August 21, 1862 (Thursday)
When Union General David Hunter began to arm the liberated slaves along the South Carolina coast, it raised quite a stir in Washington. Throughout the spring and early summer, Lincoln’s Cabinet had debated it, finally deciding that it was too risky a political move.
In Richmond, capital of the Confederate States, it was seen as an outrage. President Jefferson Davis himself placed it on the same level as General John Pope’s order allowing his Union army to live off the land and kill citizens who fired upon his men.
“The newspapers received from the enemy’s country,” wrote Davis to General Robert E. Lee on August 1st, “announce as a fact that Major-General Hunter has armed slaves for the murder of their masters, and has thus done all in his power to inaugurate a servile war which is worse than that of the savage, inasmuch as it superadds other horrors to the indiscriminate slaughter of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”
When Davis learned of this, he urged General Lee to write to Union General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, asking if it were true. Having received no reply, Lee and Davis understood the Federal silence to equal acquiescence.
Interestingly enough, this was not Jefferson Davis’ first run in with David Hunter. Long before the war, in 1828, the two met by chance. Davis was recruiting for the United States army near the tiny village of Chicago, Illinois when he got lost. He apparently wandered the wilderness for ten days before stumbling upon a fort. Paddling a canoe nearby was a white man – the only one he’d seen since becoming lost. That man was Lt. David Hunter. Hunter and Davis became good friends. Twenty years later, when Davis was a senator, he pulled strings to get Hunter a promotion (unintentionally sacrificing the promotion of an unknown fellow named Ulysses Grant).1
All of that was now in the past. In Davis’ mind, the Union allowed General Hunter to arm the freed slaves. Hunter, guilty of these “crimes and outrages,” was no longer to be treated as a soldier. He, along with another offer, General John Phelps, who raised black troops in New Orleans, but resigned when Lincoln forbade it, were to be held and treated at “outlaws.”
While Jefferson Davis focused upon these two officers, he broadened his view, declaring that any commissioned Union officer “employed in drilling, organizing, or instructing slaves with a view to their armed service in this war … shall not be regarded as a prisoner of war but held in close confinement for execution as a felon at such time and place as the President shall order.”2
For a time, General Hunter was “safe.” Lincoln had refused the idea to arm the freed slaves. However, a letter written by General Rufus Saxton, in command of the freed slaves in General Hunter’s department, was en route to Washington. In it, Saxton requests to arm 5,000 freed slaves. In four days, the war would change forever, despite (and perhaps because of) the fears of the Confederate government.
Fort Ridgely Cannot Be Taken
The past five days had seen hundreds of innocent white settlers slaughtered by Dakota Indians, incensed by the many broken promises made by the Federal Government. The natives had burned entire families alive, sacked villages, and besieged the town of New Ulm.
The previous day, Chief Little Crow wanted to turn his tribe’s aggression against what he saw as their true enemy: the United States Army. He and about 400 warriors attacked Fort Ridgely. Though it was defended by a force not even half his number, he could not take it, and returned to his village to await reinforcements.
On this day, with his numbers bolstered to nearly 800, he tried again. As in the day before, Little Crow’s men took up hidden positions around the fort. When their chief gave the signal, they charged.
Lt. Timothy Sheehan, commanding the fort, put up another stout defense. As the natives made their advance, he fired upon them with his artillery. At closer ranges, his men were sheltered behind the works and barricades they constructed over the past couple of days.
Unlike the previous day, the Dakota did not run at the sound of artillery. They came through the storm of iron, capturing many of the outbuildings, and using them for cover. They again tried to set fire to the fort, but the rains over the past week had soaked everything. This created only thick, black smoke that rendered visibility to near uselessness.
With each charge, more Dakota fell, but no ground could be gained. After Little Crow had been knocked senseless from a close by artillery shell, Chief Mankato led one last all-out charge against Fort Ridgely’s southwest corner. This finally assault was made with a determination few had before seen. But still, the Dakota were no match for artillery.
Following this failed charge, the recovered Chief Little Crow ordered his warriors to withdraw. He was furious that the fort could not be taken. Not only did it seem impenetrable, but only six white soldiers had been killed, while many, many more Dakota lay dead.
That night, he decided that perhaps the United States Army was not such an easy foe. He had never really believed that his tribe could win, but he wanted to cause more damage than he had over the past two days.
The town of New Ulm had been under siege the entire time Little Crow had been attacking Fort Ridgely. Rather than risk another assault on the fort, he decided to bring 650 of his warriors to help in razing New Ulm. What Little Crow did not know, however, was that the town had been reinforced with 300 very stubborn and well-armed settlers.3
- Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis, Louisiana State University Press, 1996. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 4, p857. [↩]
- 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. [↩]