"The Siege of New Ulm"
Henry August Schwabe (1843-1916)
This 1902 painting depicts the action at the Second Battle of New Ulm on August 23, 1862. The battle destroyed the town but the vast majority of the 300 defenders and 2,000 non-combatants survived. It was one of the few times in military history where civilians were thrown together and successfully defended against a superior force. Two days later, out of ammunition, food and medicine, they evacuated to Mankato 30 miles to the southeast. They arrived unopposed and safe from their extremely perilous journey.
The 1862 Dakota War is often called Minnesota's Other Civil
War. Most people have never heard of it and that includes a
lot of Minnesotans. Fought in the same time period as
the Civil War battles of Second Manassas and Antietam in that
horrific late summer of 1862, it couldn't have come at a worse
time for the Union and Abraham Lincoln. They tried to
stay out of it but couldn't. It was too big and too
It was the largest Indian war in American history. The main battleground was the entire Minnesota River Valley in southern and central Minnesota. The uprising spread into the Dakota Territories and sent panic into Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.
In Minnesota, Indians did mass attacks on a fort and an entire town - both twice. Contrary to what folklore and Hollywood tell us, this was almost unheard of in any of the Indian campaigns.
When the fighting ended, 500 settlers and 100 soldiers were dead. Over 200 people were killed the first morning - as many as Custer lost at the Little Bighorn. To this day, that number of civilians killed on American soil as a result of hostile action is exceeded only by the attacks on 9/11.
Disease and battle wounds killed unknown numbers after the battlefields were silent. Refugees numbered in the thousands. The war de-populated and ravaged a large part of the state, which took years to recover.
The number of Indians slain in battle has never been
confirmed but we do know that hundreds died in the retribution
that followed. That number includes 38 in the gallows -
at the same time. It's the largest mass execution in U.S. history. As
further retaliation, the
Dakota (Sioux) way of life was intentionally destroyed forever.
The fighting was close and ferocious. In both battles at New Ulm, outnumbered farmers, settlers and shop keepers fought house to house, launched desperate counterattacks and burned down much of their own town to hold off the Dakota braves assaulting them from every direction.
This was one of the few engagements throughout all the Indian Wars of the 19th century where artillery could be brought to bear and used effectively. It was used extensively against the Dakota and saved the day in several actions. At Fort Ridgely, the Dakota attackers ran into a storm of fire and lead the likes of which they had never seen.
The war never
really ended. It just moved west and metastasized into a
30 year conflict that included Red Cloud's War (1866),
the Little Bighorn (1876) and, finally, Wounded Knee (1890).
For over 100 years, the people of Minnesota celebrated the Dakota War as a victory of pure good over pure evil, i.e., the settlers defeating the treacherous blood thirsty savages. It was called the Sioux Massacre. That view has changed in recent years, especially with the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the conflict in 2012. As it turns out, there was enough blame and blood to go around for everyone. Read on and you'll see what I mean.
An undated photo of Little Crow before the war. As a young man in line for chief, rivals attempted to assassinate him. He was shot through both forearms. They healed eventually but were atrophied and he never regained full use of his hands.
It's important in the overall context of things to understand the origin and meaning of the word "Sioux". It comes from the language of their traditional enemies, the Ojibway. It translates to snake or serpent-like. It is intended as a perjorative along the lines of "schmuck" or "raghead" and was meant to be intentionally disrespectful. When the early French traders arrived in Minnesota, they latched on to the "Sioux". The name stuck and is used to this day although the uncomplimentary nature of the term has been lost to our culture over the years. However, the tribes in Minnesota we call the Sioux call themselves the Dakota, which in their language means "allies".
The Dakota nation that revolted in Minnesota was part of the Santee or Eastern Dakota. It consisted of four tribes - Mdewakantons, Sissetons, Wahpekutes and Wahpetons. Together, they totaled about 6,500 people, most of whom wanted nothing to do with a war on the whites.
The tribes had their own councils and freedom of action. There were chiefs and elders but decision making was done by consensus, not by decree. It could be slow and convoluted and was not well suited to fast moving developments like war fighting. This contributed to confusion and indecisiveness during the war and ultimately led to its failure. If it had not, the uprising might have gone all the way to the Governor's Mansion in St. Paul.
There was one Dakota chief who had credibility and influence with all the tribes, the whites and the government. His name was Little Crow. By 1862, he was already pushing 50 years of age. Born in 1812 (give or take a year) and the son of a chief, he belonged to the last generation of Dakota to be raised in their native culture. He lived in a village called Kaposia which is now South St. Paul. As a teenager, he saw the whites begin to arrive and watched Fort Snelling being built where the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers join.
Little Crow knew that change was coming and that the Dakota probably couldn't stop it. He reasoned that their only realistic course of action was to get the best deal they could while they had some leverage. That leverage was land.
Map of the Dakota War area with North arrow. The heaviest fighting took place at New Ulm, Fort Ridgely, Lower Sioux Agency (now called Redwood Falls) and points in between. There was also action off the map to the northwest in Wood Lake, Granite Falls and Montevideo. Support and reinforcements came from Mankato, St. Peter and Fort Snelling. To give you some perspective on distance, it's about 30 miles from New Ulm to Mankato. If the uprising had been better planned and coordinated, it could have rolled up the entire Minnesota River Valley. Nobody was ready for it but the response was swift and aggressive. As a historical footnote, history buffs may recognize the city of Northfield on the eastern edge of the map. That's where the James-Younger Gang made their last raid on September 7, 1876. They were shot up by armed and alert citizens. We Minnesotans take the 2nd Amendment seriously.
Minnesota is known for its lakes, but it has lots of other resources. They are diminished today but before the Civil War, their bounty was limitless. Large stands of hardwood trees provided wood and teemed with game. Vast tracks of prairie were home to buffalo. Streams, rivers and lakes were full of fish. The soil was rich and crops grew fast and full. Granted, the winters were hard, but the land provided more than enough to get through it. It was in this area of central and southern Minnesota that the Dakota made their home.
In 1850, there were only 6,000 whites in the Minnesota territory. It became a state in 1858. By 1860, there were almost 200,000. Where did they all come from? Scandinavia and Germany mostly, along with Scotch and Irish. Where did they all go? Out into the land of the Dakota, which the settlers and the government called "suland".
The Dakota tribes signed treaties with the U.S. government in 1851 and 1858 in which they sold a total of 30 million acres (47,000 square miles) for three million dollars - about 10 cents an acre. Traders, agents and politicians took almost half a million dollars right off the top for "debts in arrears, resettlement costs and expenses". Among the biggest recipients of this pork was the first Governor of Minnesota - Henry Hastings Sibley. Another one was Alexander Ramsey, the first territorial governor and the second Governor of Minnesota. He was in office during the war.
The remaining 2.5 million dollars were put into a trust from which annual annuities were to be paid to the tribes. To administer the treaties, the U.S. government established two Sioux agencies on the banks of the Minnesota River. The Lower Sioux Agency, also called Redwood Falls, was on the southern bank of the river near the present day town of the same name. The Upper Sioux Agency, also called Yellow Medicine, was 30 miles upstream on the north side of the river near present day Granite Falls.
These were not Indian reservations but government facilities manned by government employees tasked with carrying out the terms of the treaties. They also contained warehouses full of food, seed and other essentials, which were to be paid for by the annual annuities - which were sporadic at best and habitually late.
A very complete and accurate sketch of Fort Ridgely as it looked before the war. Artist and date unknown. The interior courtyard measures 100 yards long and 75 yards wide. The four cardinal directions are noted and are important to understand the narrative of the battles. The index numbers:
1. Commissary/mess hall, made of granite blocks
2. The enlisted barracks, also made of solid granite blocks
3. Outlying wooden enlisted family quarters along the northeast wall
4. Bake house and service buildings
5. Officers' quarters
7. Post surgeon quarters/hospital, Post headquarters
8. Officers' quarters
From 1853 to 1855, Fort Ridgely was built as an administrative post to enforce the treaties and patrol the frontier. It also provided support services for all such as medical, postal and commerce. They had a sawmill, a slaughterhouse and a livery that anyone could use. Its garrison and livestock had a huge need for food, wood and hay along with artisans such as stone cutters. Due to its remoteness, Ridgely relied on local suppliers and was a huge market for everybody in the valley. Initially outposted by four companies of Army regulars with an artillery battery, they were replaced by local militias when the Civil War broke out. When the uprising began, Fort Ridgely was garrisoned by 25 untrained volunteers who would soon face 400 Dakota warriors in their defenseless post.
In 1856, the town of New Ulm was chartered. Built by German immigrants at the confluence of the Minnesota and Cottonwood Rivers, it quickly became a regional center for commerce, transportation and government in southwest Minnesota. Steamboats plied the river up to Fort Ridgely. Road networks converged here and later on, so did the railroad. New Ulm was on good terms with the Dakota, who freely mingled in the streets and businesses. The day the war started, it was a prosperous, peaceful town of about 900 people and almost 300 buildings. A week later, it was deserted and burned to the ground.
When it was all said and done, the Santee Dakota ended up on a reservation on the southwest bank of the Minnesota River on a strip of land 10 miles wide and 150 miles long - from New Ulm to the South Dakota border. Here they received 80 acre parcels of land and were encouraged to adopt the ways of white farmers. Many did. They cut their hair, wore farmers' clothes and tilled the soil. Among them was Little Crow.
This presented some unique challenges to the Dakota which the whites never fully grasped. In the Dakota culture, tending crops was woman's work and it was done without horses or implements. The men were hunters and gatherers. In the white culture, tilling the soil was done primarily by men using horses and plows. This was the way of life that the government envisioned for the Dakota, which turned their culture upside down. Many Dakota made the transition. Many did not. Resentment and anger followed, not only at the whites but at the farmer Indians.
The settlers of the valley got along with the Dakota and had much interaction with them. Soon, a generation of mixed blood people was in the valley and nobody thought much about it. The settlers figured they had nothing to fear from the Dakota and felt no need to take any precautions. However, the Dakota villages were very desperate and restless places. Despite the peaceful counsel of Little Crow, a sentiment was building for war.
Meanwhile, 1,000 miles to the southeast near Washington, D.C., Union Major General John Pope was about to lose the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) on August 28, 1862 although he didn't know that yet. He also didn't know that he would soon become involved in an Indian war in Minnesota.
Other unsuspecting participants were the soldiers of the 3rd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. On July 13, while guarding Union supplies at the railhead in Murfreesboro, TN, they were captured by General Nathan Bedford Forrest in one of his audacious cavalry raids. Their commanding officer surrendered them without a shot being fired. Forrest paroled the regiment under the condition that they never fight against the Confederacy again. When the Dakota War exploded, they were on their way home to Fort Snelling and an uncertain future. They were mad as hell and just itching to shoot somebody. They would soon get their chance - and it would be decisive.
This restored warehouse is the only building that survived the attack on the Lower Sioux Agency on the morning of August 18, 1862 although it was in ruins by the end. Purchased and rebuilt by a German immigrant couple, it served as a farmhouse and residence for generations of families until 1967, when it was bought by the Minnesota Historical Society. It was fully restored to its 1862 specs in 2000 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was this warehouse that the Dakota attempted to break into on August 4, incurring the wrath of Andrew Myrick. The doors and windows proved too tough so they chopped holes in the roof and dropped down. The army arrived and stopped them. The Lower Sioux Agency is still an active reservation for the Mdewakanton Dakota. They run a seasonal interpretive and historical center about the Dakota War in conjunction with the Minnesota Historical Society. It's one of many places you can visit to learn about the war.
The treaties and the agency system they created weren't working. They never had. Money designated for annuity payments was often plundered by merchants, bureaucrats and politicians - when it showed up. Goods were often shoddy and food unfit to eat. Merchants and traders charged exorbitant rates of interest for credit purchases. When government payments didn't show up, they repossessed the plows, tools and firearms they sold on credit - then filed for payment of "debts in arrears" against the annuity. It was a corrupt, incestuous system and it had been like that since the first day of the first treaty.
By August of 1862, the Dakota were literally starving. Crops had failed the year before and the previous winter had been particularly brutal. Planting was late and the harvest was weeks away. The $80,000 annuity payment that was due in June was nowhere to be seen. Indian agents had warehouses full of food but refused to distribute it or extend any credit. They wanted cash. These continued deprivations and mistreatment would soon push the Dakota over the edge - including Little Crow.
