What Do We Do With Our Bad Stories?

Jul 15, 2019

Battlefield carnage two months after the incident.
Credit Albert Colgrave [Public domain] / Wikimedia Commons

I was tired. Not sure why, but I was; and even though we'd been gone for little more than a day, I was anxious to get home. Besides, it was July-hot, thick and humid. We were alone on a two-lane highway, coming back from a small-town Fourth fest. Hardly anybody else was out on the road, which made driving nice, so nice I didn't want to stop.

I had planned to. I knew the old battlefield lay there right along the highway. I could have been in and out in a quarter hour, if I wanted to; but we just drove right on by. It was hot, too--not in the car, but outside.

Besides, what happened at Birch Coulee wasn't pretty. I'm guessing no in-loop'd flags festooned the place yesterday. Whoever decided to make camp where they did 157 years ago--right beside a wooded gulch thick and wide enough to hide an army--whoever stuck up his hand and stopped the brigade, told them to make camp, was remarkably thoughtless.

And flat wrong. After all, they stopped because they were sure there were no "injuns" in the area. About that they were dead wrong.

Come to think of it, just exactly why they were there wasn't anything out of John Phillip Sousa either. Almost two weeks had passed since Dakota warriors had taken to killing just about any white folks who moved, which meant the Minnesota river valley was littered with two-week old dead bodies, men, women, and children. The recruits who camped at Birch Coulee that night were a burial detail.

There's nothing Fourth-of-July pretty about Birch Coulee. Nothing at all.

That Mrs. Krieger didn't die was a good thing. They'd found her alone, wandering pitifully, her family gone or dead, and taken her with them. When the Dakota attacked their camp, the wagon she huddled in took hundreds of bullets, but she wasn't hit, almost a miracle.

A lot of the horses went down, and when they did the company, under siege for a couple days without food and water, used their own dead mounts as barriers against Dakota bullets. It wasn't pretty.

What I'm saying is, yesterday, on the Fourth of July, we didn't stop. I had planned on stopping, but it was hot. I was tired. We both were. Besides, all of this happened 157 years ago. No one else stopped either. Why should we? Why should anybody?

When the fighting was over, there were more dead white men at Birch Coulee than those left behind on the field at any other battle during the Dakota War of 1862. Twenty-two men and ninety horses were dead, dozens more men wounded, many severely.

Want to count wins? Nobody won at Birch Coulee. While just a few Dakota warriors went down, they'd spent a couple of days doing nothing more than spilling white man's blood. When eventually, a few weeks later, the fighting ceased, as even Little Crow, chief of the Dakota said it would, the case against the rebels, the freedom fighters, was only made stronger by what happened at Birch Coulee.

Colonel Sibley, who rode at the head of the forces sent from St. Paul to end the Dakota rebellion, wasn't at all proud of what happened there, even sidestepped blame by naming the wrong man as commander--which is why, today, high up on a hill above the Minnesota River, a dozen miles from the battlefield, a huge, misplaced monument put there half a century later names the wrong commander.

There's nothing pretty about Birch Coulee. In fact, if you didn't know it was there these days, you wouldn't miss it because whoever puts out the signs along highway 71 calls it "Birch Coulee County Park," a place, supposedly, for a sweet picnic lunch.

So here's a question: what do we do with our bad stories? Do we just drive past? Yesterday, the Fourth of July, we did. With the air conditioner blasting out wonderfully cool air, we sailed right past "Birch Coulee County Park," cruise control at 68 miles per hour.

I was tired. It was hot. We wanted to get home. 

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