August 17, 1862 (Sunday)
Across the previous two decades, the United States government had swindled the Dakota Indians, members of the Sioux nation, in Minnesota out of treaty and land. By the start of the Civil War, they had a piddling strip of mediocre farm land on the south side of the Minnesota River.
The Dakota tribe had split into three factions, mostly due to being forced to live so close to each other. Some wanted to continue in the ways of their people, while others wanted to adopt the white man’s way of life. Caught in the middle were mixed-breed families with bonds to each side.
All the while, white settlers were crowding closer and closer to the reservation. Because little could be grown or hunted on this parcel of land, the United States government agreed to supply the Dakota with provisions. These came in the form of inferior and wormy government rations delivered from nearby Fort Ridgley, a constant presence making sure that the tribe stayed in line.
Due to the war, however, rations were scarce and the Dakota found themselves on the brink of starvation. The provisions expected in the spring of 1862 had been delayed until the middle of July when 5,000 hungry natives surrounded the warehouse where the rations were stored. The 5th Minnesota Regiment was called in to keep the Dakota in line while a small trickle of supplies was given out.
Two weeks later 500 Dakota surrounded and assailed the same warehouse, carrying off bags of flour until the 5th Minnesota convinced them to stop by aiming a howitzer at them. Surprisingly, the regimental commander sided with the natives and forced the Indian Agent, Thomas Galbraith, to give them enough rations to feed their families. He also called a meeting for the next day, August 5th.
This meeting did not go well. The Dakotas wished for the United States government to enter into an agreement with the local traders to supply the tribe with food. Chief Little Crow, spokesman for the Dakota tribe, told the assembled government representatives that “when men are hungry they help themselves.” This was taken as a threat, when really it was just a simple truth.
Indian Agent Galbraith turned to the contingent of traders who were attending the meeting, and asked them what to do. “So far as I’m concerned,” said one, enraged by the perceived threat, “if they are hungry, let them eat grass.” This, in turn, enraged the Dakotas, who left the meeting.
When word reached Captain John Marsh, commander at Fort Ridgley, he immediately wanted to smooth things over. Marsh ordered Galbraith, under threat of arrest, to open wide the warehouse and liberally distribute the supplies to the starving Dakotas.
The tribe was, for a time, pacified. Though they were no longer starving, according to the treaties, the United States government still owed them cash annuities from tribal land given up to settlers.
On this date, that festering resentment finally came to violence and murder. Four young Dakotas were returning from an unsuccessful hunt when they entered the village of Action. One of the group stole some eggs, while another reproached him. Feeling that his pride was damaged, he threw the eggs to the ground and claimed to fear no white man.
The four began to loudly argue with each other as they made their way through town to the public house owned by Robinson Jones. There, by the barrel of Jones’ gun, they were forced out of the house and back onto the streets. This somehow seemed to simmer them down a bit.
Jones and the Indians, who all knew each other, then engaged in some friendly chit-chat until one of the Dakota boys suggested they have a shooting competition. Robinson Jones clearly outshot all of the less experienced Dakotas, who did not take well to losing.
How this so quickly devolved into a massacre seems lost to history. But without warning, the four Dakotas shot a white man, then another, then Robinson Jones’ wife, and then Robinson Jones himself. The four started to run when a fifteen year old girl, Clara Wilson, stepped into the doorway of the public house to see what was going on. One of the Dakota turned and shot her dead.
They stole some horses and sprinted for their village, arriving with boasts of their afternoon carnage. As the word passed from one Dakota village to the next, nobody was sure what to do with them. Normally, they would have been handed over to the United States authorities, but now things were different. If they were handed over, thought Chief Little Crow, “the whites would take a dreadful vengeance because women had been killed.”
All through the night, the elders of the Dakota tribe met in Little Crow’s house. As the meeting ground on, it was clear that the whites would take enact a dreadful vengeance with or without the murderer’s apprehension. Since that was the case, the Dakota agreed that they must make a preemptive strike.
The next morning, blood would flow across the banks of the Minnesota.1
Jeb Stuart Awaits the Rest of his Men
Confederate Cavalry General, Jeb Stuart, had made quite a name for himself by riding around the Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula. It was this fame and skill that, on this day, earned him command of all of the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry. He had also become a crucial part of General Robert E. Lee’s plan to cut off and destroy the Union Army of Virginia under John Pope.
Pope’s Army was situated in the “V” between the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers. His only means of rapid escape was the bridge north over the Rappahannock. Stuart’s roll was to destroy that bridge. Lee would then fall upon the Federals.
Stuart received these orders on the 16th and got his three brigades in motion to meet up at Raccoon Ford along the Rapidan on the evening of this date. The brigade under General Fitz Lee had been near Beaver Dam [near Bumpass Turnout on the map], about forty miles south of their rendezvous point. Stuart had instructed Fitz Lee to send his supply wagons to Louisa Court House [called Greenwood on the map], while making for Raccoon Ford straight away. Instead, Fitz Lee’s entire brigade made the detour to Louisa Court House. This longer route tacked a day onto their travels.2
Accompanying Stuart was the recently-released John Singleton Mosby, who had been captured at Beaver Dam on July 20th. He had spent some time in a prison in Washington before being exchanged. This was his first full day back in the saddle. “I had no arms,” recalled Mosby after the war, “I lost my pistols when I was captured at Beaver Dam – but I trusted to luck to get another pair.”
Stuart, with his fine plumed hat, and Mosby, dressed in typical Confederate grays, passed General James Longstreet’s camp. There, the soldiers could tell that a major movement was about to happen. They were cooking their rations and singing “And for bonnie Annie Laurie, I lay me down and die.” When Stuart and Mosby arrived at Raccoon Ford, they saw no Fitz Lee. The surrounding village was empty, but for a few locals. General Robert Toombs of Longstreet’s Corps was supposed to be guarding the ford with his brigade. Yet he was no where to be seen.
This sent Stuart to worrying, as so much depended upon his cavalry. He sent one of his staff officers, Major Fitzhugh, to find the wayward Lee. The day had slipped away from Stuart and Mosby, and evening was quickly becoming night. They tied up their horses and made themselves comfortable on the porch of a nearby house, hoping to get a full and sound night sleep before the action of the next morning. This was not to be. 3
- 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. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p725-726. [↩]
- Memoirs by John Singleton Mosby, Little, Brown, and Company, 1917. [↩]