- 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
Lieutenant Sheehan had 180 soldiers by nightfall, as well as a number of civilians ready to fight; the fort had become a much tougher nut during the day. About noon the next day, Little Crow and several other mounted Indians appeared, riding back and forth and waving blankets. It was purely a diversion; suddenly some two hundred yelling, painted braves burst out of a wooded ravine, drove in the pickets, seized outbuildings, and at one point broke through breastworks closing one of the gaps between buildings before being driven back. Another attack boiled out of a ravine to the south and brought the Indians close enough to bring the gunners handling an artillery piece under fire. But the big gun was too much for them, and they drew back after five hours of hard fighting.
Heavy rain fell that night and the next day, and the Sioux did not appear. But many men were streaming in to join Little Crow until by Friday, August 21, he had possibly as many as eight hundred ready to attack. Once again they worked their way up the ravines, and at midday opened fire from all directions. They obtained a brief lodgment in a big stable only about 250 feet south of the quadrangle but were ousted when shells from one of the cannon set it on fire. There were no chivalrous exchanges in this fighting. Once a Sioux came running out of the burning building and a bullet knocked him down; as he started to crawl away, two of the Renville Ranger half-breeds dropped their muskets and ran across the bullet-swept space to grab the struggling, kicking Indian and throw him back into the burning barn.
All attacks were repulsed, and Little Crow massed his men for one great, final assault. Two of the fort’s three cannon concentrated their fire on the threatened side; their double charges of canister were too much for the Sioux, who broke and fled.
After two days of fighting, Little Crow had gained nothing beyond burning some of the fort’s outbuildings and haystacks and driving off its livestock. He had lost an estimated one hundred men while the defenders had casualties of only three killed and thirteen wounded. And the barrier to the eastern part of the valley still stood.
Now, on August 23, the Sioux again turned their attention to New Ulm, a very tempting target. It was a town almost devoid of natural defenses, but it had resolute human defenders. Volunteers from Mankato, St. Peter, Le Sueur, and other river towns to the east had hastily formed militia, armed themselves as best they could (many had no guns), and come to defend New Ulm. They elected their own commander—and a good one—Charles Flandrau, a justice of the state’s supreme court in less parlous times. He posted his forces around the outer edge of the town, and also barricaded six square blocks in the business district as an inner bastion should his situation become desperate.
New Ulm’s brief brush with the Sioux on August 19 had not amounted to much. The second attack was different: a great body of Indians swarmed down from higher land, fanning out as they came, until they covered the entire defense line. When they broke into a run and surged forward yelling at the tops of their voices, it was too much for some of the defenders. They fell back, giving up a number of the outermost houses to the Sioux before their resistance hardened. Dozens of snarling, vicious little battles developed as both sides fought to occupy and hold houses, while flames and smoke rolled over the scene. Flandrau ordered some houses fired to keep them from the Indians; the latter started their own blazes on the windward side of town, and flames spread from building to building.
The whites clung tenaciously to their strong points—a stone windmill and the brick post office were especially effective fortifications—and when the Sioux attempted to assault the central defenses, sixty whites scattered them with a wild, courageous charge. The Indians fought on until after sunset and remained around the town through the next morning, but they never really threatened again.
New Ulm had suffered grievously. There were twenty-six dead and more than sixty wounded; 190 of its houses were burned and only 25 remained. More than a thousand refugees were crammed inside the inner barricade; food was running low, ammunition was almost gone, and sanitary conditions were atrocious. Flandrau decided to abandon the town, and on Monday morning a melancholy procession, with 153 wagons carrying wounded, children, and the aged, started on the thirty-mile trip to Mankato. The Sioux had drawn off to the west, and the journey was made safely.