War-Battles of NU-“Attack on NU Painting”

“Attack on New Ulm” Painting
(1904), by Anton Gag
© November 10, 2015, John LaBatte
Updated November 24, 2015

This essay is prompted by recent comments made about artwork in the State Capitol Building. I will first discuss the Art Subcommittee. Then, I will focus on the painting “Attack on New Ulm” by Anton Gag. Finally, I will provide 29 first-person accounts of how Dakota warriors were dressed in battle and going to battle.

Art Subcommittee Website

Refer to this website for more information on their meetings, the artwork, media articles and information on Public Input Meetings.

About the Art Subcommittee from their website

“The Art Subcommittee of the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission was formed in 2015 to review and make recommendations about the preservation, placement, and use of art to communicate about the experiences Minnesota in history, the attributes of the state, the tributes to past leaders, and the important work that takes place on behalf of its residents. The scope will be the Capitol building, including making recommendations on existing Capitol art pieces the committee may believe are not appropriate for the Capitol and may recommend those pieces be relocated to another building. Its members include legislative leadership and public citizens.”

From the Oct 12, 2015 Art Subcommittee Meeting Summary

A discussion was held on Dakota and other Native Americans in current Capitol Art. The subcommittee was asked to “focus on the paintings that depict Native Americans as how visitors would see them, and in particular as how Native Americans would see them – without context or descriptions. And to imagine they are seeing themselves or relatives in the paintings…many of the Dakota in several paintings are not painted in detail. The clothes they are depicted as wearing are not known to have ever been worn by Dakota in Minnesota – they are often from western U.S. tribes.” See the Oct 12, 2015 Meeting Summary on the Art Subcommittee website for the specific paintings discussed.

Anton Gag and “Attack on New Ulm”

Anton Gag was born in Bohemia in 1859. He came to the United States in 1873, and soon after, to New Ulm, Minnesota.

From Julie L’Enfant, The Gag Family: German-Bohemian Artists in America. (Afton: Afton Historical Society, 2002), p. 51.
“Anton’s interest in Indians awakened when he was a boy in Bohemia and strengthened by their presence in Minnesota – led him to great lengths to create authentic work. He interviewed battle survivors (known as the “Defenders”) for eyewitness accounts. He also went to the Morton Indian Reservation [Lower Sioux Community] to draw and paint the Indians and their artifacts, making two pictures of every sitter in order to give one in return for the favor of posing (the only payment the Dakota would accept); he probably also used photographs to record what he saw.”

From Jan 5, 1887, New Ulm Review
“Mr. Anton Gag is at present engaged in executing a painting that will be of general interest to all old settlers of Minnesota and of special interest to all citizens of New Ulm. The painting will be entitled the “Battle of New Ulm” and will represent the memorable fight in August 1862.”

From Jan 26, 1887, New Ulm Review
“Mr. Anton Gag was in St. Paul part of this week purchasing supplies and gathering material from the State Historical Society records for his proposed series of paintings illustrating the battle of New Ulm. Mr. Gag’s undertaking is commendable and every one interested in the history of the dark days of New Ulm should aid him. There are quite a number of persons living here who can distinctly remember the scenes enacted here from August 18th to 22nd, 1862. If these would go to Mr. Gag and describe the various phases of the battle, scenes of small fights between the Indians and the whites and in fact everything of general interest connected with the massacre they would confer a great favor upon him. It will be impossible for Mr. Gag to hunt up all of those still living here who took part in the battle but it will be a very easy matter for them to look up Mr. Gag.”

More than 100 years later, Gag’s painting is under attack.

Missing from the Art Subcommittee Meeting Summaries above are specifics of why the Gag painting is being criticized. This information has been given to the media. This will affect public opinion prior to the Public Input Meetings.

From Oct 12, 2015, “Native American paintings get hard look amid Minnesota Capitol repairs” TwinCities.com, Pioneer Press, News, Kyle Potter
            The Gag painting is described as “a horde of Dakota Warriors with feathered headdresses storming into a village…It portrays a Dakota tribe siege on the Minnesota settlement during the Dakota War of 1862…the warriors’ shirtless attire isn’t correct and the nearly identical men further the stereotype “that Dakota people are a faceless menace.””

