Start: 1862-09-03 End: 1862-09-06
During the last two weeks of August and throughout the month of September in 1862, Fort Abercrombie, a United States Army post on the edge of the Minnesota frontier was besieged by the Dakota or Sioux Indians for six weeks or so.
When the 1862 Sioux War broke out, the three regular army posts in the region, Fort Abercrombie, Fort Ridgely, and Fort Ripley had many similarities. All three were forts in name only and ill-suited for defense. Lacking a stockade or blockhouses, Abercrombie consisted of three scattered buildings – a wooden barracks for the enlisted men, wooden quarters for the officers, and a small brick commissary – plus a small guardhouse, sutler’s store and stables. Like the other forts in the region, brushes and other vegetation on both sides of the Red River gave the Indians good cover from which they could attack the fort. In another parallel with Fort Ridgely, Fort Abercrombie’s shortcomings were also overcome by the use of cannons and able artillerists, many of them had been trained in Germany. Three twelve-pound mountain howitzers were to prove very important in beating back the Sioux attacks.
Company D of the Fifth Minnesota Regiment was stationed at Fort Abercrombie when the Dakota Conflict started. It was commanded by a thirty-one year old, German-born, aristocratic-looking grocer and village treasure for the city of St. Paul, John Vander Horck. Vander Horck was a Captain with the Fifth Minnesota Militia Regiment. He had arrived at Fort Abercrombie from Fort Snelling, some 225 miles away on March 29, 1862, at the head of a company of at least seventy-eight men. In keeping with his orders, Vander Horck sent a detachment of thirty men, led by Lieutenant Francis A. Cariveau, to Fort Sanborn, a satellite post for Fort Abercrombie, located about fifty miles to the north on the Red River, near the present-day Georgetown, MN. These troops were to guard installations of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Burbank & Company.
Vander Horck and his men endured several months of typically dull outpost duty in this sparsely settled area. All that relieved the boredom were occasional visitors and the twice-a-week Burbank & Company stagecoach running between Georgetown and St. Cloud. There were few signs if any, of the upcoming Indian troubles.
In mid-august a wagon train of thirty wagons loaded with trade goods for the Indians and two hundred cattle arrived at Fort Abercrombie. This treaty train was bound for a treaty site at the forks of the Red and Red Lake rivers near what is now Grand Forks, North Dakota. Vander Horck had orders to provide an escort for it. On August 23, Vander Horck received new orders to detain the goods and cattle at Abercrombie. With these new orders came a clipping from a St. Cloud newspaper that informed Vander Horck of the Indian warfare. Unfortunately, the wagon train had by that time already passed beyond the boundaries of the fort, so he sent a messenger to the escort detail with orders that they were to bring the wagon train and the cattle back to Fort Abercrombie.
The wagons and cattle quickly returned to a corral near the fort, and Vander Horck also recalled the detachment he had sent to Fort Sanborn (Georgetown). At least eighty citizens of the area, alerted by runners from Fort Abercrombie also came in for protection. They were housed in the enlisted men’s barracks. They were put to work along with the soldiers, collecting and piling up cordwood and timber around the buildings and constructing emplacements for the howitzers.
Being a cautious person by nature, Vander Horck permitted very little roaming outside the fort. This included trying to save the cattle. He did, however, send Lieutenant John Groetch with about a dozen men to reconnoiter as far south as Breckenridge, about fifteen miles. They saw no Indians but found the mutilated bodies of three men, a woman, and a child in a Breckenridge hotel. The four-story structure was burned by Indians, later that same evening. The scouting party also found a wounded, elderly woman crawling near the riverbank. She said Indians had shot her, killed her husband, and kidnapped her grandson from her home some fifteen miles east of Breckenridge. She then indicated that she had survived by eating frogs that she was able to catch. The troops took her back to Fort Abercrombie, where she eventually recovered from her wounds.