In early August, things deteriorated rapidly. Multiple meetings between the Indian councils, the agents, the Army and Christian missionaries proved fruitless. On August 4, the Dakota tried to break into a food warehouse at the Lower Agency but were driven away by the army. Soldiers were posted on guard duty to prevent a re-occurrence.
On August 5, the war fuse was lit. Little Crow and other council members had yet another meeting with agency representatives, including Andrew Jackson Myrick, the head trader at the Lower Agency. He listened to the Dakota pleas for food but was incensed by the break-in attempt and refused to budge. He is said to have responded "Let them eat grass." Most of the council members stormed out, never to return. Myrick had just signed his own death warrant.
Mr. Let Them Eat Grass - Lower Sioux Agency trader Andrew Jackson Myrick in 1860. An ill-tempered alcoholic who was married to a Dakota woman, he was one of the first to die in the uprising. Little Crow himself led the hunt for Myrick, who jumped out of a second story window in his office to flee. He didn't get far. The attackers killed him and stuffed grass in his mouth. Two weeks later, his body with the mouthful of grass was found by his brother Nathan who was with the Fort Ridgely burial detail.
The next 12 days were full of turmoil and confusion on both sides. The annuity payment was here, then it wasn't. Agents agreed to distribute food then changed their minds. Army reinforcements came and then left. Missionaries were reporting talk of war in the lodges but continued to hold services for newly converted Christian Indians. In the Dakota councils, there were non-stop discussions with forceful advocates for both war and peace. In the meantime, the settlers were clueless, as were many of the mixed breed people and "farmer Indians", who many Dakota held in contempt. They were intentionally kept out of the loop.
It all came down to Little Crow. He had spent his adult life trying to get the best deal he could for his people and work within the system they had been forced into. Now, it became apparent that conditions were only going to get worse. He was under no illusions about the final outcome of a war with the whites and warned his people that for every one they kill, 10 more will take their place. Despite his misgivings, he finally decided enough was enough. It was time to take back their homeland by force or die trying.
On the morning of August 18, 1862, the Minnesota River Valley exploded into open warfare. Nobody saw it coming and nobody was ready for it. Before dawn, Little Crow, in war paint and battle dress, led a column of Dakota warriors out of their village. They went looking for Mister Let Them Eat Grass, trader Andrew Myrick at the Lower Sioux Agency. A short time later, they found him.
Energized by years of pent up fury, 1,600 Dakotas on foot and on horseback went on the war path. The Dakota were warlike by nature and fearsome fighters. They killed without mercy, often barbarically and mutilated their victims, believing that spirits who entered the afterlife without heads, eyes, tongues, hearts or limbs would not be able to fight them again. Reservation living hadn't softened them a bit. However, their long deliberative decision making process and their lack of coordinated tactics caused problems against prepared enemies. Basically, once the decision to attack a target was made, it became a free-for-all, with little coordination or command structure.
A sketch map of the Lower Sioux Agency (also called Redwood Falls) battle area on August 18. The Upper Agency (also called Yellow Medicine) was about 30 miles away. Fort Ridgely was 10 miles down the road. The agencies were government offices responsible for carrying out the provisions of Indian treaties. There were schools, stores and warehouses. The Indians lived close by in their own villages. You can also see the site of the Battle of Redwood Ferry. That battle site is now on private property and is one of the few historic sites from the Dakota War that can't be easily visited.
War parties fanned out across the valley on both sides of the river. It was open season on whites. Men, women and children were killed in the fields, in their homes and in their beds. Hundreds of other women and children were taken captive to be used as hostages or slaves later on. They spared the farming Indians and the mixed race people, some of whom stripped off their clothes, put on war paint and joined them. Still others sounded the alarm, shielded their white neighbors and helped them reach safety. Escape was a relative term since the Dakota were all over the place. Some people successfully evaded the marauders, often while bleeding, burned and with children. Soon, there were so many refugees that they just got on the road and made a run for it. Resistance in those early hours was futile and death was everywhere.
Little Crow's war party arrived at the Lower Sioux Agency around 0630. They spread through the complex of buildings, warehouses and homes, killing 30 people and burning what they couldn't carry away. They found Myrick in his second floor office. He tried to escape by jumping out the window but was run down and shot dead. Then they stuffed grass in his mouth. In the pandemonium, almost 50 people were able to get away and make their way towards Fort Ridgely. Some made it. Some didn't.
Another war party went to the Redwood Ferry, a rope line towboat that crossed the Minnesota River nearby. They killed the ferry operator, then set an L-shaped ambush on both sides of the river to wait for whoever came along. They figured that soldiers would show up eventually and they would have to come this way. They were right.
The first whites to blunder into the rampage were in a group of wagons out of New Ulm making the rounds of farms to enlist young men into military service. Minnesota had already sent five regiments to the Union Army but more were needed. The unarmed recruiting train had a brass band and five wagons, hoping to fill them all with new recruits. They never got the chance. Just after sun up, while approaching a ravine spanned by a wooden bridge seven miles west of New Ulm, they were ambushed by the Dakota. Four men were killed. The drivers of the two lead wagons drove their teams straight at the ambushers, then jumped off. The other two wagons turned tail and galloped full speed back to town with the first word of what was happening. From there, the alarm spread quickly.
Not far from the recruiting train ambush site, war parties descended on Milford Township, an unincorporated farming area just outside the reservation border and about 8 miles west of New Ulm. Here, the slaughter began in earnest. Fifty three people from 10 families were killed within a mile of each other, making this the most blood-soaked piece of real estate in Minnesota. A monument marks the epicenter today.
Refugees on the move on the first day of the Dakota War. They are being escorted by Christian missionaries and friendly mixed blood neighbors. This is the only picture known to exist that was actually taken during the war.
By now, the morning horizon was blotted with columns of black smoke from burning homesteads and the first refugees were streaming into New Ulm and Fort Ridgely. At New Ulm, Sheriff Charles Roos formed a posse to deal with what he thought was a small band of renegades. Just outside of town, they began running into refugees. From their numbers and condition, he realized that a full fledged war had broken out. The posse turned into an all day rescue mission and fired the first shots of resistance at the Dakota. When the sheriff returned to New Ulm, he dispatched riders east and north to Mankato, St. Peter and La Suere asking for help. Then they began to prepare defenses against the attack they knew would come.
At Fort Ridgely, Captain John Marsh faced the same situation. By mid-day, wounded and incoherent survivors were flowing into the fort with horrific tales. He sent couriers out to bring back reinforcements that had just left for Fort Ripley and Fort Snelling. He sent a rider with dispatches to St. Paul 125 miles away. The rider made it in 18 hours, alerting towns along the way. Governor Alexander Ramsey immediately ordered a relief force to assemble and march. Most of the troops were raw recruits destined for the Civil War but that would have to wait. In command was former Governor Henry Hastings Sibley.
Fort Ridgely had 75 men in the garrison. Unaware of the scope of things, Captain Marsh took 46 of them and moved on the Lower Sioux Agency to quell the rebellion. Marsh and his mixed blood interpreter, Peter Quinn, rode mules. The troopers were in two wagons. They went down the usual road that led to the Redwood Ferry. Along the way, they saw their first bodies.
The Milford State Memorial on Highway 29 about eight miles west of New Ulm. It was placed here by the State of Minnesota in 1929. Within a half mile circle of this spot, 53 men, women, children and infants were killed by the Dakota on the morning of August 18, 1862. The New Ulm recruiting party was ambushed not far from here. There is a monument at that spot also, one of many that dot the roads and countryside of the river valley. The GPS coordinates here are N44.35647° W94.5935°.
When they arrived at the ferry site, they found the operator dead and mutilated. Marsh went to the river bank to recon the site. A mixed blood carrying a rifle appeared on the other side and talked to Marsh through Quinn. He told the soldiers to come on over. By now, the troops were off the wagons and bunched up on the bank. Then they spotted the twitching tails of Indian ponies in the bushes on both sides of the river. They realized it was a setup and the half-breed on the other side was part of it but it was too late. They were in the kill zone. The Dakota opened fire on the closely packed troops and killed 20 of them. The rest returned fire to no avail. The survivors, including the Captain, dove into the river with the Dakota firing from the banks and trying to get ahead of them. Captain Marsh, who had fought at the First Battle of Manassas with a Wisconsin Regiment, drowned as did several others. Peter Quinn was killed in the first volley.
Eventually, the Dakota river pursuit fizzled out and the survivors straggled back to the fort until the following morning. In the history books, this action is called The Battle of Redwood Ferry. It wasn't much of a battle but the 24 KIA was the largest loss of life the Army would suffer in the Dakota War. Now they had a bigger problem - a defenseless outpost, 300 refugees and only 25 men to defend it against an attack by hundreds of Dakota.
The body count kept rising through that horrible day - 29 at the Lower Sioux Agency, 60 in Milford Township, 24 at Redwood Ferry, 29 in Beaver Falls Township, 5 in Acton, 4 from the recruiting train plus countless assaults and ambushes that may never be known. Finally, darkness and fatigue stopped the onslaught. The war councils met to plan their next steps. Would it be Fort Ridgely or New Ulm?
In the midst of all this, on the afternoon of that bloody day people watched in amazement as a stagecoach rolled into Fort Ridgely. It carried several barrels of gold coins totaling $80,000 - the missing annuity payment. How they got through untouched is anybody's guess. A day earlier and all of this might have been avoided. The coins were buried on the fort grounds. After the war, they were dug up and returned to the U.S. Treasury.
The two commanders for the Battles of Fort Ridgely. Both these young officers showed great leadership under fire. Sheehan had already fought at First Manassas. Gere was a future Medal of Honor winner who led the counterattacks on the critical northeast wall. Both fought this war and the Civil War and survived. Sheehan stayed in Minnesota after the war, married a local girl and raised a family in Albert Lea. He was a US Marshal and county Sheriff until the turn of the century. He died in 1913 and is buried in St. Paul. Gere died in 1912 after a quiet post-war life in Iowa. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
At daylight, the Dakota were back at it. They had total command of the valley and kept racking up the body count - Kandiyohi County - 24 dead, Lake Shetek - 14 dead, Belmont Township - 13 dead, Leavenworth Township - 11 dead. Many others were missing or captured. Despite their success so far, Little Crow knew that their war was going nowhere unless they took Fort Ridgely and New Ulm. Today was the day.
It had been a busy night at the fort and the town. Both places prepared makeshift barricades out of whatever they could find and planned their defensive schemes. After the death of Captain Marsh, 19 year old 2nd Lieutenant Thomas Gere was in command of Fort Ridgely. Two years later, Lt Gere would earn the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Nashville and go on to survive the war, living to a ripe old age. However, right now his future prospects were not good.
He had 26 men on board including seven in the hospital. Gere himself had the mumps. On the morning of August 19, he was using a second floor window of the granite barracks building as a vantage point. Through binoculars, he watched a dust cloud in the northwest turn into 400 Dakotas coming right at him. Fort Ridgely was looking at certain annihilation. Still, Gere planned to make a fight of it and deployed his men. The 300 refugees on board were cloistered on the second floor of the barracks. That's where the last stand would be. If the Dakota kept coming, the people inside Fort Ridgely had less than an hour to live. Then, in full view of the fort but out of firing range, they stopped. Lt. Gere watched as the Dakota began arguing among themselves. It went on for several hours.
Jacob Nix (shown here years later), the storekeeper and former German soldier who planned and led the defense at the First Battle of New Ulm.
Little Crow wanted to hit the fort to get the arms, ammo and cannon that were there. Others wanted to attack New Ulm, which they considered a softer, more lucrative target. In the end, the New Ulm faction won out and 100 Dakota headed for the town. Little Crow and his people went back to their village.
The reality was that New Ulm was better defended at this point than the fort. The Dakota could have practically walked into Fort Ridgely. If those arms, including artillery had been used against New Ulm, the Dakota would have cleared out the entire valley that very day and pushed on. It would have taken an army to root them out - an army that neither Minnesota nor the Union had. The Dakota penchant for lengthy council and consensus leadership cost them dearly. They had just blown their best chance at winning their war.
