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The Attack on the Upper Sioux Agency and Battle of Fort Ridgely

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January 25, 2020 by Pamela Nowak


The headquarters of the Lower Sioux Agency was among the first sites to be attacked during the Dakota Conflict. The agency was a natural target, since its warehouse held food stores (annuities) that were owed to the Dakota. Officials at the agency had refused to release more than a fraction of the food to the Dakota representatives who had met with them in the days before. Instead, they intended to hold the food until the monetary payment (long delayed due to the Civil War) arrived from Washington. Trader Andrew Myrick had boldly remarked that if the Dakota were hungry, “let them eat grass.”

On August 17, 1862, during the war council held after whites were killed near Acton, Minnesota after a dispute over food, Little Crow had advised against war (as had Wabasha and Big Eagle) but had been overruled by other leaders. In the end, Little Crow agreed to lead a war against the Whites to drive them from the area.

On the morning of August 18, the small settlement of traders, government officials, and their families was attacked. The raid was a complete surprise and among the first to be killed were the men who had denied the Dakota their food stores. Targeted were James Myrick and his employees, other traders, and James Lynd (who had deserted his Dakota wife and children a few months before).

As the attack continued, many tried to flee the settlement. Dr. Philander Humphrey, agency physician, his wife, and two children left with elderly fur trader Philander Prescott were among them. Prescott’s wife was Dakota, mother-in-law to Shakopee. They were killed just after crossing the river. In all thirteen were killed in the initial attack, seven while fleeing. Thirteen were captured and 47 escaped. The ferryman assisted most of those but was later killed.

The refugees headed to Fort Ridgely, thirteen miles distant. The Dickenson family, operators of a boarding house, were the among the first to arrive at the fort. Their initial reports were thought to be about isolated attacks and military officials did not realize a war had started until other refugees began to flood in.

Fort Ridgely was established in 1853 as a military outpost along the Lower Sioux Agency. Located on the Minnesota River, thirteen miles southeast of the Lower Sioux Agency headquarters at the Redwood River, the fort was intended to provide military oversight on the reservation. As the Dakota began attacks along the frontier on August 18, settlers fled to the fort for protection.

Fort Ridgely had no stockade. It was a collection of separate unfortified buildings. Roads led to Redwood Ferry, New Ulm, St. Peter, and the Lower Agency headquarters. Though located on a high table of land, ravines on three sides left it vulnerable to attack. On August 18, there were 76 men and two officers garrisoned at the fort, supported by a number of civilians. When fugitives reached the fort with word of attacks on the frontier and Lower Agency headquarters, Captain Marsh sent a rider to recall the 50 soldiers en route to Fort Ripley (to muster into the Civil War) and set out with 46 soldiers to reinforce the Lower Agency. He left command of Fort Ridgely in the hands of nineteen-year-old Thomas Gere. Only 29 soldiers remained at the fort.

After leaving the fort in the hands of Lt. Gere, Captain Marsh and his force started toward the Lower Agency via wagons, meeting refugees on the way. Marsh was cautioned that the number of Dakota involved was high and that there would be trouble at the Redwood Ferry, where many were gathered. As the soldiers descended Fairbault’s Hill, three miles from the ferry, they passed burned houses and found the bodies of the ferryman and Dr. Humphrey’s party. As the soldiers neared the ferry site, they left their wagons and approached single file toward the landing where they saw the boat moored and waiting. They were unaware that a large force of Dakota was waiting in the woods. White Dog, a Dakota who had helped teach other Dakota to farm, approached the group.

White Dog and a small group spoke with Marsh and his men through an interpreter, Peter Quinn. Later, White Dog would be accused (and convicted) of leading the soldiers into a trap by inviting them to come in for a council; White Dog would testify he had conveyed a warning to stay back (conflicting testimony was common throughout the later trials). A single shot rang out, then those hidden in the woods attacked. The interpreter and twelve soldiers were killed along with one Dakota warrior.

Cut off on three sides, Marsh lead his surviving men into a thicket that stretched for two miles along the river. Hours later, they attempted to swim across to safety. Marsh drowned. Nineteen-year-old Sergeant John Bishop led fifteen men back to Fort Ridgely. 

During the next two days, many frontier settlers fled to the fort as attacks continued on more isolated settlements. At the fort, young Lieutenant Gere, ill with just 22 able soldiers (others were sick or detailed to attend to the sick), worked to plan defenses and tend the increasing number of refugees. When the hospital filled to capacity with wounded, Dr. Alfred Muller set up cots in his own quarters. Mrs. Muller recruited women to serve as nurses. With no well at the fort, post sutler Benjamin Randall led a force to fill all tubs, barrels, and other containers with water from the river. Gere sent dispatches to Fort Snelling and Governor Alexander Ramsey asking that reinforcements be sent.  Gere also sent a second message to Sheehan, telling him to force-march his return to the fort; he stated that 600 Dakota were en route and 250 refugees had already arrived.

Ironically, during that time, a stagecoach arrived with $71,000 in gold—the late annuity payments which had so greatly contributed to the dire situation among the Dakota.

Had the Dakota attacked the fort immediately, rather than delaying for two days, they would likely have taken Fort Ridgely and possibly the entire Minnesota River valley. Instead, some groups celebrated initial triumphs while others strategized. On August 19, Dakota warriors began to assemble west of the fort, with more experienced leaders advising to attack immediately. Younger men turned their attention to New Ulm instead with its promise of loot and civilian targets, delaying the attack on the fort. That delay would give time for reinforcements to arrive.

The Battle of Fort Ridgely, occurring on August 20 and 22, 1862, is considered a battle of the Civil War despite the fact that no Union/Confederate conflict occurred there. 

By the morning of August 20, Little Crow had assembled around 400 men (some accounts say less). The first battle of New Ulm had ended and men were now returning. A distraction was stage to the west of the fort while most of Little Crow’s force attacked from the ravines and struck at the northeast corner of the fort. Two howitzers were used to drive them back while cannons were aimed at the force attacking from the south and west. The first rush failed but the fighting continued from a distance for about five hours. At nightfall, the Dakota withdrew to the Lower Agency to recover from the artillery defense. This had been their first experience with artillery and the howitzer shells had left them dazed and confused. This was not the musket battle they had anticipated.

The next day, a thunderstorm raged, leaving those at the fort time to organize and strengthen defenses. More artillery was put into place and barricades erected. Little Crow used the time to gather more warriors and plan his attack.

On August 22, an estimated force of 800 Dakota warriors crept through the prairie grasses using camouflage on their headbands. Their first effort was to fire flaming arrows at the rooftops in the fort. Due to the previous day’s rain, few fires took hold. The second Dakota effort involved heavy armed attack with an assault from the southwest involving hand-to-hand combat. Soldiers had anticipated that route and trained artillery on the buildings being used for cover. The explosions of shells again drove back the Dakota forces with only three Whites dead and 13 wounded. Dakota casualties were estimated at 100 though were likely not that high.  No further attacks were made on the fort.

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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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