On August 23rd, Vander Horck dispatched to St. Paul two volunteer couriers – Walter P. Hills and Elisha L. Spencer – to inform authorities of the situation at Abercrombie and to request reinforcements and ammunition. The latter was no routine request. In April, Vander Horck and his men discovered that the Fort was stocked with the wrong size ammunition for their muskets. They carried .69 caliber muskets and the ammunition that was in the forts magazine was not the right caliber. Since that point in time Vander Horck had been requesting 20,000 rounds of .69 caliber ammunition. Although they had been promised, none had materialized by the time of the Indian attacks.
The garrison grew increasingly weary from the constant vigilance and sentry duty. All was reasonably quiet until August 30th when a small band of Dakota Indians made a bold and successful raid, driving off most of the stock grazing outside of the fort. Some of them as far off as a mile from the fort. Vander Horck permitted no one to take off after the Indians, but the next day a scouting party recovered approximately fifty head of cattle.
The next incident took place early on the morning of September 3rd. Captain Vander Horck and his orderly were inspecting the outside picket guard. Just as they were about to approach the last picket on the post, the guard on duty, mistaking the party for Indians fired at them, wounding Captain Vander Horck in the arm. The guard after seeing his mistake explained that during the night he had seen some Indians crawling in the grass near his post and thinking they were about to attack he had fired. Just at daybreak and as Doctor Brown, the post physician and surgeon was bandaging Captain Vander Horck’s wound, the Indians attacked the post. On they came, Official estimates placed the number at about four hundred. They were armed with their own native weapons, as well as, firearms of all descriptions. All were in war paint and many were almost nude – wearing nothing but a loincloth. The First Lieutenant of Company “D” of the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, Lieutenant Cariveau, was present in the garrisoning of the fort, but was ill, therefore, the command and responsibility of defending the fort fell upon the Second Lieutenant, a man by the name of John Groetch. The Indians attacked the fort from the south and the full force of the attack was direct against the stables and the stockyard. In fact, it soon became clear that the attackers were mainly interested in securing horses that would help them maintain the siege. Burning hay stacks shed a grotesque light on the whole scene as the garrison managed to repulse the Indians after two hours of fighting. Cannon fire helped, but so did the intense efforts of armed citizens, bent on saving their animals from being captured. They were led by Captain T. D. Smith, the post quartermaster. He was given much of the credit for the defeat of the Indians, who kept up desultory firing until three o’clock in the afternoon from the dense cover along the river. Joseph Desmaris, the post’s mixed-blood interpreter, later learned from the Indians that after the failure of their attack on the fort, the Indians were discouraged in their belief that they would be able to take the post. No definite figure could be placed on upon the Indians as they took most of their dead with them .Two Indians were found dead in the stockyard after the fight, but perhaps four more were thought to have been killed and as many as fifteen wounded. The loss to the defenders was slight. The official correspondence of Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars places the loss at two whites, one killed and one wounded. These men were Corporal Nicholas Hittinger, who was wounded in the right shoulder and Private Edwin D. Steele, who was wounded in the abdomen and who died on September 7th.
After this battle, the garrison learned that they had only 350 rounds were left. The soldiers were armed with .69 caliber Harpers Ferry muskets with which they were supplied when mustered in at Fort Snelling. They were supplied with 2,000 rounds of ammunition to fit their rifles and were further advised that there was 40,000 rounds of ammunition at the fort that would fit their arms. Upon their arrival at the fort it was discovered however, that instead of being .69 caliber ammunition, it was .58 caliber. This discovery was made in April and the commander of the fort immediately made a requisition of the chief of ordinance of the army for 20,000 rounds of ammunition to their arms. On May the first, he was advised that his requisition had been ordered to be filled from the St. Louis Arsenal. Up to June the tenth, the ammunition had not arrived and the Chief of Ordinance was again notified. On July the 30th, the commander was again notified that the needed ammunition would be shipped, but up to the time of the attack, none of it had arrived.
