August 18, 1862 (Monday)
Chief Little Crow, leader of the Dakota Sioux in Minnesota knew that the whites would avenge the four murders committed by members of his tribe the previous day. At a late-night council, he and others decided that since a reckoning was coming, they would make a preemptive strike, even though he believed that his people could never withstand a war against the white army.
In several waves, they attacked, centering first upon the two Indian Agencies along the south bank of the Minnesota River. It quickly spread to the neighboring villages. Any white man they saw was killed. The women and the children were taken captive. After the Agencies were assailed, the natives moved into the villages, killing and destroying as they went.
The previous day, a trader named Myrick angrily told the Dakota that if they were starving, they could eat grass. For this, he paid with his life while trying to escape. He was riddled with innumerable arrows and mutilated with axes. In his mouth, the natives shoved handfuls of grass.
Families, unequipped for such a fight, hid in their houses, only to be burned alive. When the brutality escalated, women and children were no longer taken captive. The young boys were reportedly nailed to doors, while the girls were repeatedly raped before being dismembered in front of their mothers.
Around 10am, the 5th Minnesota Regiment at Fort Ridgely, on the north bank of the river, was assembled, but could only muster 125 or so men. As they marched toward the crossing, scores of refugees pleaded with them to turn back. When the troops arrived at the ferry, a Dakota called to them, asking their commander, Captain John Marsh, to come across for a meeting.
He led them across, but when they arrived, they were ambushed. The first volley delivered by the natives dropped nearly half the regiment. Captain Marsh and his remaining men took cover and spent the bulk of the afternoon engaged in a hot battle at the crossing. As the time went on, the DakWhenota closed in and the fighting devolved into hand-to-hand combat.
In an attempt to save his men, Marsh ordered them to swim back across the river. The Captain would have survived, but suffered a cramp and drowned. When his orphaned men made it back to the fort, 200 terrified settlers were waiting for them. There was no way, however, for this scant force to protect them.
As night fell, they huddled together in Fort Ridgely, protected by, perhaps, seventy-five soldiers and four pieces of artillery.
On this day, around 400 white settlers were murdered and 24 soldiers were killed.1
Confederate Cavalry General, Jeb Stuart, was expected by General Robert E. Lee to gather his forces and make a raid into the rear of Union General John Pope’s Army of Virgina, burning the bridge across the Rappahannock River – the Federals’ main line of retreat. Stuart expected one of his brigades, commanded by General Fitz Lee, to arrive at Raccoon Ford on the Rapidan River, the previous night. Fitz Lee, unable to sense that time was of the essence, made a long detour, which added a day to his travels.
Stuart chose to wait for his cavalry with Captain John Singleton Mosby, whom he personally invited along for the raid. Stuart and Morgan tied up their horses and made themselves comfortable on the porch of a nearby house.
Before the dawn, Mosby was woke by one of Stuart’s pickets, who told him that he heard cavalry coming from the direction that Fitz Lee was expected. The fog was thick and the scout wasn’t completely sure if it was Fitz Lee – it could be Union cavalry.
It was unlikely. Both Stuart and Mosby believed that they were well within Confederate General James Longstreet’s picket lines. Mosby nudged the slumbering Stuart and told him that he was going to check out what was going on. He mounted up and rode through the pre-dawn fog, seeing a large body of troopers several hundred yards away.
At first, he was unable to see if they were Confederates or Yankees, but before long, it was all made clear. Two of the troopers moved closer to the oncoming Mosby and opened fire. Being unarmed, he spun his horse around and made a break for it. The firing roused Stuart, who jumped on his mount, cleared a fence and made his way to safety.
One of Stuart’s most memorable features was his gaudy plumed hat. In the frenzy that surrounded the moment, he had forgotten on the porch, riding away with his head uncovered.2
Members of Stuart’s staff, including Mosby, fled for their lives. Stuart, on the other hand, stopped at the nearest woods to watch the enemy cavalry. “I watched the party approach and leave in great haste,” reported Stuart, “but not without my hat and cloak which had formed my bed.”3
When the Union raiding party continued on their way, their next stop was General John Pope. Along with Stuart’s hat, they delivered messages from General Lee, detailing the plan of attack on Pope’s left. Most importantly, in these letters, Lee ordered that the attack be delayed for two days.
Two other spies, one of which was embedded in Longstreet’s men, reported similar information. Pope, believing that Lee’s entire force numbered 150,000 and was ready to attack, ordered a retreat north across the Rappahannock. They started well after dark and by morning, would be gone.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. [↩]
- Memoirs by John Singleton Mosby, Little, Brown, and Company, 1917. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p726. [↩]
- General John Pope by Peter Cozzens, University of Illinois Press, 2000. [↩]