Most of the victims, he pointed out, had nothing to do with the Dakota War. He believes Whitestone Hill would qualify as a war crime.

"I would view the actions by the U.S. government, and particularly this campaign, as ethnic cleansing and genocide," he said.

Josias King (right) with General Alfred H. Sully (center).
Josias King (right to left) with General Alfred H. Sully, Andrew J. Levering, and John H. Pell circa 1862.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Gen. Sully later boasted that he had delivered "one of the most severe punishments that the Indians have ever received." And King backed up his commander's assessment in an account written for the North Dakota Historical Society in 1914:

"Genl. Sully gave these hostile bands of Indians the most complete thrashing, and caused them more terrible losses, in killed, wounded and in greater destruction of their property, than they had ever met with, or suffered before. They never recovered from the effects of their losses and terrible punishment and the sufferings they underwent the following winter, resulting from the loss of their winter supply of meat, their robes, cooking utensils, teepees & ponies in this fight."

Not long after that, King returned to the First Minnesota, which by then had incurred awful casualties at Gettysburg. He survived the war and served in various military posts until 1870, and was later named inspector general of the Minnesota National Guard. King died in 1916, almost a year after being hurt in a streetcar accident — and more than a decade after posing for the statue that bears his likeness.

In DeCarlo's personal opinion, it may be time for that statue to come down.

"I think that option should be entertained," he said. "If we look at the broad expanse of human history, societies have been putting up memorials and monuments of one kind or another for thousands of years. And they're put up and they come down for various reasons. Political movements remove them, sometimes the invasion of another people, sometimes public debate."

Wittstock wants to make sure that if the statue is taken down, there's a public education effort to explain why.

"There's not a way we can look at punishing them for what they did," she said. "Certainly, taking down a statue would be the least we could do. But there needs to be a lesson told about why this statue is taken down."

DeCarlo and Wittstock agree on a further point: The fate of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial should be a topic of public discussion, and that discussion must involve Native voices.