Through the previous day and all night, the weary citizen-soldiers of New Ulm prepared their defenses. They were led by Sheriff Roos and Jacob Nix, a townsman who had served in the German Army before coming to America. The business district, which was three blocks long and two blocks wide, was the designated defensive area. Minnesota Street ran down the long axis. The ends were at 3rd Street and Center Street. All these streets remain today.
Continuous barricades were built about 50 feet out from the buildings with anything and everything they could get their hands on. This was a very smart move by Nix. Having the barricades further out allowed observation of large sections of the perimeter and enabled quick reinforcement. It also enhanced movement and communication inside the entire area. If they had built the barricades between the buildings, which is what most people would have done, there would have been no way to know what was going on around you. Breaches could have gone unnoticed until the Indians swarmed out on to Minnesota Street. ( At Fort Ridgely, they built their barricades between the buildings and incorporated them into the perimeter. Given their particular situation with granite buildings and much more open space, that was sound tactics, too. )
The First Battle of New Ulm
Michael Eischen (extant)
A contemporary local historian and artist, this is Mr. Eischen's big picture view of the New Ulm battlefield. The picture is displayed outside the Brown County Historical Society Museum. The black oval indicating the defensive perimeter is the author's. In the full picture, you can see barricades and fighting at the center of town. The Dakota attackers have set fire to outer buildings. By the end of the second battle, many more will be in flames and the fires will be much closer to the perimeter. The second attack will come from the high ground across the top of the picture. The windmill outside the perimeter will be a key outpost for that battle. The defenders inside hold off multiple attacks but finally have to flee as the mill burns.
Firing ports were chopped into exterior walls of the buildings. A surveyor's telescope was placed on the roof of John Erd's store and enabled long range observation. Inside this six block area were almost 2,000 people along with wagons, livestock and all the other things that fleeing survivors had brought along. Refugees were packed into several brick buildings which offered protection from arrows and bullets - but not fire. The torrential rains that fell all this week took care of that.
Food, medicine and sanitation were all in short supply and human conditions went downhill fast. The other thing in short supply was guns. The defenders could only muster about 100 armed men and a number of those had double-barrel shotguns. Others manned the barricades with pitchforks and axes. When it came, it would be a close-in fight.
It came at three o'clock that afternoon. About 100 Dakota attackers appeared on the bluff west of town and began firing. Soon, they dismounted and made their way down the slope, firing as they went. The free-for-all style of Dakota fighting diluted what might have been an effective assault. Some of the braves attacked the barricades. Some occupied nearby buildings and fired from them. Others set fire to outlying structures after looting them.
An hour after the fight started, a group of seven armed volunteers from up the road in Nicollet County made their way into the barricades and joined the battle. Nix led several forays outside the barricades to drive the Indians from nearby buildings. Many of the town's outer buildings were in flames.
Much of the fighting in New Ulm was in and around buildings. At first, the defenders tried digging out the Dakota but soon changed tactics. They simply burned buildings occupied by the attackers. Still, most of the casualties in both battles were in this kind of close-in room by room, floor by floor action.
This deadly cat-and-mouse game amongst the barricades and the buildings went on for about two hours mostly in the west and north. If the Dakota had massed at any one point and attacked with everybody, they might have breached the defenses. However, that tactic was not in their playbook this day.
Around 1900, a huge thunderstorm moved into the area with torrential downpours and vivid lightning. Shortly after that, a group of 15 armed and mounted volunteers showed up, led by the Sheriff of Nicollet County, Lorenzo Boardman. They immediately threw themselves into the fight outside the barricades. The Dakota withdrew and went back to their village.
The rain quenched all the fires, cleaned out the air and provided drinking water. Six defenders had been killed and five wounded, including Jacob Nix. Indian casualties are unknown but they were seen taking bodies away. There had been much destruction but the townspeople had survived. There was no celebration. They had work to do strengthening the defenses. The Dakota would be back. Next time, they would have a better plan and a lot more people. So would the defenders.
It may have had no walls, no water and lousy location, but one thing Fort Ridgely did have was artillery. The firepower at the fort far exceeded what would normally be found at an administrative post in a secure area. Sgt Jones had it all working. Located at GPS coordinates N44.45013° W94.73004° , this is a Google Earth overhead of the fort today with gun positions annotated. You can clearly see the foundations of the other buildings and the outline of the fort. McGrew's gun is pointing north. The 24 pound howitzer was kept at the center and moved where needed. By the second battle, the entire perimeter was enclosed by barricades. Infantry was concentrated around the gun positions to protect the weapon and the crew. Little Crow wanted those cannon. If he had attacked on the 19th, he'd have gotten them.
The New Ulm raiders returned to their village and Little Crow. The tenacious defense and fighting spirit of the town people had taken them by complete surprise. At the start of the war, these peaceful unsuspecting farmers were tending crops and milking cows. Now two days later, they furiously rooted out attackers in house-to-house fighting, engaged in close combat and burned their own buildings. Years later, the old chiefs and warriors who fought in the uprising confirmed that it was a real shock. History hasn't recorded what was said when they got back from New Ulm, but it was probably something along the lines of "I hope you got that out of your system. Now can we go attack the fort?" For once, everybody was in agreement - attack the fort.
The failed attack on New Ulm bought valuable time for Fort Ridgely and they took full advantage of it. The post which had been laying practically naked on the prairie the day before was now barricaded and reinforced by over 100 troops. Post riders had caught up with recently departed units, who immediately wheeled around and marched day and night to reach the beleaguered post.
The new fort commander was Lt. Timothy Sheehan, who led one of the reinforcing units - 50 men from Company B, 5th Minnesota Regiment at Fort Ripley. They had force marched 40 miles in ten hours to reach Ridgely and had arrived the previous day just after the Dakota departed the scene. When they arrived, Sheehan assumed command. Lt. Gere positioned himself on the most dangerous part of the perimeter - the northeast wall. Both of these young officers would distinguish themselves in the days ahead.
A 12 pound mountain howitzer being fired by a re-enactor. A canister round out of one of these sent 148 x .69 caliber lead balls down range out to 400 yards. These guns were used a lot in the Indian wars because they could be disassembled and carried on pack horses. A good gun crew could have it up and ready to fire in two minutes. These guns manned the east and south corners of Fort Ridgely.
Another group called the Renville Rangers arrived the evening of the 19th. This was a group of 50 men from Renville County who volunteered to fight in the Union Army. They were on their way to Fort Snelling to muster in when the Ridgely courier caught up with them in St. Peter on the night of the 18th. They were in Fort Ridgely the next evening.
But the real salvation of Fort Ridgely was a crusty, experienced 40 year old Mexican War veteran - Sergeant John Jones, U.S. Army Ordnance. He was permanently stationed at Fort Ridgely to repair and maintain the artillery battery left behind by the Regular Army garrison. On board were five muzzle-loading guns - two 6 pound field guns, two 12 pound mountain howitzers and one 24 pound howitzer. (The pound designator refers to the approximate weight of the shell and powder it fires.) Jones had all but the 24 pounder ready to go and trained mixed soldier-civilian crews to man them. A gun was placed in each corner of the square-shaped perimeter. Riflemen were concentrated around them for protection.
The guns had four types of artillery rounds available - solid shell, explosive shell, fused case or hollow shell (for exploding overhead) and canister shells. Canister was like a giant buckshot round that turned artillery into a sawed off shotgun. The crews added to the lethality of their weapons with "langridge" - a fancy name for scrap metal. Anything that would fit down the bore of a cannon was collected up. Things like nails, links of chain, horse shoes and door hinges were gathered, cinched up in gunny sacks like cloth cannonballs and piled at the gun positions. The bag of metal could be crammed down the barrel and fired with regular shells or by themselves with a powder charge.
Sgt John Jones (shown here later as a Captain) saved Fort Ridgely with his artillery. His son and pregnant wife barely escaped capture from their outer wooden quarters on August 20. She gave birth stillborn the next day.
A number of the 350 refugees volunteered to fight on the line. One of them - John Whipple - had been an artilleryman in the Mexican War. Assigned as a gun captain of a 12 pound mountain howitzer, his crew would blow apart the worst of the attacks. Every able bodied person worked. Barricades were built. Food was prepared. The wounded, sick and pregnant (quite a few, including Sgt. Jones' wife) were tended to. Fire fighting equipment and water were staged. Stoves were heated up to make "hot shot" - red hot cannon balls.
There were still significant problems which they couldn't do much about. First, they had no water source. It had to be carried up from the river, which was out of the question at this point. They would be ok in the short term but a long, hot siege or fire fighting would be trouble. The torrential rains the night before had helped enormously. Second, the fort had deep ravines on three sides that allowed an enemy to approach unseen and pop up well within rifle and arrow range of the defenses. That is exactly what the Dakota planned to do. The only open field of fire was the prairie to the northwest. Third, the barricaded main courtyard of the fort was their only line of defense. If it was breached in large numbers, there was no fall back position and no counter-attack plan. It was hold or die. Finally, outside the barricade were a number of wooden buildings used for services and support. These included quarters, storage, cooking, laundry and stables. These could and would be used for cover by attackers.
Nevertheless, the fort had worked miracles. Just 24 hours earlier, it had been a wall-less compound with 25 untrained defenders facing certain annihilation. Now they had a fighting chance with 180 shooters behind barricades and artillery. They would keep working right up to the minute the Dakota struck.
Fort Ridgely was never meant to be a fighting post. In addition to having no walls, it had ravines on three sides that allowed attackers to come out almost on top of it. This sketch is from a 1909 book called "Recollections of the Sioux Massacre" by Oscar Wall, a Fort Ridgely veteran. It shows the ravines around the fort. Wall relates in his book that some of the ravines come out just a few rods from the fort. A rod is 16 1/2 feet.
While the Ridgely defenders worked, 400 Dakota moved into position, most of them in the three ravines around the fort. Their plan was to hit the fort from all four sides at once. A small Dakota force, which included Little Crow, would approach from the northwest prairie to draw everybody's attention. The northeast ravine was closest. They would commence the attack and that would be the signal for everybody else to go. Although simple in concept, the "fog of war" fell upon the Dakota. Massed, coordinated attacks were not in their playbook. The simultaneous attack turned into uncoordinated separate assaults in which individual braves, like at New Ulm, did whatever they wanted.
Long range rifle fire from the prairie group hit two of Sheehan's men in the open courtyard, killing one. Sheehan ordered everybody to the barricades and to fire at will. The first attackers came out of the northeast ravine about 1300 and headed for the perimeter at a dead run. Under heavy fire the whole time, they reached the row of log huts that paralleled the northeast wall. Led by Lt. Gere, defenders leaped over the barricades and moved in to root them out. Fighting swirled all around. At one point, several Dakota attackers briefly penetrated the barricades but were driven back into the huts. John Whipple on the east corner and Sgt. James McGrew on the north corner turned their guns on the wooden structures and started blasting at point blank range. The Dakota had never faced artillery before. As stunned attackers ran out of the burning, splintered huts, they were cut down by canister rounds and rifle fire from the second floor of the barracks. They were chased by lead all the way to the ravine and didn't come back.
Then the southwest ravine came alive and more Dakota stormed the west corner of the fort - right at the Renville Rangers and a 6 pounder manned by Sgt. Jones and his crew. They poured rifle fire and double canister loads ( 552 lead balls per salvo) into the attackers, who practically vaporized.
Throughout the course of the afternoon, several assaults were attempted on the south and west sides. Each time, artillery broke up the attack. There were no more attacks from the east. On the prairie side, they killed or ran off all the livestock, but never approached the fort. After five fruitless, bloody hours, the shell shocked Dakota left the field. Artillery had won the day. Its booming reverberated up and down the valley and was heard in New Ulm almost 20 miles away.
A Dakota view of the 24 pound howitzer. The bore is the size of a cantaloupe. It can fire a 20 pound explosive projectile almost a mile or canister out to 600 yards. Howitzers have a higher angle of fire than regular field guns. This makes them suited for dropping rounds down into places - like ravines.
