The Dakota Sioux uprising against the white settlers and Federal authorities in Minnesota had begun in earnest on August 18. During the night and into the early hours of the 19th, a force of about 300 Mdewkanton warriors moved down the Minnesota Valley, led by Chiefs Little Crow, Mankato, Big Eagle, and Wabasha. They approached Fort Ridgely, which had become a sanctuary for hundreds of settlers fleeing the Natives’ wrath. The fort was garrisoned by about 175 Federal troops under Lieutenant Timothy Sheehan.
The chiefs held a council of war, where they urged an end to slaughtering civilians and a revised focus on attacking the Federal army at the fort. But the warriors argued that the Federal artillery at the fort was too strong to withstand and instead urged a raid on New Ulm, a German settlement 16 miles away. There were large stores of food there, the warriors asserted, and the settlers would offer little resistance. Little Crow and about 100 warriors refused, but the rest drifted off without them.
The panicked residents at New Ulm worked with militia to repel several Native charges. Some buildings were burned in the two-hour fight, but the militia kept the Natives out of town. A heavy thunderstorm and the arrival of Federal reinforcements ended the fight. The warriors returned to Fort Ridgely and reported that New Ulm could not be taken. Some stayed behind to lay siege to the town. Over the past two days, the Sioux had killed over 350 settlers in the largest massacre of whites in U.S. history.
The next day, Little Crow led an assault on Fort Ridgely. The warriors surrounded the fort and charged, seizing some buildings and gaining a foothold in the northeast corner. But the Federal howitzers ultimately overwhelmed the Natives and drove them off. A few more charges were repulsed as well.
Little Crow resumed the assault the next day, but the Natives still could not withstand the Federal artillery, and their charges were knocked back again. Little Crow called a halt, but during another evening thunderstorm, 400 more Sissetons and Wahpetons from the Upper Agency arrived to reinforce him.
The assaults resumed on the 22nd, with the warriors using grass and flowers to camouflage themselves as they tried sneaking up on the garrison through the brush. When the Natives were revealed, a fierce fight ensued, but the result was the same and the Natives were forced to fall back. Big Eagle said, “But for the cannon I think we would have taken the fort. The soldiers fought us so bravely we thought there were more of them than there were.”
By this time, the warriors learned that Federal troops of the 6th Minnesota Infantry had left St. Paul and were headed for Fort Ridgely, led by Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley. Little Crow, dazed by an artillery shell, decided to break off the fight and instead help in the ongoing siege of New Ulm. But Little Crow was too hurt to take command, so Mankato would be leading this operation.
On the morning of the 23rd, the reinforced warriors advanced on New Ulm, but by this time the town had been barricaded and reinforced by militia from nearby posts. Vicious fighting took place in the streets as Mankato attempted to surround the town. But by nightfall, the Natives were forced to withdraw. The destruction of nearly 200 buildings left New Ulm in ruins. Aided by Federals, about 2,000 settlers fled 30 miles down the Minnesota River to the town of Mankato. The Sioux gave up attacking the town on the 25th, but the remaining residents feared more attacks and evacuated.
Meanwhile, reports of the Native attacks began appearing in eastern newspapers. Many editors (including Horace Greeley of the influential New York Tribune) incorrectly blamed the uprising on a Confederate conspiracy.
The Santee began withdrawing up the Minnesota River Valley on the 26th. Little Crow tried to enlist other bands of Sioux for aid, but the failure to capture Fort Ridgely and the slaughter of settlers made most reluctant to help. Little Crow denounced the Santees who killed civilians, but this was an inevitable consequence of war being declared.
Sibley’s forces reached Fort Ridgely on the 26th, two days after the Natives had left. Newspaper editors accused Sibley of moving too slow from Fort Snelling, calling him a coward and “the state undertaker with his company of gravediggers.” Sibley searched in vain for the Sioux, then dispatched troops to bury the dead and investigate the Lower Agency. The pursuit of the retreating Sioux continued into September.
- Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 1970.
- Cullen, Joseph P. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.