From Oct 16, 2015, “Images of Native Americans in Minnesota Capitol Stir Controversy”, Observer, Guelda Voien
            “Attack on New Ulm, meanwhile, invokes a stereotype of the violent, brutal Native American, a perpetrator of unprovoked attacks. New Ulm came under siege by a small group of Native Americans in 1862, according to documents from the Minnesota Historical Society. In that work, Native Americans point guns at whites while a building burns in the background.”

My opinions:

Following the Dakota War, two of my Dakota grandfathers were tried and charged with being among those who attacked New Ulm. I do not find Gag’s painting offensive to my Dakota ancestors in any way.

This history is complicated. Before any painting is removed due to inaccurate content, it should be thoroughly researched by independent historians.

During the Dakota War of 1862, New Ulm was attacked twice by Dakota Indians. Both attacks failed. At most, there were estimated 350 to more than 1000 warriors and 250-300 defenders in the larger second attack. This was hardly “a small group of Native Americans” as mentioned in the news article above. Dakota Indians later said they lost 2 in these battles. Estimates of white losses were about 34 killed and up to 80 wounded.

During the battles, there were estimated 1200-1500 men, women and children non-combatants within the barricades. Had the Dakota broken through the barricades, they would have murdered all of the men, women and children.

From Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, Volume I, page 734
Charles Flandrau, commander of the defense of New Ulm during the second battle, later wrote that the successful defense of Fort Ridgely and New Ulm were the “most important events of the war…Finding such stubborn resistance at the very outset of the rebellion, they [Dakota] could not advance, but were compelled to withdraw to their own country. Had they carried the fort and New Ulm, they would undoubtedly have pushed their success through the length of the Minnesota Valley and have carried the Winnebagoes into the war…their opportunity has passed from them and they were on the defensive.”

While not the subject of this essay, I find the comments on the “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” painting also inaccurate. This painting should not be removed without further research.

First Person Accounts – Sorted by last name:

One of the negative comments mentioned above about Gag’s painting is “the warriors’ shirtless attire isn’t correct.” This comment is incorrect. Following are first person accounts of Dakota warrior attire. Note that there are comments from several Dakota/White mixed-bloods and comments from defenders of New Ulm.

Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, Vol. II, “Report of 1st Lt. John F. Bishop”, page 166
[Battle of Redwood Ferry]
“Then a hand to hand encounter took place; every man fighting the best he knew how to cut his way out of the terrible looking mob around us. They were all painted and naked, except breech clouts.”


Anderson/Woolworth, Through Dakota Eyes, “Samuel J. Brown’s Recollections”, page 74
[Trying to reach Fort Ridgley at the start of the Dakota War]
“Very soon an Indian, half naked and on horseback, popped up before us from behind a knoll and began to beckon the others toward him, and before we knew it we were surrounded.”

Anderson/Woolworth, Through Dakota Eyes, “Samuel J. Brown’s Recollections”, page 170
[Confrontation between the Upper and Lower Dakota]
“In an incredibly short time several hundred half-naked and painted Indians came running into camp, armed to the teeth…”
“On the next morning, the 29th, the lower Indians, some 300 or 400 half naked and painted warriors, came again, all on horseback…”

Anderson/Woolworth, Through Dakota Eyes, “Joseph Coursolle’s Story”, page 158
[Battle of Fort Ridgely]
“No Sioux came the next day but the following morning [Aug 20] they rode up, circling the fort out of range of our muskets. Then we saw dismounted warriors, naked except for headbands and breech clouts crawling toward the Fort from the ravines and the woods.”