The fort held up well. They immediately went to work repairing and strengthening their defenses. They also got a courier out with a message to Governor Ramsey advising him of their situation and requesting reinforcements. The barricades were strengthened and extended between all the buildings. Revetments were built around the cannon so they could be loaded in their firing positions instead of being wheeled behind a building. The fort's two biggest buildings, the headquarters and the enlisted barracks, were both made of granite blocks. Bullets fired at them flattened and dropped to the ground outside and the floors inside - hundreds of them. These were collected up and re-molded into new ones for the defenders' muzzle loading rifles.
Sgt. Jones got the big 24 pound howitzer ready to go. It was placed in the center of the courtyard and a revetment built around it. This gun could fire a large explosive shell almost a mile in addition to firing huge canister rounds almost six inches in diameter. Although large and unwieldy, it could be manhandled into position by its gun crew. It would be used for long range fire and to reinforce the perimeter where needed.
The exhausted defenders waited apprehensively for Little Crow's next move. They stood behind the barricades on full alert, locked and loaded 24 hours a day. Night time was especially trying and the torrential rains made things worse. Given the Dakota ability to move at night, the worst case scenario was a close infiltration and an attack too quick to defend against. Weary soldiers with hair trigger nerves fired at sounds and apparitions all night. The 24 pounder saw its first action. It lobbed shells into the ravines and out on the prairie to harass and interdict anything that might be brewing. All was quiet that night and again on the 21st. No one knew the fate of the courier or if anyone was even aware of their situation. Would the 22nd bring more Dakota, more soldiers or more waiting?
This sketch of unknown origin offers a very clear visual of how the second battle progressed. The relative position of the ravines is accurate. In the drawing, we see the barricades, the burning stables, an artillery round impacting in the west ravine and multiple waves of attackers.
The mood in Little Crow's village after the first battle was grim. This whole thing was going sideways. At the end of the first day, they had killed hundreds of people and chased away thousands more. The valley was practically theirs. Then came the setback at New Ulm and now this. Nobody had counted on the whites fighting this well or going up against weapons that fired many times at once. There was no turning back. More soldiers would show up soon. Taking New Ulm and the fort now was more important than ever. The question was how to do it - and still have enough people left to continue the fight. The artillery fire had the Dakota spooked. Nobody was in a hurry to go back and try again. All was quiet on the 21st and it rained heavily.
On the evening of August 21, unexpected good news showed up in the form of 400 Dakota braves from tribes further up the river valley. Little Crow could now muster over 1,000 fighters. They would all attack the fort the next day. The new additions were eager to join the fight. They hadn't faced artillery yet.
Attack from the Southeast
David Geister (extant)
Twin Cities native and resident David Geister specializes in historical art with an emphasis on Minnesota. Here he depicts a scene from one of the attacks on Fort Ridgely as the Dakota try to counter the fort's artillery. They had the right idea - kill the gun crews. However, they were unable to do so.
The Dakota attack plan was more of the same - attack on all sides out of the ravines. They did make a couple of smart tactical shifts. They would concentrate their fire on the gun crews. If they could keep the guns from firing as much and buy enough time to get to the barricades with enough people, they could swarm all over the defenders. They would use fire arrows to start fires in the buildings and divert defenders to deal with that. They also had an attack force that was almost three times the size of the last one. Historians put the number as high as 1,200. At noon on the 22nd, it started.
A thousand Dakota swarmed out of three ravines and sprinted towards the barricades. Their bodies were painted with vertical mud stripes and they had put vegetation in their headbands. Bobbing, weaving and dropping into the tall prairie grass, they were hard to see and harder to hit. Unlike the last fight, they all kicked off at about the same time. In more modern times, this would have been called a "human wave attack' or a "banzai charge" and it was not business as usual for the Dakota. This type of fighting was foreign to them and it showed when the Fort Ridgely perimeter erupted. A hail of shot and shell hit the massed attackers, stopping the assaults cold well in front of the barricades and chasing them back into the ravines. The coordinated attack fell apart.
Back down in the ravines, the war chiefs sent them out again and again with the same results. Each assault was less vigorous than the previous one. At several points in the battle, Dakota reached some of the wooden support buildings outside the perimeter. The gun crews hit them with hot shot and burned them down, starting prairie fires in the process. Unlike red hot cannon balls, Dakota fire arrows had little effect. The rains had dampened everything. Several small fires started but were rapidly contained by chopping out the burning section. Smoke from rifles, cannon and prairies fires covered the whole battlefield. This undoubtedly affected accurate rifle fire in both directions and enhanced the survivability of the gun crews, who fired unimpeded throughout the engagement.
Re-enactors fire a six pound field gun. Fort Ridgely had one of these on the west and north corners. Notice the smoke. All these cannon produced an incredible amount of noise, concussion, flame and smoke. The entire battlefield would have been inundated with it. Guns (as opposed to howitzers and mortars) had a flat trajectory and were ideally suited for raking attacking soldiers with canister. One tactic that cannon crews used was to fire the canister right in front of the attackers. The lead balls would ricochet all over the place and widen the kill zone. It also limited the effectiveness of the attackers hitting the ground to avoid the blast. These weapons were the scourge of the infantry (and the Dakota). The only way for ground troops to defeat them was to keep coming no matter what until the guns were swarmed over. It took nerve, discipline and lots of people. The Dakota were hard fighters but they had no answer for this.
The 24 pounder was unleashed again, dropping explosive shells on the Dakota at distances that previously had been out of range. Several rounds are known to have impacted on groups of Dakota moving around the battlefield. Not only did this compound their tactical difficulties, it almost took out Little Crow. He was knocked senseless by a close artillery round and was out of action for three days.
The remaining chiefs decided to launch one last attack with everybody from the southwest ravine. Giving Ridgely's cannon a wide berth, it took several hours to shift their forces. As the sun was low on the horizon, the Dakota launched everything they had left at the southwest wall in the single biggest assault of the two day battle. They were again met by furious close-in defensive fires including, for the first time, canister from the 24 pounder. Augmenting the fire from the south and west corner guns, it was louder than both of them combined. With the three booming cannon firing salvos of double canister, the attack was short lived. The unnerved Dakota simply had no answer for it. Leaving a small group to observe and harass the fort, they withdrew and headed back to their village in the dark.
The defenders of Fort Ridgely had no idea what would happen next. They knew there were still Dakota lurking about ready to pick off any careless people or take advantage of a defensive lapse. They had to stay on their toes in a virtual state of siege. For all they knew, the Dakota could be back again tomorrow with even more warriors. As it turns out, the next group of people they saw come towards them were soldiers from a relief column on August 27. The siege was broken. The defenders had been remarkably resilient and lucky. Even the weather had cooperated. The official records count six killed and 13 wounded over the course of two days. The number of Dakota dead was never confirmed. In his after action report, Lt. Gere estimated at least 100. We'll never know.
The Dakota gave up on Fort Ridgely. If they had known the state of things inside the fort, they might have tried it one more time. The defenders were out of rifle ammunition and almost out of artillery rounds. Led by a remarkable woman named Eliza Muller, the wife of the post surgeon, a group of women collected up spent bullets and remolded them during the battle. When the bullets ran out, they cut up iron bars into plugs that would fit down a rifle barrel. That's what the soldiers were shooting at the end and that's all they had left - about six plugs each.
Fortunately, the Dakota didn't come back. After the events of the last several days, they needed a resounding victory to get this uprising back on track, preferably against a soft target. They would jump start their war and exact their revenge on the people of New Ulm the very next day.
This is the Friedrich Kiesling house in downtown New Ulm at the corner of Minnesota Street and 3rd Street. Built in 1861, it is one of three buildings still standing in New Ulm that survived the war and the only one in the defensive area. It was a private residence until 1970. This is its original location. From here, it's a straight shot down to the river. The house anchored the northwest corner of the defensive perimeter. There was fighting at the barricades both here and to the left along 3rd Street. You can see the makeshift barricade of wood, barrels and wagon wheels although they were about 50 feet out and not connected to the house. As an escape contingency, the house was filled with straw and set to burn to cover a possible run for the river if the town fell.
The defenders of New Ulm listened to the battles at Fort Ridgely for two days but had no idea of the outcome. It had been four days since the first attack on the town and it was only a matter of time before the Dakota returned. During that time, reinforcements arrived from a number of different places. The defenders could now muster 300 armed fighters. Among the other reinforcements were a group of doctors, who set up a hospital in the Dacotah House. One of the doctors was William Mayo, who would establish the Mayo Clinic with his sons 20 years later.
The largest of these groups was 125 men from St. Peter, MN. They were led by Judge Charles Flandrau, one of the most prominent citizens in the state. Born in New York City in 1828, Flandrau migrated to Minnesota in 1853 to practice law. He had been an Indian agent, a territorial judge, helped write the state constitution and was now a State Supreme Court Justice. Aside from a couple of years as a merchant seaman in the early 1840's, he had no military experience. However, war time has a tendency to bring out the "naturals", like college professor Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top, who rise to the occasion when needed. Charles Flandrau was one of them.
He became the consensus leader for the defense of New Ulm. Sizing up the situation, he correctly observed that they would have to fight forward of the barricades as much as possible. A breach of the perimeter would open the floodgates and be devastating. The attackers had to be stopped in front of the defenses.
Flandrau had marksmen barricade themselves in two stout multi-story stone buildings west of the perimeter - the Forster Building and a windmill called the Roebbecke Mill. From there they could observe and fire upon any attackers. Both outposts withstood multiple Indian attacks during the battle. He also had men ready to deploy in a skirmish line forward of the barricades. Finally, they prepared to sortie out of the perimeter to fight the Dakota in the streets, buildings and fields surrounding the town.
The Frank Erd dry goods store was one of only three brick buildings on Minnesota Street. Many women and children took cover here during the fighting. The story of their emergency plan, detailed to the right, is one of the more compelling stories of the war.
The ultimate defensive preparation was undertaken by the women of New Ulm. During the fighting, many of the women and children took cover in the basement of the Erd Building, a brick structure built just a year earlier. Many were refugees who had escaped the carnage of the first few days but it was fresh on their minds. If the town fell, they were not going to be taken and face a hideous death at the hands of the Dakota. They had a barrel of gunpowder rolled into their shelter. If the Dakota came, the last act of the defenders of New Ulm would be to blow up themselves and as many Indians as possible. Fortunately, it never came to that.
Conditions inside the defensive area grew worse by the day. Their food was almost gone. Sanitation conditions were appalling, with hundreds of people crowded into rooms and basements almost 24 hours a day. There had been torrential rains and the streets were a sea of mud. Squalor and disease would soon become as great a danger as the Dakota. However, at this point, evacuation was not an option. A wagon train of refugees slogging through the mud would be a sitting duck for Indian raids. Here they could still fight. They would have to wait it out. The day after the Second Battle of Fort Ridgely, the waiting ended.
Despite all their preparations, the start of the battle had the makings of a complete disaster for New Ulm. Around 0800, guards reported smoke across the river. Assuming this was an attack force, Flandrau sent 75 mounted militia to hit them first. The riders encountered a force several times their size and were cut off from the town. They had to ride north to escape and missed the battle. This cut Flandrau's force by 25% before a shot was fired.
The Battle of New Ulm
Frank Stengel (1888 - 1976)
This image clearly communicates the frenzied action at New Ulm. Of the two battles, the second one on August 23 was by far the most significant. It was a desperate day long fight. The defenders were outnumbered almost four to one and the Dakota were revenge-crazy after their defeat at Fort Ridgely the previous day. I have been unable to find any other battle in U.S. history where citizens fortified and fought in the streets of their own town to defend against Indian attacks. In that respect and others, the Battles of New Ulm are singular events in American history. This image is actually a sketch done by Stengel as he worked on designing the Minnesota Exhibit for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. It was donated to the Brown County Historical Society Museum in New Ulm by his grandson.
At 0930, almost 1,000 war-painted Dakota warriors showed themselves to the defenders of New Ulm. They were all mounted and made no attempt to hide or be stealthy. They stretched across the horizon along present-day State Street and completely surrounded the town. Flandrau deployed his skirmishers forward to meet the attack. On signal, the Dakota stormed down the bluff towards the town, yelling like demons. The size, speed and ferocity of the attack caused the skirmishers to break ranks and run for the barricades with the Indians in hot pursuit. Flandrau's plan disintegrated. He and his officers managed to stop the retreat and reorganize the defenses just in time to meet the lead attackers at the barricades. The perimeter held.
