- Historic Sites
Minnesota’s Sioux uprising began with senseless murder on a peaceful Sunday afternoon. Before it ended, the smell of death was everywhere
April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
Rumors of the uprising sped across the forty miles to Upper Agency. The Wahpetons and Sissetons debated long and hard about joining their brothers on the lower reservation but finally straddled by deciding they would neither join the war nor refuse it support. They had no more love than the Lower Sioux for the whites; they just wanted to make sure they were not backing a losing horse. It was the first blow to Little Crow’s hopes for a united force.
Nevertheless, Indians at Upper Agency did break into stores and warehouses, killing one man and mortally wounding another. But Christian Indians quietly herded sixty-two whites into a brick warehouse and kept guard over them until the next morning, when they led them on a several-day trip to safety.
It was midmorning when the first refugees from Lower Agency reached Fort Ridgely. They would be streaming in for days with their fear-haunted faces and their tales of violent death, but Captain John Marsh, in command, did not wait to learn the dimensions of the uprising. At the first reports of trouble, he hurried to take care of what he assumed was a local outbreak of violence. His party, which numbered forty-eight including himself, passed refugees heading toward the fort who warned them of danger ahead, but Marsh either did not take the warning seriously or did not know what to do about it.
Marsh was a brave man but he knew nothing about fighting Indians, and he ran into an ambush at the ferry. Sioux popped out of the grass on both sides of the river and poured a deadly fire into the soldiers. Captain Marsh got his men into a thicket where they had a little cover, then decided to cross the river—to a point opposite where there were no Sioux—and was drowned while trying to find a place to ford. Survivors able to take advantage of brush, river bluff, and tailing light to sneak by the Indians reached the fort long after dark. Of the forty-eight who had left before noon, twenty-five had been killed and another died four days later. One Indian died at the ferry; he was the only Sioux known to have been killed on a day that saw so many whites slain.
Fort Ridgely now had become the main hope for white survival, but when night fell, it was not much of a bastion to depend on. It was a fort in name only, an army post never designed for holding off a hostile force. Its heart was a quadrangle of buildings set about an open parade; there were wide gaps between them, and only two were of stone. Various other buildings, including stables, icehouses, and cabins for civilian workers, were scattered outside the quadrangle, offering plenty of cover to an attacking force. So did several ravines, heavily wooded, extending back from the river bluffs almost to the quadrangle.
From a manpower standpoint, the situation was even worse. Captain Marsh’s departure had left nineteenyear-old Lieutenant Tom Gere in command with only a corporal’s guard of twenty-two effective soldiers and seven on the sick list. Even after the beaten scraps of Marsh’s command had come back from the tragedy at the ferry, Gere had less than fifty men. And by nightfall he had two hundred refugees to worry about.
When the sun came up the second day, Tuesday, August 19, a Sioux force of modest size could have taken the fort. Little Crow recognized that Ridgely was the key to the river towns all the way east to Fort Snelling, and he wanted to attack at once while it was weak. But things among the Sioux were done on a pretty individualistic basis, and the young braves decided that murder and looting at New Ulm, twenty miles to the south, would be more fun than attacking a defended fort. About a hundred reached New Ulm, where they engaged the defenders in a brief, long-range exchange of shots in which the only casualty was a girl who wandered out into the street and was killed.
But it was an important respite for the fort. When Captain Marsh had set out for his rendezvous with death, he had first sent a messenger racing after First Lieutenant Timothy Sheehan, who had left Ridgely only a few hours earlier with a detachment of men for a post in Chippewa country. Sheehan was overtaken about forty miles away and immediately turned about and marched his men all night to bring them into the fort by Tuesday noon. There, as senior officer, he took over command from Gere.
Lieutenant Gere had also sent for help. As soon as the news of the defeat at the ferry reached him, he dispatched a rider, Private William Sturgis, to Fort Snelling. Sturgis made an epic ride, traveling all night and covering the 125 miles in only eighteen hours. His route passed through St. Peter, where he alerted a group of about fifty recruits, mostly half-breeds from Upper Agency, who were on their way to Fort Snelling and the Union Army. This group, called the Renville Rangers, started for Fort Ridgely at a dark and chilly 4 A.M. and reached it during the afternoon.
Another small but ironic accession to the fort’s strength came when a stagecoach carrying $71,000 and four armed guards rolled in on its way from St. Paul to Lower Agency. It was the long-overdue annuity money; had it come only a few days earlier, there might have been no uprising.