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The Dakota Conflict Battles of New Ulm

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January 18, 2020 by Pamela Nowak


In 1862, New Ulm was the largest town in the area of the Sioux Reservation. Located near the confluence of the Minnesota and Cottonwood Rivers, it had been founded by German colonization societies in 1854-55, who recruited German settlers from Chicago and Cincinnati. In the 1860 census, its population was cited as 635. By 1862, it was home to about 900 people. During the Dakota Conflict, the town was attacked twice, on August 19 and again on August 23.

It was no surprise that New Ulm would be included as a target. The town was located on high ground, on two terraces above the Minnesota River at the foot of a bluff. Most homes were located on the lower terrace, a few on the second. Heavy recruitment for Civil War volunteers had occurred in New Ulm and many of the town’s young men had responded, leaving it largely undefended. It was no secret that the enlistees had taken their arms and ammunition with them. In fact, on the morning of August 18, unaware of the rising hostilities, a recruiting party left New Ulm to engage more volunteers from the surrounding area of Milford Township.

Milford Township was located just west of New Ulm and was also settled by Germans. The settlement was attacked and the recruiting party was ambushed about five miles west of New Ulm. Survivors fled to New Ulm, raising the warning there. In all, more than fifty Whites were killed. As the day wore on, farm families from throughout the area poured into town.

At first, it was believed only a few Sioux were responsible but as numbers of reports came in, the sheriff of New Ulm, Charles Roos, and resident Jacob Nix, who had prior military experience, began to organize the defense. Only a small number of the swelling population possessed arms and were equipped to fight. At this point, there were only forty men with prior military experience and guns; the remainder were armed pitchforks and other crude weapons. Riders were sent to seek assistance from St. Peter, Traverse des Sioux, and other communities.

Within New Ulm, citizens piled up makeshift barricades around the center of town. Women and children hurried to the Dacotah House, the Erd Building, and other downtown structures where they gathered on the upper floors. One survivor recalled the Dacotah House got so crowded that the women were told to discard their hoop skirts in the backyard.

In the early hours of August 19, the messengers began to arrive in the communities east of New Ulm. Henry Behnke reached St. Peter and awakened town founder William B. Dodd. By 4:00 a.m., Dodd had dispatched men to gather volunteers. Behnke rode on to Traverse des Sioux, one mile north and alerted Judge Charles E. Flandrau, former Indian Agent and leading figure in Minnesota politics. Flandrau rushed to St. Peter and took charge of the 100 plus volunteers gathered thus far. Flandrau was elected commander and soon departed for New Ulm with a group of doctors including William W. Mayo.   

At New Ulm, citizens continued to build defenses as more refugees swarmed into town, eventually swelling the population to 2000. Sixteen men were dispatched to surrounding farms to raise the alert and scout the area along the Cottonwood River, to the southwest.

The same day, a group of about 100 Dakota gathered on a bluff near the town. Around three o’clock in the afternoon, they dismounted and advanced toward New Ulm, exchanging fire with defenders. A few made dashes at barricades and a few outlying buildings were set on fire. Several men, led by Daniel G. Shillock, led a charge outside the barricades and drove the Dakota back. Late in the afternoon, a thunderstorm began and the attack waned. The search and rescue party along the Cottonwood River was ambushed with eleven men killed. About the same time, the first volunteer defenders from St. Peter, sixteen men, arrived under L.M. Boardman to strengthen the defense. The Dakota, lacking leadership, pulled back and the battle ended. In all five New Ulm defenders were dead inside the town and five were wounded; teenager Emilie Pauli also died trying to cross the street during the fight.

Flandrau and his volunteers reached New Ulm that night and began to strengthen the town’s defenses and tend to the wounded. Over the next days, a hundred men arrived from Mankato along with volunteers from the Brown County Militia, St. Peter Guards, Nicollet County Guards, a company from Lafayette, and others. The defense grew to around 300 armed men.

On Saturday, August 23, lookouts reported smoke from the direction of Fort Ridgely. Thinking the fort had been taken, Flandrau sent 75 men to assist, unaware the fire had been set intentionally by the Dakota to fool the militia into just such an action. The small force was cut off by the Dakota and retreated toward St. Peter. New Ulm’s defense now stood at 225.

About 9:30 a.m., a force of 650 Dakota attacked, this time under the organized leadership of chiefs Mankato, Wabasha, and Big Eagle. The attack was well-planned and expanded in a fan-like formation. It was rapid and the Sioux advanced toward the barricades from multiple sides. Defenders tried to form a picket line west of town but soon retreated to the town’s center. Fighting continued through dark that night with one countercharge routing sixty Dakota. Regaining confidence, the defenders stood their ground. That night, Flandrau ordered the forty remaining buildings that still stood outside the barricades to be burned to destroy the cover the Dakota were using. In all 190 buildings were destroyed. The following morning, a few of the Dakota reappeared, fired a few shots, and left.

Later that day, Flandrau and other leaders determined the town should be evacuated. Food and ammunition were in in critically short supply. They also feared disease could break out among the non-combatants who had been clustered in close conditions for five days. On August 25, evacuation began in 153 wagons for the weak and wounded with the others on foot. Evacuees took nothing but necessities and traveled the thirty miles to Mankato, some 2000 in number. The procession is said to have been nearly four miles long.

The second battle of New Ulm was the largest battle over a U.S. town since 1776. Thirty-four had died in New Ulm, sixty had been wounded (more recent researchers say 36 killed and at least 23 wounded). There is no estimate of the Dakota dead.

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As I count down to my July 2020 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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