The battle became a street fight as the Indians occupied numerous buildings around the perimeter and used them to cover their fire and movement. Flandrau's men attacked numerous times, rooting out Indians room-to-room and sometimes hand-to-hand. It was as dirty and dangerous as combat gets. Of the 29 defenders lost that day, 23 were killed outside the barricades.
Out of sheer desperation, the defenders began to torch their own buildings outside the barricades. The Dakota were already burning the rest of the town. The clapboard structures went up like matchsticks, creating an open area around the New Ulm perimeter that the Dakota found difficult to cross without getting shot at. By this time, the Dakota were also getting desperate to put this thing away, so they tried some other tactics.
In mid-afternoon, defenders reported a group of reinforcement making their way towards the southeast barricades. A group set out to meet them and were fired upon. Several were killed. The "reinforcements" were Dakota wearing settlers clothes.
Late in the day, the attackers set a prairie fire to the southeast of town. Combined with burning structures and crops, the fires produced an enormous wall of smoke and the winds took it right towards the town. The Dakota followed it in and got as far as the August Kiesling Blacksmith Shop, just a few steps from the southeast perimeter. They also occupied surrounding buildings which gave them clear fields of fire right down Minnesota Street. This led to the decisive action of the battle on a spot which is today a Subway restaurant on the northeast corner of Center and Minnesota Streets.
Michael Eischen (extant)
This mural-sized painting done in 2004 is on display at the Brown County Historical Society Museum in New Ulm. It shows the make-or-break moment in the Second Battle of New Ulm. The artist has keenly portrayed the fury of the action along with historical details such as the barricades, fires and the huge wall of smoke. Judge Flandrau is seen over the barricades and the lead elements are closing on the Kiesling Blacksmith Shop. Four defenders were killed but the unexpected and vigorous counterattack broke the back of the Dakota assault. The location of this picture would be around the intersection of Minnesota and Center Streets.
The inside of the perimeter started taking fire that risked making their position untenable. Recognizing the danger, Judge Flandrau led a counterattack of 60 men over the barricades and right at the enemy advance, focusing on the blacksmith shop (today's Subway). Jacob Nix was there too with his arm in a sling from wounds he took on the first day. Ferocious close-in combat ensued but the defenders carried the fight and physically ran after the Dakota as they retreated. Flandrau ordered the burning of all the buildings outside that end of the perimeter, 40 in all. That hard fought action ended most of the fighting and by dark, the Dakota were gone. Four of Flandrau's men were killed.
Most of the townspeople had survived but the town had not. New Ulm was destroyed. Over half the buildings were burned down and most of the rest were damaged, many beyond repair. Twenty nine defenders out of 225 were dead. Six more had been killed the first day. The wounded, injured and sick far exceeded the means to treat them adequately and an epidemic was only a matter of time. They were just about out of ammunition. Even worse, nobody knew if the battle was over. If the Dakota came back in force, it would be almost impossible to hold them off again.
The next morning, they did come back but only about 100 of them. It didn't amount to much. There was some sniping, yelling and looting but by late morning, it was over. During the day, wagons and supplies rolled in along with 150 armed volunteers. With nothing left to defend and nothing to defend it with, Judge Flandrau ordered the evacuation of New Ulm. They spent a frantic day getting ready, which included burying their dead in any piece of ground they could find inside the perimeter.
On Monday, the 25th, 2,000 people on 150 wagons guarded by 300 citizen-soldiers set out for Mankato, almost 30 miles to the southeast. Many of the wagons had been retrieved from the barricades and made ready. The evacuation train was several miles long and moved at the pace of the oxen teams pulling the wagons along the muddy road, which became more impassable with every wagon and set of hooves that went over it. It took two days for everyone to get to there but they all made it. Waiting to be attacked every step of the way, they completed their perilous journey without incident, including a sleepless night camped out on the prairie. Unbeknownst to them, there wasn't a Dakota within miles of the place. They were also evacuating, heading northwest to Yellow Medicine to escape the vengeance of the soldiers who were pouring into the Minnesota River Valley and Fort Ridgely.
In less than a week, the people of New Ulm would begin returning to rebuild their town and their lives. Their war was over, although they would maintain defenses, organize a militia with a 12 pound mountain howitzer and guard the area around the town until 1866. As for the Dakota, their war would never end.
The Minnesota River and its tributaries. Its name comes from the Dakota word "mnisota" which translates to "sky-tinted water". The river is 330 miles long and navigable for almost its entire length. Its watershed outlined in yellow is 17,000 square miles - 20% of the state's land area. That was also the main battle area of the Dakota War. The actual valley that the main channel flows through averages five miles wide and 250 feet deep. That entire valley was a river bed for an ancient glacial river about 12,000 years ago. Compared to that, the Minnesota trickles along the bottom of it but it still moves a lot of water. Its average flow at the confluence of the Mississippi is 31,000 gallons per second. That's almost half the flow that goes over the American side of Niagara Falls. The black numbers reference key locations for orientation. Locations are approximate. From 5 to 4 to 1 and back to 5 is 340 driving miles.
1. New Ulm
2. Fort Ridgely, Lower Sioux Agency, Birch Coulee battlefield
3. Upper Sioux Agency, Wood Lake battlefield
4. Camp Release
5. Fort Snelling
The Dakota were reeling from the events of the last week. The defeats at Fort Ridgely and New Ulm were shocking and dampened much of the enthusiasm for the uprising. Most of the Dakota people had been against the war from the start and refused to participate. Now emboldened by a sense that they had been right all along, a rival faction formed a peace lodge to counter the warrior lodge and be heard in council.
On August 25, Little Crow and the council decided to move up river to the site of the former Upper Sioux Agency, about 30 miles northwest. There they planned their next moves to turn the tables in their favor. The Dakota had one trump card left - almost 300 white and mixed blood captives. The peace lodge became increasingly concerned that the captives would be put to death in retribution. They began a concerted behind-the-scenes effort to take control of the prisoners and protect them. Little Crow now had his own internal uprising to contend with but the Dakota still had a lot of fight left in them. The war continued.
Three significant events happened on August 28 that would all impact on the war very soon. The Dakota reached the site of the former Upper Sioux Agency at Yellow Medicine and got ready to fight in the valley again.
Also on that day, the Second Battle of Manassas began just west of Washington D.C. Two days later, 10,000 Union casualties littered the battlefield and Major General John Pope was out of a job - but not for long.
Lastly, Fort Ridgely celebrated the arrival of former Governor - now Colonel - Henry Hastings Sibley and his 1,600 man newly formed 6th Minnesota Regiment. He had been drafted into leading the relief column by his friend and political contemporary Alexander Ramsey, the sitting Governor. It's ironic that two of the men who bore a heavy responsibility for this entire debacle were now tasked with resolving it. Settlers' lives weren't the only thing at stake here. Also on the line were fortunes, reputations and political futures. Whether that angle surfaced in their discussions will never be known. However, Governor Ramsey was on the record saying the Sioux must be exterminated.
Sibley's regiment of six companies was a mix of volunteers, local militia and new recruits who had been detoured at Fort Snelling on their way to the Civil War. There were very few experienced soldiers among them. Sibley had been on the move since August 20 and was actually a day's march away at St. Peter when Fort Ridgely and New Ulm were attacked. He was heavily criticized for not moving to those two critical battles. He claimed his troops weren't ready and needed training. Of course, as we have already seen, untrained defenders had wreaked havoc on the Dakota. Throughout the campaign, Sibley played it safe and plodded along. His main body wouldn't head up the valley for three more weeks. Ultimately, however, he got the job done.
David Geister (extant)
At the start of the Dakota War, Fort Snelling was already an aging post. Originally called Fort St. Anthony, it was built from 1820 to 1824. Upon completion, it was renamed after the officer in charge of construction, Colonel Josiah Snelling. Despite its age, it was a formidable installation. With a perfect position overlooking the rivers, it was built of all stone with bastions, redoubts and artillery. It was never attacked but was heavily involved in supporting the Dakota War and the Civil War. It has been totally reconstructed as Historic Fort Snelling. The lands along the river are now Fort Snelling State Park. It is part of a series of regional parks that line the rivers and make up the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.
John Casper Wild (1804-1846)
Painted in 1844, the artist gives a very accurate picture of Fort Snelling and the area around it. The Mississippi River runs on the right. The Minnesota is on the left. Pike Island is in the channel and would become the Sioux internment camp during the winter of 1862-63. The houses on the lower left are part of the the town of Mendota. The fort's legacy and name continue on today at the Whipple Federal Building in St. Paul and Minneapolis International Airport as a base for military reserve units. Generations of Fort Snelling have served the Twin Cities area for 188 years. The GPS coordinates of the parade ground are N44.8926° W93.1808°.
At Fort Ridgely, the army set up camp and sent scouts out to recon the area. They reported no signs of the Dakota, even looting the recently evacuated village for souvenirs. They also reported decomposing and dismembered bodies laying all over the place.
On August 31, Sibley sent out a 170 man burial party commanded by Major Joseph Brown. Their orders were to move up the river valley, look for survivors and bury as many bodies as they could. For two days, they did just that. Half the unit worked each bank of the river. It was grisly work burying two week old bodies that had been exposed to heat, rain and predators. At night, they came together and set up camp. They moved and worked under the assumption there were no Indians around. The Fort Ridgely vets were wary and warned people to be on the alert. It was good advice.
The Dakota warriors were active and on the move. Large free-ranging war parties headed back down the river valley to recon the fort, pick over any homesteads they had missed and maybe go all the way to New Ulm to loot what was left. Dakota scouts spotted the burial party and sent word to the others. Joining up, they decided to watch the soldiers and attack them at the first favorable opportunity. That would come a day later at an obscure ravine next to the Minnesota River called Birch Coulee.
On the night of September 1, the burial party set up camp in a very vulnerable spot near the river and overlooking the deserted Lower Sioux Agency. Their site had high ground on three sides of it and the edge of a ravine - Birch Coulee - on the fourth side. This terrain masked enemy movement and allowed attackers to approach unseen on all sides. The Dakota took maximum advantage of it.
Battle of Birch Coulee
Paul Biersach (1845-1927)
The artist of this 1912 lithograph fought in the battle. It is one of the more accurate renditions of the Birch Coulee fight you'll find and you can follow the narrative with it quite well. Others, including one oil painting that's seen a lot, have things way out of position and perspective. In the larger original print, you can see horses and men on the ground throughout the compound. The camp had high ground on the north, south and west sides. The coulee itself was close by on the east side. The 30 hour battle/siege ended only after Sibley's entire regiment showed up. It was a decisive victory for the Dakota when they needed it most but their morale boost wouldn't last long.
The soldiers put their wagons in a large semi-circle and tethered the horses to lines that enclosed the open side of the circle. The horses were closet to the ravine. The soldiers' tents were placed in a circle inside the wagon laager. Ten guards were outposted 100 feet from the wagons - too close to provide early warning. Brown's unit had no artillery, no battle positions and no defensive plan.
An estimated 200 Dakotas infiltrated towards the position on all sides. At 0430 on September 2, the horses became jumpy as the Dakota closed in all around. This alerted the sentries. One of them spotted an Indian and fired. The Dakotas jumped up and dashed for the perimeter chasing the sentries ahead of them. The war whoops, the banging drums of the attackers and the screams of the sentries were all the alert the sleeping soldiers needed.
The Dakota held their fire until they reached the wagons. Inside the tents, men were scrambling to get ready and get out. They were still inside when the Dakota let loose with several massive volleys of rifle fire that shredded the tents and their occupants. Most of the soldiers killed or wounded at Birch Coulee were cut down in the first few minutes and never got in the fight.
The horses were next. Ninety were shot in short order. The Dakota hesitated their head long rush briefly, giving the defenders enough time to return fire. Probably still smarting from their experiences at Fort Ridgely and New Ulm, the Dakota backed away from the return fire and a long range siege ensued.
Soldiers took cover anywhere they could and started digging for their lives. With shovels, bayonets, tin cups and mess kits, they scraped away at the hard prairie ground to create some sort of safe haven. Others stacked wood or hid behind dead horses. All of this had to be done on their bellies. To get up and move around made one a target. Soldiers returned fire as briskly as possible. They weren't hitting anything but it kept the attackers at bay.
