The Battle of Wood Lake was a battle in the Dakota War of 1862 in September. By that time in the Dakota War of 1862, the Sioux offensive had slowed considerably, and the Minnesota forces were beginning to implement a plan formulated by Governor Alexander Ramsey. Ramsey’s plan, implemented by Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley and frontier commander Charles Eugene Flandrau, had the goals of freeing settlers held captive by the Indians and to
“exterminate” or drive the Dakota “forever beyond the borders of the state”.
Sibley attempted to negotiate a settlement with Chief Little Crow in early September, thinking that the Indians were growing weary of the war. Little Crow returned with an explanation of why the Indians started the war and hinting that he would consider negotiations about some United States prisoners they were holding captive. Sibley responded by refusing to negotiate and demanding Little Crow’s surrender. Little Crow refused to surrender, and the conditions were set for another battle.
Sibley’s initial expedition from Fort Snelling, which included 1,400 troops, took nearly nine days to reach Fort Ridgely. At Fort Ridgely, Sibley delayed still further, to the frustration of settlers and others who wanted swift action against the Indian uprising. Jane Grey Swisshelm, a St. Cloud newspaper editor, wrote,
“For God’s sake put some live man in command of the force against the Sioux & let Sibley have 100 men or thereabout for his undertaker’s corpse.”
The delay was caused, in part, by the lack of experience of the new recruits and the shortage of supplies, such as guns, ammunition, and horses. These supplies finally reached Sibley’s forces between September 11 and September 14. On September 19, the troops finally began their march up the Minnesota River valley.
The troops camped east of Lone Tree or Battle Lake, a small lake drained by a creek running northeast to the Minnesota River, about five miles north of what is now Echo, Minnesota. Sibley’s guide thought the lake was Wood Lake, which was about three and a half miles to the west, so the battle is actually misnamed. The Third Minnesota camped along the crest south of the creek, and the sixth Minnesota was next to the small lake. The Seventh Minnesota was at the right rear behind the creek’s ravine. All units and the wagon train and artillery were partially enclosed by trenches.
Little Crow planned to ambush the soldiers the next morning when they were marching, strung out along the road when the troops would be in a long, poorly defended column. In the morning, a few soldiers from the Third Minnesota regiment in several wagons left camp early in search of food from the Upper Sioux Agency near present day Rock Valle Church. Some of the wagons were not on the road, and were headed straight at some of Little Crow’s men as they lay in the grass thus compelling them to rise up and fire. This brought on the fight, and veteran troops from the Third Regiment recently returned from fighting Confederates in the south, ran to assist their comrades, aided by the Renville Rangers. They advanced about a half mile from the camp until both flanks were threatened. Sibley ordered Lt. Colonel William R. Marshall with six companies and an artillery piece to advance and repulse the Indians on the right flank. On the left end of the line, Major Robert N. McLaren led his men around the lake to defeat an attempted flanking attack. The battle lasted about two hours, during which Chief Mankato was killed by a cannonball.
The battle was a decisive victory for the United States, with heavy casualties inflicted on the Sioux. For his part in the battle, Sibley received a promotion to Brigadier General. Because of the high losses and the death of Chief Mankato, the battle was the last fought by the Sioux in the uprising as the influence of the pacifist chiefs increased which led to the release of those held captive by the Sioux and the surrender of many of the Indians at Camp Release.
Due to the shortage of troops in Minnesota during the Dakota War of 1862, units were often dispatched in a piecemeal fashion as soon as they could be formed, with some companies and detachments assigned to other regiments. Units involved include: the 3rd Minnesota Infantry, 6th Minnesota Infantry, 7th Minnesota Infantry, 9th Minnesota Infantry, 10th Minnesota Infantry, Citizen Soldier units and Militia including the “Renville Rangers”, and an artillery unit with a 6-pound gun.
In 2010 the battlefield site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Wood Lake Battlefield Historic District for having state-level significance under the themes Archaeology/Historic-Aboriginal, Archaeology/Historic-Non-Aboriginal, Ethnic Heritage/Native American, and Military. It was nominated for being the final engagement of the Dakota War of 1862, a watershed period for the state of Minnesota and the Dakota people, and for embodying early commemoration efforts of 1907–1910 culminating in the stone monument.