Area 4: The United States During the Civil War (1850s-1860s)
Guiding Question: How did the Civil War fundamentally alter the nation?
Background for teachers and students
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 shifted the military balance on the plains and mountains of what are now Wyoming and the West. Regular U.S. Army units that had patrolled the emigrant routes along the Oregon and Overland trails and the newer roads to Denver and Pikes Peak were called east to bolster the Union cause.
By that time, relations between white travelers, traders and soldiers and native tribes had been deteriorating for a dozen years, especially along the transportation routes. After the Civil War began, for several months there were no troops on the roads at all. Soon, at President Lincoln’s request, Mormon militia from the Salt Lake Valley arrived to patrol the transcontinental route in what’s now western Wyoming. In 1862, volunteer regiments of California and Ohio troops arrived in what are now Utah and Wyoming to patrol the roads and protect the new transcontinental telegraph.
In Colorado, meanwhile, gold was discovered near Pikes Peak in 1859 and the territory began filling up with white miners, merchants and a few families. Regular troops were called east from Colorado, as well, and military duties were taken up by poorly trained militias. One such unit of 700 men, led by Col. John Chivington, rode from Denver to Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado Territory in November 1864. There they attacked a peaceful Cheyenne village and slaughtered around 150 people.
Rage at this event led southern bands of Lakota Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne to travel north—raiding as they went—to join their northern relatives in the Powder River Basin of what’s now northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. Out of that gathering rose the decision to attack the largest Army post west of Fort Laramie on the trails across Wyoming—Platte Bridge Station, where the trail crossed the North Platte River a final time.
Two separate attacks on July 26, 1865, resulted in the deaths of 28 soldiers, including young 2nd Lt. Caspar Collins of the 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, for whom Casper, Wyo., is named. These were two of the most significant Indian fights on the northern Great Plains.
A large Army expedition into the Powder River Basin later that summer proved entirely inconclusive. Raids and warfare continued for years up through the Custer defeat at the Little Bighorn in Montana in 1876 and the final withdrawal of the tribes onto reservations in 1877 and 1878.
The Civil War years, then, quickly deepened and widened the divisions between tribes and white newcomers—opening wounds that would take decades to heal.
The articles linked below, “Gathering the Tribes: The Cheyennes Come Together after Sand Creek” and “The Battles of Platte Bridge Station and Red Buttes” offer substantial background on the topic for teachers and for students 8th grade and up. The articles may be demanding for 6th and 7th graders.