The Birch Coulee Battlefield Park in Renville County. There is a very nice interpretive trail that weaves around the battlefield. It has information placards and posts marking where key events and players were. They also have a system of concrete footprints that you stand on and it points you in the direction of those events and locations. This is the highest point on the battlefield and was used as cover and shelter by the Dakota. The two footprints on the left point at two other attacking Dakota groups as does the set on the far right. The second marker from the right points at the location of the soldiers' camp. It's down the hill where the green grass ends and the brown begins. The row of trees along the top of the picture is Birch Coulee. This was a great place to camp but a lousy place to defend. The terrain is completely different now than it was then. A CCC project in the 1930's bulldozed it almost flat.
Brown's men were pinned down with no water or food. The wounded lay where they fell and begged for help all day. Injured, panic stricken horses thrashed about. Everyone baked in the hot late summer sun. Ammo started to run low, so more was issued. It was only then they discovered it was the wrong caliber and too big for their rifles. The soldiers worked feverishly to whittle them down to size.
The Dakota on the other hand were virtually invisible and could move around at will using the surrounding high ground as cover. They turned it into a family outing. Dakota women brought out food, started cooking fires and gathered cold spring water for their thirsty warriors. The Dakota attackers could go shoot at the blue coats for a while, then come around the backside of the high ground and take a break. They were perfectly content to let this little stalemate soften up the soldiers for them. However, they knew that more soldiers would show up sooner or later. The time was approaching to move in for the kill.
When the fight started and the firing was most intense, the cool dense morning air of the river valley carried the sounds of the battle 16 miles to Fort Ridgely. It was heard by scouts who reported it to Colonel Sibley. For once, Sibley was decisive. He hastily assembled a 240 man relief force along with two artillery pieces. Commanded by Colonel Samuel McPhail, they marched out that same morning to relieve Brown's beleaguered force. When he was still several miles away, he began to fire artillery to announce his presence. This greatly cheered the defenders but their joy was short lived.
The Dakota sent a mounted war party to engage and delay McPhail. Afraid that he was walking into a trap, McPhail retreated two miles and set up a defensive perimeter. He dispatched a courier to Fort Ridgely to ask for reinforcements. The courier was Lt. Timothy Sheehan, who had commanded Fort Ridgely during the two battles there. He was chased by Dakota almost the whole way but made it. As soon as he entered the fort, his horse dropped dead from multiple bullet wounds.
Colonel Sibley now had two separate forces that needed relieved from unknown situations. Leaving a company at the fort, he led his entire reinforced regiment with an artillery battery to the northwest to save his command. He reached McPhail at midnight but then stopped for the night.
A Google Earth view of the Birch Coulee battlefield and park. There's not much to see. The place was plowed under, picked over and bulldozed flat years ago. All that's left are information placards and markers, but that's enough for us battlefield fanatics. There's also two geocaches here. Icon #1 is the location of the footprints photo above. Icon #2 is the center of the soldiers' camp. Icon #3 is the parking area and pavilion. It's 220 yards between icons 1 and 2. The entire trail is about 3/4 of a mile. The parking area is located at GPS coordinates N44.574546° W94.974718°. It's about two miles north of Morton, MN on Highway 18. If you're passing through town, check out the Renville County Historical Museum. They can tell you about lots of other Dakota War places in the area.
As Sibley and McPhail camped just a few miles away, the soldiers at Birch Coulee were in desperate straits. They had been under fire and under siege for almost 24 waterless hours. Firing in the distance told them their relief force was also under attack - then nothing. Now it was dark and the Dakota had gotten quiet. Any moment now, they were expecting the final rush to overwhelm them. It never came.
Sibley's large force gave the Dakota second thoughts about sticking around. They decided to quit while they were ahead. The few left in the morning were hastened along by artillery fire from the approaching relief columns. The lead elements arrived at Birch Coulee at 1100. The 31 hour siege and the battle were over but the fallout would continue for some time.
The Battle of Birch Coulee was the high point of the war for the Dakota and gave them a badly needed boost when they needed it most.
For Colonel Sibley, it was his worst nightmare come true - the defeat at the hands of the Dakota that he had dreaded since Day 1. It was the worst mauling of an army unit in the entire war. Major Brown's 170 man burial detail took 80% casualties killed and wounded. The loss of the horses seriously degraded the regiment's mobility for the rest of the conflict, a distinct disadvantage when fighting a mounted enemy.
Sibley was under intense pressure to campaign further into Dakota territory and bring a quick decisive military end to the conflict. That wasn't going to happen anytime soon. He took his force back to Fort Ridgely to regroup, reinforce and train his men to be Indian fighters. He had no idea how long that would take but he knew he wasn't going up against the Dakota again until he was good and ready.
Even as they were returning to Ridgely, events were unfolding elsewhere that would compress his timeline and change the tenor of the war.
The reconstructed stockade in Forest City, MN. As the Dakota were rampaging after Birch Coulee, 240 people from around the area gathered here for common defense. Using logs that had already been cut for houses and a church, they built this 10 foot high stockade in 24 hours. The next day, on September 3, they were attacked and successfully defended themselves. They were in a state of siege for 10 days until relieved by army troops from Fort Snelling on their way to Fort Ridgely. The stockade is now a museum with shops, re-enactors, festivals and other activities. You can read more about it at forestcitystockade (dot) org. The GPS coordinates are N45.195269° W94.462779°.
With their boost from Birch Coulee and with Sibley holed up at Fort Ridgely, war parties started roaming the countryside again. What they found was empty space. The entire region had essentially been abandoned. People were holed up in hastily built stockades, forts or the larger cities. The war parties ranged far and wide, attacking settlements in areas that today are the western suburbs of Minneapolis.
On September 3, a 20 man army patrol from Fort Snelling fought a wild running gun battle with a 100 man war party on the road between Acton and Hutchinson. It was right out of a Hollywood script as outnumbered soldiers riding hell bent in wagons exchanged gunfire with pursuing Indians on horseback.
On September 4, Forest City and Hutchinson were attacked. Both had built stockades and successfully defended themselves, but that didn't stop the Dakota from looting and burning all around them.
This was no longer just a Minnesota war. The uprising and panic spread north to the Canadian border, west into the Dakota territories and south into Iowa and Nebraska. In the Red River Valley of North Dakota, Fort Abercrombie south of Fargo was attacked for three days before finally driving off the attackers with artillery.
Sioux Falls, SD, a town much like New Ulm, was abandoned by panicky citizens who went to the relative safety of Fort Yankton. The Dakota looted and burned the abandoned town.
In Wisconsin, the governor feared that the Ojibway and Chippewa tribes, traditional enemies of the Dakota, would join the uprising. White refugees were surging into the state, straining resources and facilities.
A photo of Fort Abercrombie in 1869, taken from across the Red River. In 1862, Abercrombie consisted of about five buildings, no walls, few defenders. They were worse off than Fort Ridgely. They did, however, have three 12 pound mountain howitzers which they used to great effect. When the fighting started and they broke out the extra ammunition, they discovered that they had been sent the wrong caliber for their rifles which were .69 caliber Harper's Ferry muskets. Then it occurred to someone that the canister rounds for the howitzers had .69 caliber lead balls in them. So they opened up canister rounds, took the .69 calibers for their rifles and replaced them with the .58 caliber bullets in storage plus whatever else they could stuff in. Using that system, they defended their post for six weeks, including three days of all-out assaults from September 3-5. The river bank in the picture was the scene of several heroic stands by groups of soldiers. After the Dakota War, the fort was beefed up considerably and was a major hub on the road west until it was abandoned in 1877. You can read all about it at the Friends of Fort Abercrombie web site. The GPS coordinates are N46.445851° W96.720169°.
It was the same story in northeast Nebraska and northwest Iowa. Terrified citizens, fearing a general Indian uprising in their areas, left their farms and businesses for safer places.
There were even rumors that the Confederacy was involved in all this. No evidence of that has ever been found but it would make a great alternative history work. A "false flag" operation against the bread basket of the Union using the Indians as proxy fighters and letting them take the fall would have been a brilliant strategic move. The rumor alone may have gotten Washington's attention.
More importantly, the Dakota War was impacting on the Union's ability to fight the Civil War. This upper midwest region was the bread basket of the Union and a major source of manpower. It also encompassed almost 30% of the total land area of the Union. Crops were rotting in the fields. Mail service, stagecoach service and riverboat traffic were way down. Food, commerce, transportation and recruiting were grinding to a halt with little prospect for improvement until people felt safe from the marauders and the hideous death they brought with them. The public and the press were clamoring for action. The Governors of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa along with the Dakota and Nebraska territories were demanding federal troops and support. A full blown regional Indian uprising was a potential war changer and could no longer be ignored.
On September 6, 1862, President Lincoln did what Presidents often do in time of crisis. He created a new bureaucracy to take charge of the problem. The new Army Department of the Northwest included the three states and two territories affected by the uprising and was headquartered at Fort Snelling in St. Paul. Lincoln appointed Major General John Pope to command the new operation. Pope had just been relieved of his command a few days earlier after the disaster at Second Manassas. He wasn't crazy about the new assignment but viewed it as a ticket back into the big game.
The dead at "Bloody Lane" after Antietam. The 23,000 casualties suffered by both sides in this one day battle were almost twice those of D-Day and Iwo Jima combined.
Federal troops were sent to the command for campaigns against the Indians. Among them were the 270 men of the 3rd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Still mad and seeking vindication, they arrived at Fort Ridgely on September 13 as reinforcements for Sibley. They were the most experienced soldiers in the unit.
Getting Lincoln to intercede in the Dakota War is all the more significant given how things were going in the Civil War. The Union was not doing well. There had been some successes in the western theater, such as Shiloh and Fort Donelson, but in the east they had yet to win a major battle. On September 17, right in the middle of the Dakota War, came the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, MD. It was the single bloodiest day in American history with 23,000 casualties on both sides. In the end, it was Robert E. Lee who left the field first and the Union could claim at least a draw. Five days later, on September 22, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.
Meanwhile, Little Crow's coalition was falling apart. His prediction about 10 whites replacing each one killed was becoming a reality. Everyday, Sibley grew stronger. Everyday, resistance got tougher. Everyday, more Dakota broke ranks to return home or create a new one somewhere else. Many went to Canada. Others headed west. Still others wanted to keep fighting and that group had the most traction in council, where physical confrontations and even gunfire started happening. The main sticking point was the captives - who controlled them and what was to become of them. Slowly but surely, the peace lodge was gaining the upper hand with them, even enabling some of them to escape. They also started communicating directly with Sibley by letter, hoping to cut a deal with some favorable terms in exchange for keeping the captives safe. It wasn't going to happen. Once the prisoners were clear, expulsion or extermination was the order of the day.
Surprise at Wood Lake
David Geister (extant)
Twin Cities native and resident David Geister did this historical print for the Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Society. Very detailed and historically accurate, you can see Sibley's camp and the lake in the background. It looks pretty far away but is actually a little less than half a mile. The spot depicted here, which is where the battle started, is very near the current Rock Valle Church just north of Echo, MN.
On September 19, Sibley left Fort Ridgely heading northwest with a force of over 1,600 men. Three days and 40 miles later, they reached a spot near the Upper Sioux Agency on the shore of Lone Tree Lake. It was incorrectly identified on the map as Wood Lake. The main Dakota encampment was just a few miles away at the confluence of the Chippewa and Minnesota Rivers. The next day would bring contact with the Dakota but Sibley wasn't sure how it would play out. His main concern was the safety of the captives, so he planned to move slowly and deliberately, perhaps hoping he would run into white flags and no resistance. The Dakota, however, had one last fight left in them.
Indian scouts tracked Sibley the whole way. When he got to the lake and set up camp, the Dakota held a council to plan their response. They could still muster about 700 warriors and decided to attack. A night attack was ruled out because the soldiers were building and digging defensive positions.
The Dakota planned a four pronged attack for the next day. When Sibley moved, it would be in a column. It would be slow and ponderous, miles long and unable to defend or reinforce itself easily. One group set an ambush about a half a mile up the road they knew Sibley would take the next morning. They planned to let the lead troops go by, hit the supply train and isolate the artillery. Another group would attack from a ravine that ran along Sibley's right flank. The third group was to attack around the lake and hit the left flank. The fourth group was a "hit team" of ten warriors who Little Crow assigned to kill Colonel Sibley.