There were however, and fortunate indeed — twelve cases of canister ammunition on hand for the howitzers and it was discovered that these canisters contained .69 caliber balls which were just the right size to fit the rifles. After finding a supply of balls to fit the rifles, it was learned that the treaty train that was held at the fort had in its wagons a supply of black powder and fifty muzzle loading shotguns. The women then joined in meeting the crisis by taking .69-caliber balls from cases of canister for the cannon and replaced them with small pieces of scrap iron which the men supplied by breaking up such available cast iron which was suitable. The shotguns were also put to use and were loaded with small shot which was also found in the wagon train.
Thus reinforced with the much needed ammunition, the brave garrison again took up their task of defending their property and their lives.
On September 4th and 5th scattered fire was kept up between the defenders of the fort and the Indians The Indians were hiding behind trees on the Minnesota side of the Red River and their snipers hidden in the tree tops made it dangerous for any one to place themselves in an exposed position.
At daybreak on September 6th, the Indians launched their fiercest attack on the fort. Although Vander Horck and others estimated that the Indian Force contained several hundred, it probably did not contain more than 150 warriors. Some were drawn from the upper Sioux Sisseton band, plus some Wahpeton. During the Sisseton and Wahpeton claims trials that dragged on in later years, these bands denied taking part in the war. Members of the garrison, however, said they recognized the well-known Sisseton leader, Sweet Corn, among the attackers.
At any rate, on the morning of September 6th, the Indians concentrated again on the stables and managed to enter them. Captain Vander Horck had warned his men against being drawn away from the building in their zeal, but so outraged were they when they saw the haystacks burning and some of their stock being driven off that a group charged the stables into which the Indians penetrated. Prominent among this group that charged the stables were Edwin Wright of Dayton. Mr. Kent of St. Cloud, and Mr. Bently, of Grahams Point, Minnesota. Mr. Kent and Mr. Wright were the first to reach the stable and upon entering they discovered two Indians hiding at the opposite end. Mr. Kent immediately shot one and secured his rifle while the other fired at Mr. Wright, but he, like the Indian fighters of those days had learned the ways of the Indians and managed to escape being hit. Mr. Wright’s first shot leveled the Indian and he was finished off by a bayonet thrust.
The Indians then came at the fort from three sides, the north, south and west with the hottest or heaviest fighting being near the stables, the ferry, and the commissary building in which the women and children were housed. Well-directed cannon fire managed to break up any concentration of Indians and after several hours of futile fighting the attackers retired to the cover along the riverbank. It was at these places where the Indians suffered their heaviest losses as they neglected to remove their dead and after the battle was over twelve Indians were found near the river bank. On the west side of the commissary building a rough breastwork of logs and earth had been built and behind this fortification ten privates under the command of sergeant William Duetch and Fred Simon did effective execution. This small force of men, although greatly outnumbered fought bravely and killed many. Two Indians were killed within thirty feet of their defenses. The points of the Indian attack shifted from the stables into the commissary and back again as they failed to meet with any degree of success. For those who have failed to recall the location of these points, they were on the southeast corner of the fort. The approach to the fort from this point was through heavy timber and offered greater protection to the Indians.
Casualties from this attack on Fort Abercrombie among the Indians was great as there was ample evidence of their heavy losses by broken guns and blood soaked rags and clothing. As a matter of fact, Indian losses were so heavy that they gave up attempts to take the fort by assault and settled for continued harassment and sniping fire from a distance. Their targets included members of the garrison who went down to the river for water, because Fort Abercrombie had no well. The losses to the defenders of Fort Abercrombie was placed at three. One soldier by the name of Seigel was killed, one civilian by the name of H. H. Mayo from St. Cloud was wounded, and one soldier wounded. Mr. Mayo later died of his wounds, while the soldier recovered.
