Believe it or not, the largest Indian war in this country was fought during the Civil War. Called the Dakota War (and sometimes Minnesota’s Other Civil War), it was fought in the latter stages of the summer 1862 in the southern and central parts of Minnesota and into the Dakota Territories. Over 500 settlers and 100 soldiers were killed. The number of Native American Indian dead has never been determined.
The incident started on August 18, 1862 when Chief Little Crow led about 1,600 Indians on the warpath. It is reported that they killed indiscriminately as they went along. One hundred forty-seven were killed the first day. Sixty-two civilians were killed the following day as the raiders split up with a small gang also attacking the town of New Ulm. There, with the benefit of barricades, a tough resistance force of civilians and a large thunderstorm, the citizens turned the Indians away. But they weren’t finished.
A force of about 400 Indians attacked Fort Ridgely on August 20. The fort had made preparations anticipating the attack, including reinforcements from the 5th Minnesota regiment plus a group of 50 volunteers from Renville County. The fort also had readied their artillery battery which included a 24 pound howitzer, two six pound field guns, and two 12 pound howitzers plus experienced crews to man them. They made the extra precaution of firing up stoves to heat up the metal cannon balls prior to firing them.
The attacking Indians had never face artillery fire before. In five hours of heavy firing, the cannonry won out over the Indians. They fled, but returned the two days later on August 22 with 400 Dakota Indians from nearby who had been added to help continue the fight.
Chief Little Crow attacked the fort again, this time with almost 1,200 Indians. But the results were pretty much the same. The artillery smashed the attackers, killed or wounded many, and completely spooked the others who ran off. Attempts by Little Crow to push his men back into attack mode worked less and less with each try. Their bows and arrows had no answer for the cannons they faced. They abandoned their attacks on the fort.
At the same time that Fort Ridgely was under siege, New Ulm was preparing for another possible attack on their town. One hundred twenty five men from St. Peter, Minnesota arrived to help defend the town. Judge Charles Flandrau stepped forward and though he had no military experience, set marksman in several buildings around the town’s perimeter.
On August 23, about a thousand Dakotas attacked. Many of the attackers penetrated the perimeter and made it into town, In a desperate maneuver, the townspeople set their own buildings ablaze, offering the Indians nowhere to hide. The fires led to a Dakota retreat. The townspeople had held their ground, but the fires had destroyed their town.
Judge Flandrau ordered the evacuation of the town. About 2,000 people boarded 150 wagons and made the trek to Mankato, Minnesota 30 miles away.
The Dakotas participated in several other battles in the following weeks. President Lincoln sent federal troops into the area and assigned Colonel Sibley to investigate the matters. Sibley received testimony from 269 Dakota captives, civilian and military survivors of the actions. Trails were held with 421 convicted and 303 sentenced to death. The president reviewed the reports and commuted to prison all but 38 of those who had been condemned to death.
On Friday, December 26, 1862, thirty eight men, all Dakota Sioux Indians, were hanged simultaneously on a large gallows in Mankato, Minnesota. It was the largest mass execution ever in the history of this country.
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