August 19, 1862 (Tuesday)
The carnage, murder and chaos of the previous day was indescribable. Hundreds of white settlers had been ruthlessly slaughtered along the shores of the Minnesota River by bands of the Dakota tribe. Such a bloodletting had never been seen before.
So shocking was the butchery that even Chief Little Crow, leader of the Dakota, was taken aback. He had called for a preemptive strike against the whites after four members of his tribe murdered four whites on the 17th. Figuring that the white people would have their revenge either way, Chief Little Crow ordered an attack.
But on the morning of this day, he reconsidered that order. It was far too late to take back what he had done, but perhaps a change of tactics was in order. While other Dakota continued their wave of death and destruction, Little Crow called other leaders and roughly 300 tribesmen for a council of war.
They gathered within site of the Union Army’s Fort Ridgely on the east side of the river. He had enough of killing women and children and wanted his people to fight the real enemy – the United States Army. Fort Ridgely was a prime strategic outpost and he, along with other chiefs, wanted to attack it immediately.
Most of the Dakota thought the plan too grandiose. Their force of only 300 was much too small to attack a fort, even if there were only seventy-five soldiers inside of it. The stronghold also contained four pieces of artillery, something the Dakota had no way to counter.
The talks broke down in the early afternoon. In complete disgust, Little Crow left with 100 of his supporters. They headed to their homes, sitting out the rest of the day.
About 100 of the remaining group turned away from the fort and headed toward New Ulm, a small town sixteen miles away. As the Dakota approached the town, the villagers and militiamen put up a solid defense. Each time the natives would charge, they would be beaten back.
The attackers set fire to some of the buildings, but the militia moved from house to house, meeting the Dakota at every turn. The fighting was hot and intense for nearly two hours. But then lightening etched across the sky and torrents of rain pounded down upon the town, putting an end to the assaults. During this deluge, twenty-three white men showed up as reinforcements.
Realizing that there was no way to take the town, the natives pulled back, having killed seventeen all together. When darkness fell, even more reinforcements arrived in the town. The settlers hurriedly constructed fortifications to meet the attack they believed would come the next morning.
That evening, as the rain fell upon New Ulm, Chief Little Crow called another meeting. He had brought together 400 warriors to enact his plan of taking Fort Ridgely the next day. Dakota scouts had been watching the fort throughout the day and saw that the scant force of seventy-five had been bolstered by 100 reinforcements from Fort Ripley to the north.
Though the odds were now less in their favor, Little Crow and his band resolved to hit the fort with everything they had.1
Lee Realizes His Great Misfortune
The Union Army of Virginia had been in a precarious spot, lodged inside the “V” created by the Rapidan River to the south and the Rappahannock River to the north. Only one bridge across the river could serve as Pope’s main line of retreat. If that bridge was cut, he could be crushed by what he believed were overwhelming Rebel forces.
Late the previous day, he called for a retreat. Through the night, most of his troops left their camps, and by morning, the roads were clogged with roughly 50,000 Federals. In the town of Culpeper Court House, Generals Franz Sigel and Irvin McDowell got their corps entangled in a mess of wagon trains, which delayed and greatly endangered Pope’s withdraw.
Fortunately for him, the Confederates never seemed to notice.2
Across the Rapidan and oblivious to Pope’s machinations, General Robert E. Lee waited. He had wanted to attack Pope while the Federals were caught between the Radpidan and the Rappahannock. When Lee peered out over the Federal camps the previous afternoon, he could see no reason to rush things. Fitz Lee’s Cavalry needed to rest, and that cavalry was essential to his plans.
Lee understood that only one bridge served as the main Federal line of retreat. If Jeb Stuart and Fitz Lee’s Cavalry could destroy the bridge, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia could fall upon and destroy Pope.
Lee had ordered his army to rest on this date, planning the attack for the 20th. Much of this unscheduled day of rest came because of Fitz Lee’s absence. When the wayward cavalier finally arrived, he reported that his horses were unable to move out – they needed rest after that long detour he was never supposed to take.3
Lee learned of the Union retreat around noon, long after there was anything he could do about it. As he looked beyond the abandoned Yankee camps, he could see columns of dust rising to the north. Pope had stolen a march on him.
With the escape of Pope’s force, slipped the opportunity to crush him before General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac joined him. As Pope entrenched his army behind the Rappahannock, Lee began to move his own force under the light of the moon. As the Federals had marched through the previous night, the Rebels would follow suit on this one.4
- Again, I wish that I had more books to use for this, but unfortunately, I only have The Blue, the Gray, & the Red; Indian Campaigns of the Civil War by Thom Hatch, Stackpole Books, 2003. The book is well-researched, with lots of footnotes from primary sources, and seems fair enough. [↩]
- General John Pope by Peter Cozzens, University of Illinois Press, 2000. [↩]
- Return to Bull Run by John J. Hennessy, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. [↩]
- Counter-Thrust by Benjamin Franklin Cooling, University of Nebraska Press, 2007. [↩]