Anderson/Woolworth, Through Dakota Eyes, “Joseph Coursolle’s Story”, page 162
[Battle of Birch Coulee]
“Other heads stuck up out of the grass and another sentry fired. Then hundreds of half-naked Sioux leaped to their feet and rushed toward the wagons surrounding the camp…”

U. S. Office of Indian Affairs Special Files 1807-1904, reel 75, “Claims of Nathan Myrick and others against the Sioux for losses, 1861-1862”, Joseph Coursolle‘s testimony, July 29, 1885
[Attack on the Lower Sioux Agency]
“I saw an Indian start from there, all naked, with his gun on his shoulder and a lance on his left hand, and he came to Mr. Forbe’s store…”

Bryant and Murch, A History of the Great Massacre, Account of Jonathan W. Earle, page 276
“Early in the morning of the 18th of August, 1862, before breakfast, four Indians came to my house, their bodies naked and having the war-paint, pretending to be in pursuit of Chippewas.”

Thomas H. van Etten, “Account of the Battle of Birch Coulee by a Soldier Who Was There”
Submitted by retired Sergeant Marlin Peterson
Published in “The Crossing”, Nicollet County Historical Society, June 2012
“The Indians are all good shots, fight naked, and are very skillful with the rifle.”

Satterlee, Court Proceedings in the Trial of Dakota Indians, page 22, Case 28 – Ta-ho-mi-niwash-tay
“David Faribault says: “When I was taken prisoner at the Agency house, I saw this Indian running around from house to house naked.”

L.A. Fritsche, Memories of the Battle of New Ulm… edited by Don Heinrich Tolzmann, Page 55
[2nd battle of New Ulm]
“The first advance of the half-naked and gaudily-painted savages who, amidst a howling more like that of demons than of human beings, came storming on and drove the pickets in from their two widely scattered fortifications.”

Annual Reports to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, No. 144 – Report of Thomas Galbraith, 1863
[Attack on Fort Ridgely]
“Until sundown these yelling, naked devils, hidden in the grass and weeds, behind logs and piles and, indeed, always under cover, kept shooting incessantly.”

MHS Dakota Conflict Manuscripts, John G. Hayden, “Recollections,” 1889
[2nd Battle of New Ulm]
“Then began one of the wildest scenes of frontier warfare; burning buildings with hideously painted naked savages running in and out of the fire light, often recklessly exposing themselves in their mad dance, yelling like fiends with that peculiar war whoop that makes the cold chills run over one especially when you know that it is in earnest and you are the prospective victim.”

Berghold, The Indians’ Revenge or Days of Horror, Theresa Henle’s Account, page 106
[Aug 18]
“Towards noon I went to my mother, who lived near us, to get some lettuce. On returning home I noticed three naked Indians, and went back to warn my mother.”

Isaac V. D. Heard, History of the Sioux War, 1865, Reverend Hinman’s account, page 65
[Aug 18 attack on the Lower Sioux Agency]
“I arose early, expecting to go to Faribault; had just finished breakfast, and was sitting outside smoking a pipe and talking with a mason about a job which he had just finished upon the new church which I was building. Presently I saw a number of Indians passing down, nearly naked and armed with guns.”

Bryant and Murch, A History of the Great Massacre By the Sioux Indians in Minnesota, “Narrative of Justina Kreiger, Page 302
[Trying to reach Fort Ridgely at the start of the war]
“Eight Indians, on horseback – some naked, and some with blankets on, all armed with guns – now came up with us.”

Rudolf Leonhart, Memories of New Ulm, page 65, translated from German and edited by Don Heinrich Tolzmann
[2nd Battle of New Ulm]
“Toward twelve, the battle approached our quarter. Through the smoke of the burning houses I saw the almost naked Indians moving in a zigzag fashion to dodge the aim of our troops.”

Anderson/Woolworth, Through Dakota Eyes, “Lightning Blanket’s Account”, page 154
“…we were to get ready immediately to fight the white men at the Fort and New Ulm. The young men were all anxious to go, we dressed as warriors, in war paint, breech clout and leggings with a large sash around our body to keep our food and ammunition in.”

St. Paul Daily Press, Nov 6, 1862, “Letter from Minnesota”, Nov 6, 1862, Joseph Lockey
[Battle of Wood Lake]
“Little Crow seemed to pay particular attention to the center, which had got in advance of the right and left wings, and soon they were compelled to fall back, which they did slowly until they were supported, when they again made a rush forward, with yells almost equal to those of the savages, and making many of the painted vagabonds balance their last earthly account. (Most of them were entirely naked, and painted in splendid style…”

Nicholas I. Lowthian Letters from Hard is a Soldier’s Life Rough is His Fare
[Warfare between the Dakota and Chippewa]
“They [Dakota] went along in a string on horses and on foot as fast as they could go, the most of them naked save the breech clout, some with old guns, bows and arrows, war clubs, knives and hatchets ready for a fight.”

