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The sun sets over Little Crow's grave in First Presbyterian cemetery north of Flandrau, where a dream catcher adorns a 12-foot-high stake behind the tombstone on July 9, 2012. The Dakota War of 1862 (also known as the Sioux Uprising) followed years of broken promises to the Dakota people and an explosion of white, immigrant population in Minnesota.

David Joles, Star Tribune

The 1862 war fought on Minnesota soil

  • Article by: CURTIS DAHLIN
  • February 16, 2013 - 6:16 PM

When the Civil War began in the spring of 1861, young men in Minnesota responded enthusiastically to Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers.

By August 1862, all or parts of the First through Tenth Minnesota Regiments had been organized. Some of these regiments had been sent to do battle with confederates in the east or south -- but not all the units had been deployed.

So when Dakota Indians launched their war against settlers and soldiers on Aug. 18, 1862, quite a number of troops, many of them new recruits, were still in Minnesota.

Word of the attacks reached Fort Snelling and St. Paul the next day, and a military response was organized, with Col. Henry Sibley commanding. Some soldiers, such as those in Company B, Fifth Minnesota Regiment, were already in the troubled area, being stationed at Fort Ridgely.

But because other soldiers were not available in the immediate area where fighting was taking place and could not rapidly get there, militia units from the area were quickly raised. These militia units proceeded primarily to the assistance of New Ulm, which had called for help.

The battles in Minnesota in 1862 between the Dakota and soldiers and militia were not trivial affairs. In fact, in one battle, at Redwood Ferry on Aug. 18, a single Minnesota company saw more soldiers killed in action than did any company of Minnesota troops in any single battle of the Civil War.

This was Company B of the Fifth Minnesota, which lost 24 soldiers killed that day, including the commander, Capt. John Marsh, and his interpreter, Peter Quinn. It was half the force present at the battle.

The company with the second-highest number of Minnesota soldiers killed in a single battle was Company A of the famed First Minnesota Regiment. At Gettysburg on July 2 and 3, 1863, about 15 soldiers of Company A were killed or mortally wounded.

While Redwood Ferry involved only soldiers and no militia, other 1862 battles involved a combination of soldiers and militia, including those at Birch Coulee and Acton.

The battle of New Ulm was fought almost entirely by militia. Soldiers and militia were in the same situation, in that neither had received much, if any, military training. They were all green.

The largest toll of militia killed in a single battle with the Dakota was the Aug. 23, 1862 battle for New Ulm, when 30 defenders were killed. Many militia members were from New Ulm and surrounding Brown County, while many others had come from St. Peter, Le Sueur and Mankato. The battle for New Ulm was very closely fought, with the larger outcome hanging in the balance.

The 30 defenders killed at New Ulm compares with the total of about 75 soldiers from the First Minnesota Regiment who were killed at Gettysburg over two days, about 42 from the First Minnesota at the first battle of Bull Run, and about 45 from the Second Minnesota Regiment at Chickamauga.

In all, 52 soldiers who were members of Minnesota units were killed in the U.S.-Dakota War in 1862, out of a total of about 615 battlefield deaths among Minnesota's Civil War-era soldiers. So about 8 percent of the era's Minnesota soldier deaths occurred during the U.S.-Dakota War, which lasted for just six weeks.

Another 44 members of various militias were killed in the U.S.-Dakota War, for a total of 96 men, not an insignificant number. They died to defeat the Dakota, whose attacks had killed more than 600 of their fellow citizens.

Some of these battlefield deaths had a huge impact on the communities the soldiers or militia came from. For example, of the 24 soldiers from the Fifth Minnesota who were killed at the battle of Redwood Ferry, 19, including Capt. Marsh, were from Fillmore County. The impact on the county was enormous, losing so many young sons in one battle.

In observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Minnesota soldiers killed in battles with the confederates are being honored in various ways, as well they should be. But equally deserving of that honor are those Civil War-era soldiers and militia who made the ultimate sacrifice during the U.S.-Dakota War, the most significant and tragic event in Minnesota's history.

U.S.-Dakota War soldiers and militia killed in 1862 are buried in cemeteries in many Minnesota towns, including Belle Plaine, Big Lake, Brooklyn Park, Chanhassen, Excelsior, Fort Ridgely, Hutchinson, Le Sueur, Mankato, Mazeppa, Minneapolis, Monticello, New Ulm, St. Paul, St. Peter, Shakopee, Shorewood, Winona, and on the Birch Coulee and Wood Lake battlefields.

Not all graves are marked, but many are, often with period markers. So now we pay homage to them.

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Curtis Dahlin, of Roseville, is an independent historian.

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