Vander Horck repeatedly sent messengers to St. Paul asking for help. Although no word got back to him, assistance slowly took shape in the form of a relief force to lift the siege. On September 6th, Governor Alexander Ramsey ordered a relief expedition to set out under the leadership of Captain Emil A. Bruerger, a veteran of the Prussian army and a member of a Minnesota Sharpshooter company, who had been returned to the state in a prisoner exchange. Brueger’s relief force consisted of about sixty men of the Third Minnesota under Sergeant Abraham F. Dearborn, Company D of the Seventh Minnesota under Captain Rolla Banks, and Company G of the Eighth Minnesota under Captain George Atkinson. A fieldpiece under Lieutenant R. J. McHenry caught up two days later.
Meanwhile, three other units had been on guard for some time in the St. Cloud-Sauk Center area. They were Company H of the Eighth Minnesota under Captain George C. McCoy, Company G of the Ninth Minnesota under Captain Theodore H. Barret, and a small company of Northern Rangers (a mounted citizens group) under the command of Captain Ambrose Freeman. McCoy was under orders to guard the Sauk Center area, but the others on their own responsibility had started for Abercrombie until they received orders to meet Bruerger at Wyman’s Station near Alexandria. When these groups combined on September 19th, they total about 450 men. On their way toward Fort Abercrombie, the rescue party stopped at a settler’s place by the name of Gagers where they found a buggy belonging to them, loaded with plunder which the Indians in their haste did not take with them. The next day they found the body of a man by the name of Austin who had been killed, his head severed and scalped and thrown in the grass about 40 rods away. His body was buried where it lay. The next day the rescuers came to Pomme De Terre where they stopped for the night. The next day took them to the old crossing over the Ottertail River about five miles south of Foxhome, MN. It was there that they discovered the burned buildings of that station and the complete destruction of all the property that remained. The two bodies of its occupants were also found terribly mangled. The oxen and other livestock at Old Crossing had been driven off or strayed and a search was made for them the next morning. It was foggy and the visibility was very poor so it was decided to press on to Fort Abercrombie with half of the cavalry troop, leaving part with the infantry who stayed to make a search for the livestock. They were found later and driven to the fort that night.
On September 21st, not knowing that a relief expedition was on its way, Vander Horck, feeling increasingly desperate, dispatched another two messengers toward St. Paul. The messengers were accompanied part of the way by an escort of twenty men. Returning from its mission, the escort was attacked from ambush about a mile southeast of the fort. Two of the escort party were killed. A soldier by the name of William Schultz and a civilian by the name of Edward Wright. A detachment sent out the next day found the two bodies about eight rods apart. They were horribly mutilated. The body of Mr. Wright was found with his body ripped from the naval to the throat and the heart and liver removed. The lungs were left on the chest. The head was scalped and cut from the body. It was then placed within the cavity of the abdomen facing the feet. The hands had been cut off and placed palms down about two feet from the body. The body of private William Schultz was found with his skull smashed in and his brains scattered about. His arm had been broken by a rifle ball and there were eighteen stab wounds in his body. His legs had been cut to the bone from both hips to the ankles and like Mr. Wright, his hands had been cut off and placed palms down about two feet from the body. Both bodies were brought to the fort and buried in the fort cemetery which was then located to the northwest of the fort grounds. Vander Horck was severely criticized by the garrison for this loss of life. In the long siege, however, total casualties at the Fort amounted to five dead and five wounded.
The reinforcements reached Abercrombie on the afternoon of September 23rd, to the joy of garrison and its besieged citizens. They had no knowledge of just when assistance would reach them. Along about 5 o’clock that memorable day a lookout stationed on top of one of the buildings with a telescope to his eye spied a cloud of dust in the distance and as it grew nearer the alarm was given that a large band of Indians was approaching. As the dust cleared, four white men – messengers that had previously been sent for aid — riding like mad and upon reaching the fort they notified its defenders that in about half an hour 350 soldiers would arrive as relief to those who had so bravely defended Fort Abercrombie through three long and anxious trying weeks. The soldiers and civilians – men and women, formed two lines through which the new arrivals passed. Some wept, some laughed. They shouted and cheered so loud that they were unable to speak the next day. It was a glorious experience for the rescued and the rescuers. Old friends clasped hands and embraced each other. Old neighbors met again. Many of the rescuers came from St. Cloud from which place many of the civilians and soldiers in the fort alike had come. One woman in the fort prepared a beef dinner for the St. Cloud group and thirty sat down for the meal. The new arrivals were dusty and dirty from that long forced march. After they washed up a glorious celebration took place that lasted far into the morning of September 24th.