With hindsight, it was a pretty good plan. If the Indians could get inside the column and fight at close quarters, they could neutralize the soldiers' advantages in numbers and weapons. If the Dakota had gotten into the column, Sibley would have been in serious trouble. He had no attack or defense plans of his own. He was basically moving non-tactically towards an enemy he thought was beaten. It could have been Braddock's Defeat all over again. At sun up, all was ready. Then the "fog of war" enveloped the Dakota once again.
This is the state monument for the Battle of Wood Lake. Placed in 1910, it sits on the site of Colonel Sibley's encampment on the shore of Lone Tree Lake, which is long gone. Even though it looks like a cemetery, it isn't. The monument is northeast of Echo, MN at coordinates N44.701263° W95.435786°.
At 0700, several wagonloads of troopers from the 3rd Minnesota left the perimeter to forage for food in the nearby unharvested potato and corn fields. Instead of taking the road, they went cross country and unwittingly headed right for the Dakota ambush position. The ambushers held their ground as long as they could but when the wagons got close enough to touch, they pounced. Twenty Dakota stood up and opened fire. They got a totally unexpected response.
Instead of the wagons turning and running, the troopers jumped off with a war whoop of their own and returned fire vigorously. Responding to the sounds of battle, the rest of the 3rd sprinted across a half mile of prairie to join them. It became clear very quickly to the Dakota that these boys knew what they were doing. They could load and fire faster than anyone seen before. These soldiers fired and reloaded by ranks, so there was always someone shooting and they moved forward relentlessly.
The 3rd Minnesota was on the brink of redemption from their humiliation at Murfreesboro. They had just ruined the Indian attack plan and initiated the largest - and last - major battle of the 1862 Dakota War.
This is a view of the battlefield from the walking trail with annotations by the author. The section narrative explains each one. Sibley's camp was on both sides of the road and would have been out in the flats with the ravine running close by. Over 2,000 soldiers and Dakota fought in this picture for three hours. The terrain looks much the same as it did 150 years ago. The big change is that Lone Tree Lake is no longer there. It is called the Battle of Wood Lake because they thought they were at Wood Lake, which is about three miles away.
The Battle of Wood Lake was a general engagement involving over 2,000 soldiers and Indians. The Dakota knew they were outnumbered and outgunned. Their plan depended on surprise, shock and maximum violence at close range against a long column that could be cut to pieces. Thanks to the 3rd Minnesota, the shock and surprise were gone and the attacks would have to go against an alerted force. Instead of an arms length fight with knives and tomahawks, they would be playing to the soldiers' strengths and engaging in a stand up battle. The Dakota went for it anyway.
Gunfire erupted around the entire camp, which by now was on full alert. The four groups embarked on their planned attack routes with disastrous results.
The 3rd Minnesota kept pushing the ambush group back but got too far ahead and risked being flanked and surrounded. They were ordered to withdraw, but not everyone got the word. Some pulled back. Some kept on, making for a very ragged and vulnerable deployment. The Renville Rangers came up, reinforced the line until everyone was back, then kept fighting with the 3rd. By this time, additional companies were on the left and right of the 3rd and they began to push the Dakota back in the direction of the Upper Sioux Agency.
The ravine attack group ran head on into six pounders firing canister. Colonel Sibley was with the artillery. Then six infantry companies flowed into the ravine with fixed bayonets and rooted them out.
The lakeside flank attack fared no better. The attackers were caught wading across some shallow water by yet another infantry company, who shot them up before the attack even got started.
The Sibley "hit team" never made it out of the ravine.
On September 22, 2012, the 150th anniversary of the battle, the 54 acre Wood Lake Battlefield was dedicated. This is separate from the monument at Sibley's camp across the road. Annotations are included as reference points. The 54 acres is basically an public easement on private land comprised of a grass walking trail about a half mile long. There are several outlooks on the trail which give good views of the battlefield. The battlefield itself is still on private land and is not accessible without permission. Visitors are asked to keep to the trail. There are no information placards or facilities yet but I understand that it is being worked on.
All across the battlefield, army manpower and firepower were winning the day and the Dakota were falling in large numbers. Finally, around 1000, after three hours of fighting, they quit the attack and the war. They left behind 14 dead, which meant there were too many bodies to carry away.
Little Crow and the warriors lodge returned to their camp at Yellow Medicine. During the battle, the peace lodge had gained physical control of almost all the captives and dug hasty defenses to fight for them if necessary. It wasn't. The warriors lodge had no fight left in them. They were facing large numbers of soldiers and they were a different sort than the militias they were used to. If the Union was sending battle hardened Federal troops to the war, the Dakota were finished - and they knew it. The warriors struck their tents, gathered up their families and dispersed for parts unknown. By mid-afternoon they were gone. Before they left, they handed over any remaining captives to the peace lodge, which was staying with the mistaken belief that they had nothing to fear from the whites.
Little Crow and a small band of followers headed north, eventually ending up in Canada. He became the Osama bin Laden of his day, hated and hunted by everyone with a passion. As far as the public was concerned, the war wouldn't be over until he was dead. Searches and expeditions were sent out to hunt him down but always came up empty. Little Crow had disappeared and wouldn't be seen again for almost a year.
Sibley had his decisive military victory but his follow up was slow and deliberate. Unsure what the captive situation was, he didn't want to go storming into an encampment and get them killed. The day after the battle, the peace lodge sent a message to Sibley that they had the captives, all were safe, the warriors were gone and there would be no resistance.
Soldiers stand guard over Indians at Camp Release in a photo taken by photographer Adrian John Ebell.
On September 26, Colonel Sibley's column approached the peace lodge camp with bayonets fixed and drums playing. They established a large bivouac area nearby which he called Camp Release. Sibley walked into the peace lodge camp with a small escort. White flags flew everywhere. He took custody of the shell shocked captives, 269 in all. The next day they were transported under escort to Mankato.
Camp Release grew rapidly. Army patrols rounded up hundreds Dakota and brought them back. Many were families wandering on the prairie lost and hungry. More showed up and turned themselves in. By the beginning of November, Camp Release was holding over 2,000 Dakota. The hunt continued.
With the enthusiastic support of General Pope and Governor Ramsey, Sibley began a process to identify and punish any Dakota who had participated in the uprising. He appointed a five man tribunal to examine evidence and pass judgment on cases. They began their work on September 28 and finished on November 5. They took testimony from captives, survivors, soldiers and peace lodge members. Based on that, they tried 421 men, convicted 392 and sentenced 303 to death. The rest got long prison terms. Sentences were to be carried out as soon as possible in Mankato.
The people, the politicians and the press were ecstatic over the verdicts. Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple (no relation to the Fort Ridgely Whipple) of Minneapolis was not. He asked his cousin, General Henry Halleck, to arrange a meeting with President Lincoln. Halleck was the General-in-Chief of all the Union armies. The Bishop was soon on his way to Washington.
Bishop Whipple reviewed with Lincoln the egregious conditions and treatment suffered by the Dakota leading up to the war. He also protested to the President that the tribunals had been "kangaroo courts". Convictions had been made on the flimsiest of evidence, with some proceedings lasting as little as five minutes. When it was over, Lincoln postponed the executions and ordered the court records sent to him. His own staff would review them and make recommendations.
A photo of the Sioux internment camp below Fort Snelling. Around 1,600 Dakota spent the winter of 1862-63 here, mostly women, children and the elderly. The next spring, they were moved 400 miles west to the Crow Creek Reservation on the Missouri River 60 miles southeast of Pierre, SD. They went by steamboat down the Mississippi River to St. Louis and then up the Missouri River to their destination.
While all that was going on, Governor Ramsey and General Pope had a controversy of their own to deal with. On October 9, they informed Washington that the Dakota War was over. The people and the press erupted. Their argument in a nutshell was, "This war is not over. Little Crow and his followers are still out there. Homesteads are still at risk. It's time to go on offense and scour these vermin from the earth - and find Little Crow!"
A week later, Lt. Col. William Marshall led the first of many punitive expeditions deep into Dakota territory. He returned with several hundred prisoners. This search and destroy tactic would continue for two more years in Minnesota and for almost 30 years in the west.
On November 7, 1,600 women, children and elderly were marched from Camp Release to Fort Snelling. Under military guard, it took them eight days to cover the 180 road miles. As they passed New Ulm, they were attacked by a mob. Two Dakota were killed.
Upon arrival at Fort Snelling on November 13, they were placed in a large enclosed stockade on Pike Island, in the middle of the river channel overlooked by Fort Snelling. They set up their tents and spent the winter of 1862-63 here. Many did not survive. Besides the cold and lack of food, a measles epidemic ravaged the camp. Hundreds died.
Lincoln finished his review and issued orders on December 6. He approved the death sentences of 38 out of the original 303. The rest were commuted to prison. Ramsey, Pope, Sibley and the people in the region were furious but the decision stood. The condemned men were already in Mankato. The army started building a four-sided gallows.
The Dakota executions in Mankato. The site is marked today by a monument in Reconciliation Park. The condemned men who were spared were sent to a federal prison in Davenport, IA. President Lincoln released some in 1864. President Andrew Johnson released the rest in 1866. Some went to Crow Creek, but most went to the Santee Reservation in Nebraska.
The day dawned cold and bitter. It was an unfortunate choice of days - the day after Christmas. The execution had been delayed a week because there wasn't enough hangman's rope for nooses.
The commander of the whole proceeding, Lt.Col. Marshall, had declared martial law. The entire gallows was surrounded by several rings of soldiers totaling 1,400 men. Thousands of civilians turned out to watch.
At 10:00 AM, the 38 condemned men were led out of prison and up the steps to the gallows. Most of them were singing their death song. Many had put on war paint and were wearing traditional buckskin clothes. One of them cursed the spectators and exposed himself. Once in position, their heads were covered with cloth bags and the nooses placed around their necks.
The executioner was Joseph Duly, whose family had been killed in the uprising. At 1015, the signal was given and he chopped the rope that sprung the traps. All 38 fell at once. A muted cheer went up from the soldiers and spectators, then silence.
The bodies hung for 20 minutes while a team of doctors examined them. All were declared dead. The bodies were cut down and transported to a mass grave in a sand bar on the river's edge. There they were buried but that night, they were dug up by doctors to be used as cadavers for medical training.
It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history and still is. A detailed account of the entire execution can be found in this article from the St. Paul Pioneer Press published shortly after.
After the executions and imprisonments, the federal government ordered the expulsion of all Sioux within the borders of Minnesota. When it was all said and done, the Santee Dakota found themselves on two specks of land which are circled above. Except for a few who helped the whites during the war, all Dakota were hunted down and sent away - or killed. A bounty of up to $200 was placed on the head of any who escaped the dragnet, so it was open season. Some of the Dakota eventually migrated back to Minnesota but not many. Even today, there are less than 5,000 Sioux living in the state compared to almost 40,000 Chippewa and Ojibway. Under the terms of the old laws, which are still in effect, they are not allowed to refer to themselves as Dakota - only Sioux.
The defeat of the Dakota was by no means the end of the war against the Native Americans. There is an understandable tendency to think that the Indian Wars took a break during the Civil War. Not so. While the conflict back east got all the headlines, the Indians and the Army fought a bloody ruthless war that lasted all through the Civil War and 25 years beyond it.
General Sibley and General Pope both mounted major campaigns against the Dakota throughout the rest of the war. In addition to these search and destroy operations, they built a string of 20 outposts along the Dakota Territory/Minnesota frontier to provide security, advanced warning and quick interception of Indians trying to enter into Minnesota for whatever reason. The Sioux and the Winnebago tribes were expelled from Minnesota but the campaign of expulsion and extermination didn't stop with that. It followed them west as they sought safe haven somewhere.
These campaigns were quite large - up to 2,000 soldiers with cavalry and artillery. They came from regiments in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin. There were even six regiments of U.S. Volunteers - Confederate prisoners who swore an oath of allegiance and were sent west to fight Indians. Major battles involving thousands of combatants were fought at places like Stony Lake (July 28, 1863), Whitestone Hill (September 3, 1863) and Killdeer Mountain (July 28, 1864).