Satterlee, Court Proceedings in the Trial of Dakota Indians, page 23, Case 29 – Pay-wash-ta
            “David Faribault sworn: Saw prisoner at the Lower Agency about noon, naked.”
“Prisoner says: He was naked because the other Indians were.”

“Captain Potter’s Recollections of Minnesota Experiences”
[2nd Battle of New Ulm]
“As they [Dakota] came on with their ponies on the run, yelling and whooping and singing their war songs, painted in all colors, some nearly naked and others with blankets and feather headdresses flying…”

Old Rail Fence Corners, Edited by Lucy Leavenworth Wilder Morris, Mrs. Missouri Rose Pratt narrative, page 16
“They always wore every fancy thing they had to a dance, but in actual war, they were unpainted and almost naked.”

Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, Second Edition, Volume I, Page 351, Sgt. Ramer
[Battle of Wood Lake]
“One Indian started to run up a small ravine leading out from the main ravine on the opposite side from us. There was a storm of bullets sent after him; he was hit and fell several times, but ran to the high ground before he finally fell. I fired two shots at him and was about the first to get to him; he was still alive and had a fierce look, but soon gasped his last. He had nothing on but his breech-clout and a powder horn strung over his shoulder; he had dropped his gun.”

Satterlee, Court Proceedings in the Trial of Dakota Indians, page 62, Case 297 – Na-pay-hdo-sna-mani
“Thomas Robertson saw prisoner at Fort naked.”

Minnesota Historical Society Collections, Volume 6, Mary Schwandt, “The Story of Mary Schwandt”
“When we were within about eight miles of New Ulm and thought all serious danger was over, we met about fifty Indians coming from the direction of the town. They were mounted, and had wagons loaded with flour and all sorts of provisions and goods taken from the houses of the settler. They were nearly naked, painted all over their bodies, and all of them seemed to be drunk, shouting and yelling and acting very riotously in every way.”

Saint Paul Pioneer, April 15, 1863, “Statement of Mr. Spencer
[Attack on the Lower Sioux Agency]
“Accordingly, on Monday morning, the 18th of August, 1862, about two hundred and fifty or three hundred Indians, armed and naked, except the breech cloth, came into the lower agency (twelve miles above Fort Ridgely), and dividing themselves into small parties, and stationing themselves around most every building in the place, at a given signal the attack commenced.”

Sarah F. Wakefield, Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees, page 31
The Indians who were going to attack Fort Ridgely, “were either over-dressed or else not dressed at all; their horses were covered with ribbons, bells, or feathers, all jingling, tinkling as we rode along, the Indians singing their war songs…Many of the men were entirely naked with the exception of the breech cloth, their bodies painted and ridiculously ornamented.”

Sisseton and Wahpeton Bands of Sioux Indians vs. U.S., Published in 1901 by McGill and Wallum, Washington D.C., page 385, deposition of Benjamin J. Young
[Asked if there were any Sisseton and Wahpeton at the Battle of Wood Lake]
“They were naked all but their breechclout and what I would take to be the Sissetons would be those that had long breechcloths…”

Stillwater Messenger, Oct 7, 1862, “From the Indian War”, anonymous
[Battle of Wood Lake]
““Deploy as skirmishers, from the left; in groups of four take intervals,” is the order from our Major, and our company taking the left of the line of skirmishers, it is obeyed and soon we find ourselves in front of 150 painted, half-naked, hell-deserving pagans, led by Little Crow in person.”


The Dakota War of 1862 was one of the most important events in Minnesota history. This event needs to be represented in the State Capitol artwork.

Anton Gag’s “Attack on New Ulm” should not be removed. As I have shown above, it accurately represents an important event of the Dakota War.

2 thoughts on “War-Battles of NU-“Attack on NU Painting”

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