The next day scouting parties from the reinforcements went in different directions from the fort and brought in all the cattle and other stock that had strayed or been driven off by the Indians. Other parties went to secure hay and forage and subsistence for the fort. Potatoes that had been planted near the fort were dug and the fort again assumed a peace time routine although there were Indians in the vicinity.
On September 25th, 150 sheep that had been driven away were recovered. On September 26th, messengers were dispatched to St. Cloud with full particulars of the state of affairs at the fort to relieve the minds of the interested ones in St. Cloud waiting for some word from the fort. At 7 o’clock on the morning of the 26th a number of soldiers went to the river to obtain water for their horses when they were fired upon by a party of Indians hidden in the timber on the opposite side of the river. About twenty shoots were fired in one volley and a teamster by the name of John Weising from St. Cloud was mortally wounded. He died that night. Another teamster by the name of John H. Raymond, who was carrying two pails of water when fired upon, had one of the buckets pierced by a bullet from the Indian rifles. Of the other who were exposed to the hostile fire, non were hit. One horse and one ox were also killed in that blast of fire. Immediately upon hearing the fire the troops at the fort rushed to the defense of their comrades and returned the fire. A Mr. Tanner and his two sons, seeing two Sioux near the river bank fired upon them and both Indians fell into the river. One was killed outright and the other wounded, but both were dragged back onto the bank and taken away by the Indians. A Mr. Burnham was seen to kill another Indian. Mr. Freeman of the cavalry also claimed a hit. As Mr. Grant from Captain Barret’s company, saw an Indian sniper hidden near the top of one of the tall trees. He took careful aim and had the satisfaction of seeing his bullet find its mark and the Indian fall, the body lodging in the fork of the tree as it fell. In a few moments the howitzer was brought into action and a few well directed shots from this piece sent the Indians into a hurried retreat. Men from the Cavalry were then ordered to mount and pursue the Indians. They took with them the twelve pounder and chased the Indians who fled without further resistance. They came upon their camp where they discovered quite a large quantity of plunder which they assumed to have been taken from Georgetown. The soldiers destroyed the encampment and took what they felt they had use for.
On Sunday, the 28th three Indians were seen near the Wild Rice River but they fled upon seeing the whites. Indians were seen skulking around the post each day and seemed determined that communication beyond the fort would be made impossible.
On September 30th, the Third Minnesota detachment and Freeman’s cavalry escorted some sixty men, women, and children on a wagon trip back to St. Cloud. They reached Dayton the first night. The night of October 1st found them at Chippewa. The next night was spent in Alexandria woods where another Indian scare was experienced and on October 5th at 11 o’clock in the forenoon, the entire group arrived at St. Cloud.
Company D of the Fifth Minnesota was soon sent to join other Minnesota units fighting in the Civil War. Vander Horck, however, remained at Fort Abercrombie to oversee its improvement. Soldiers cut down the brush and trees that had afforded the Indians convenient cover, and by February, 1863, they had erected three blockhouses, as well as, a stockade on three sides of the fort. All but the river side. Fort Abercrombie continued to guard the edge of the Minnesota frontier, and serve as a supply base for frontier military posts until 1877 when it was finally abandoned. The buildings were sold at public auction in 1878, and the military reservation was transferred to the Interior Department in 1880. Eventually the Interior Department sold the land to settlers for farmsteads. The post was partially reconstructed by the Works Progress Administration in the period of 1938 to 1940 and is now a North Dakota State Historic Park.