The other thing that didn't stop during the Civil War was the Great Western Migration. The Homestead Act had become law in May of 1862, granting 160 acres of land to anyone who wanted it. All you had to do was get there first and file a claim. Whites continued to pour into the Dakota Territories, Nebraska and beyond further inflaming the region and expanding the scope of the punitive expeditions as settlers demanded protection. Eventually, these campaigns went all the way to the Yellowstone River in Montana. The Indians kept moving west fighting all the way but were unable to stop the relentless tide coming at them.
Believe it or not, the man who finally raised objections to all this was General Pope himself. As the senior military commander in the region, he saw first hand how the country's Indian policies were inefficient, corrupt and failing. In January 1864, he proposed some fundamental changes in the conduct and administration of Indian affairs along with recommending more humane treatment of Native Americans. This from the man who once said "I intend to exterminate the Sioux". The Union was too busy with the Civil War to revamp Indian policies. He was rebuffed and even ridiculed by some. Ordered to continue operating as before, he planned and carried out operations until his transfer to Missouri in January 1865.
Also failing was the military's attempt to pacify the northwest frontier by force. By his own admission, General Pope left the region with the Native Americans on the run but unconquered and unbowed. On the contrary, the army made even more enemies from more tribes as they pushed the frontier westward. Less than a year after the Civil War ended, army units moved into the Powder River Basin near present-day Sheridan, Wyoming to guard the newly blazed Bozeman Trail. There they encountered a Lakota warrior who would bedevil them for a decade. His name was Crazy Horse.
The fate of Little Crow is a tragic footnote to a tragic war. Despite being a hunted man with a bounty on his head, he survived and kept trying to reorganize the Dakota resistance. In the early summer of 1863, he ventured back into the Minnesota River Valley to steal horses. On July 3, 1863 - the same day as Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg - he was picking raspberries near Hutchinson with his son Wowinape. They were apparently unaware that farmer Nathan Lamson and his son Chauncey had spotted and were stalking them. The four exchanged gunfire at close range. Nathan Lamson was wounded and Little Crow was killed. Neither son was hit and Wowinape got away.
Lamson scalped Little Crow as proof to claim his $20 bounty and took the body into town for the 4th of July celebration. An army officer recognized Little Crow and told Lamson there was a $500 bounty on the Dakota leader. The officer beheaded the body and cut off one of Little Crow's deformed arms as proof positive of his identity. The body was thrown into an entrails pit at the slaughterhouse to feed the hogs.
Lamson got his bounty, the hogs got their dinner and the Minnesota Historical Society got what was left of Little Crow. The scalp and the bleached bones of the skull and arm were on display in a glass case at the state capitol until after the turn of the century. Then they were put in storage for another 50 years.
In September 1971, the remains of Little Crow were transported by hearse to a gravesite in Flandreau, SD. Accompanying them was 88 year old Jesse Wakeman, Little Crow's grandson and the son of Wowinape. It was Wakeman's complaint as a young man at the turn of the century that had gotten the morbid display removed from the capitol. Now, 60+ years later, he would finish the journey.
Little Crow was buried in a traditional Dakota ceremony. Then his grave was filled with cement so that he would never be disturbed again. His headstone says it all - "Born 1818. Died 1863. Buried 1971."
Believing his work to be finished, Henry Sibley tried to leave the military. Instead, Lincoln promoted him to Brigadier General and made him the commander of the Minnesota Military District. This was yet another bureaucracy, this one subordinate to General Pope's Army Department of the Northwest. Sibley continued to fight on the frontier until August 1866, getting promoted to Major General along the way. After his military service, Sibley returned to the business world, serving on the board of directors of numerous railroads, banks, colleges and corporations. He also served as president of the Minnesota Historical Society and President of the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota. After a long and successful post-war business career, Sibley died on February 18, 1891 at the age of 79 and was buried in St. Paul. To this day, Sibley's name is one of the most recognized in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Streets, towns, schools, parks and counties are named after him. Much less known are his military service during the Dakota War and his hand in creating the conditions that set off the war in the first place.
Alexander Ramsey was a career politician at territorial, local, state and national levels. He was the governor of Minnesota during the Dakota War and re-elected for a second two year term in 1862. In 1863, he resigned as governor to become a U.S. Senator from Minnesota. He was succeeded by Lt. Governor Henry Swift, who had commanded the 20 man outpost at the Forster Building during the Second Battle of New Ulm. Ramsey served as a senator until 1875 and later became the Secretary of War for President Rutherford Hayes. Ramsey died in St. Paul on April 22, 1903 at the age of 78. He is buried nearby in Oakland Cemetery. Ramsey was a capable administrator and leader and an adept deal maker. As is the case with his contemporary Henry Hastings Sibley, Ramsey is one of the most recognized names in Minnesota. Schools, streets, towns and counties are named after him. Lesser known are his shady financial dealings with Indian treaty money that helped set the stage for the Dakota War.
General John Pope was hoping that his successful Dakota campaign would get him back in the good graces of the Army of the Potomac. It didn't, so he settled in for the long haul. He moved his headquarters from St. Paul to the relative comfort of Milwaukee, leaving Sibley in charge of Minnesota. Both men continued to vigorously carry the war to the Dakota and other tribes for the remainder of the Civil War. After the war, he was made Governor of the Reconstruction District in Atlanta. His handling of things there made political enemies all the way up to the White House. When he decreed that blacks could serve on juries, President Andrew Johnson relieved him. Pope returned to the west and fought in the Apache Wars in some capacity for most of the rest of his career. He continued to vocally express misgivings about the U.S. government's Indian policies. He retired from the army in 1886 and died in Sandusky , Ohio in September 1892 at the age of 70. He is buried in St. Louis.
|Judge Charles Flandrau stayed on as commander of militia forces protecting the Minnesota River Valley for two years while also serving as a State Supreme Court justice. In 1867, he was the Democratic candidate for governor but was defeated. In 1869, he ran for office again, this time for Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, and was defeated again. He returned to the private practice of law. In 1889, he served on a historical commission that compiled and produced the definitive text of the state's participation in the Civil War - "Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, 1861 - 1865". He penned the 50 pages about the Indian Wars, writing about it in a very professorial manner. It starts on page 728 of this rather extensive work. He died at the age of 75 on September 9, 1903 at his home in St. Paul and is buried in nearby Oakland Cemetery.||After the Dakota War, Jacob Nix joined the army and fought for two years in the punitive expeditions that followed. Returning to New Ulm, he became one of its leading citizens. In addition to running a successful meat market, he continued to serve the town in a variety of ways including City Assessor and Town Clerk. During the post-war years he wrote a book titled "The Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, 1862". In his writing, Nix comes across as a dyed-in-the-wool Indian hater, but those sentiments reflected the times and weren't unusual. He and Charles Flandrau didn't get along well, as you can see in this picture taken at a commemorative ceremony decades after the battle. Among other things, Nix strongly opposed the evacuation of New Ulm, considering it a suicide mission. He also implied in later years that Flandrau inflated his role in the final counterattack at the Second Battle of New Ulm. Jacob Nix died in 1897 at age 75 and is buried in the New Ulm City Cemetery. The missing ring finger on his left hand was shot off at the First Battle of New Ulm.|
In terms of background, personality and just about everything else, Charles Flandrau and Jacob Nix could not have been more different. Despite their reported difficulties in dealing with each other, they rose to the occasion and succeeded in life or death situations against almost impossible odds. Both these men are genuine heroes.
The 3rd Minnesota redeemed themselves at Wood Lake. After the Dakota War, they went back to Fort Snelling to reorganize. Many of the soldiers re-enlisted and new officers were brought in. In a bit of delicious irony, the officers who surrendered them at Murfreesboro were not paroled with them. They were sent to a Confederate POW camp. Released six months later, President Lincoln personally ordered their dismissal, which is the commissioned officer equivalent of a dishonorable discharge. In 1863, the 3rd returned to the Civil War. They operated in Kentucky and took part in the siege of Vicksburg. Later, they fought in Arkansas and participated in the capture of Little Rock. Their last combat was the Battle of Fitzhugh's Woods, a small skirmish outside Little Rock, on April 1, 1864. They spent the rest of the war on guard duty there. The regiment was deactivated at Fort Snelling in September 1865.
A New Ulm neighborhood in 1880. This was Goosetown, where German immigrants concentrated. The Cottonwood River (closest) and the Minnesota River are both visible as they flow left to right to join up a few thousand feet off the picture.
On August 29, less than a week after the battle, residents began to trickle back into New Ulm. Out of the 258 buildings, 190 were destroyed. Many others were badly damaged and didn't survive the reconstruction. The hardy German, Scandinavian and Scotch-Irish immigrants threw themselves into the task at hand. New Ulm has been through numerous rebuilds, renovations and disasters. There are only two buildings in town from the war era that were part of the battles - the Friedrich Kiesling House at the corner of 3rd and Minnesota and the Forster Building. The latter has been stuccoed and redecorated many times but the original building is underneath. The Erd Building (the red arrow below), where the women and children hid with their doomsday weapon, is located at 108 Minnesota Street. It was destroyed by fire in the 1930's and has been gutted and rebuilt several times, most recently as the offices of the Lawson and Allen accounting firm. The historical society says there's still some of the original building left inside.
Downtown New Ulm in 2012. This was the defensive area in 1862. The picture is taken from the the intersection of Minnesota and 3rd Streets. The Kiesling House is to the left. There was fighting at the barricade at this point in both battles. The green arrow points out the position of the blacksmith shop attacked by Flandrau's men. The red arrow points to the Erd Building.
The town is proud of its heritage and rightfully so, especially in this 150th anniversary year. Regardless of what one thinks about the Indians and the whites, there's no denying that what happened here was extraordinary. Regular people banded together, fortified their town and fought tooth and nail against an implacable enemy - and won. I can find no other instance in U.S. history of a similar event. There are many instances of people hunkering down in forts, but none like this. The Battles of New Ulm stand as singular events in American history.
If you like parks, trails, back roads, waterfronts, history, forts, battles, tactics, heroes, last stands and geocaches, you've come to the right place. The Minnesota River Valley has it all and hardly anyone knows about it. This year (2012) is the 150th anniversary of the Dakota War. Both public and private organizations have worked hard to bring awareness of the conflict and a new perspective to what happened and why. Touring the area is easy, the people are friendly and the German food is great. Battlefield fanatics, families, Sunday drivers and weekend warriors will all find something of interest.
The entire river valley from St. Paul to the South Dakota state line is one big museum. Markers, monuments, placards, interpretive trails, ruins, preserved buildings and memorial parks can be found everywhere. They all have a story to tell. Most of them have a geocache close by. :-)
There are historical museums in St Paul, Mankato, New Ulm, Fort Ridgely, Brown County and Renville County. No doubt, there are more that we haven't found yet. They have all kinds of information about the Dakota War including maps, pictures, artifacts, weapons, diaries and newspapers. We visited most of them. Every place we went, people were very happy to talk about the historical events of the time and guide us to further adventures.
The City of New Ulm, Fort Ridgely State Park and the Minnesota Valley Scenic Byway all have self-guided tours that can be narrated on your cell phone.
We made several visits to the area in the fall of 2012. We originally went there geocaching. There are tons of them there and that was new territory for us. Here is a list of geocaches that you can include on your journey. They all deal with the Dakota War. As it turns out, we got so wrapped up in our history that we didn't get a lot of caching done. That means we'll have to go back. Darn the bad luck.
We spent five days in the valley, including two overnight trips, and only got once around the block. We stayed at Jackpot Junction, the Dakota casino/hotel at the Lower Sioux Agency near Morton, MN. Very nice, friendly people, lots of amenities, great food and the wife won enough in slots to pay for it all. We'll keep going back to thoroughly cover the valley and all it offers.
I have to say that of all the battles I've written about or visited, this one had the biggest impact on me. The Dakota War is one jaw dropping discovery after another. I've lived in Minnesota for 20 years and been a battlefield nut for over 30. I knew nothing about all this until I read a recent series in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune called "In the Footsteps of Little Crow". You can buy the Kindle edition for three bucks. That got me started on my quest. Hopefully, this web page will do the same for other people.
Semper Fi and Da svidanya... Boris and Natasha