In retrospect, Major Joseph R. Brown should have known better than to camp where he and his men did on the night of September 1. After all, he'd been an Indian agent for some time, knew the Dakota, knew the area, in fact.
Maybe he was distracted by his own problems. He had a personal stake in the assignment because his own wife and children had been taken captive. He must have been desperate to find them. Once more, ever since leaving Sibley's command, he and his men hadn't seen an Indian anywhere. All day long they'd been burying rotting corpses.
In his memoir of the war, Joseph Coursolle, a member of the mixed-blood community at the Redwood Agency, a man whose father was French-Canadian, whose mother was Sioux, and whose wife was white, remembers that burial detail well. "The things we saw that day were too terrible to describe. Scattered along the road and at burned cabins we found the bodies of settlers, mostly men and boys. Fifty we buried before reaching the ferry. There the most gruesome sight of all awaited us. One the road lay the bodies of 33 young men, most of them in two files where they fell when the Sioux Fired from almost point-blank range--killed in their tracks without returning a shot. All had been scalped and the uniforms had been stripped from their bodies. We dug at a furious pace in our haste to conceal the fearful sight."
Coursolle claims he was worried about Dakota being in the neighborhood, and he told Brown as much. He'd seen small piles of stripped kinnickinick in the trees, and he knew the Dakota used the bark to wad their guns. Amazing at it seems, he and the others in the Brown party must have traversed much the same ground all day long as considerable numbers of Sioux--but not encountered a one. When, at the end of the day, the Dakota spotted half the group up on the top of the river bluffs, they tailed them until the troops circled up the camp. The Dakota determined simply to take them, a group they thought was no bigger than a few dozen troops. Brown must have assumed that Little Crow's warriors, having suffered defeat at both Ft. Ridgely and New Ulm, had high-tailed for the empty spaces of the Dakota Territory, straight west.
He was wrong. They hadn't left. At least not all of them. The site he chose for the camp that night that was high up and out in the open, exceedingly vulnerable to attack from every side--from trees and draws on the east and south, and the slightly rolling prairie on the north and west.
Birch Coulee looks much the same today as it did 150 years ago--a field of prairie grass surrounded on two sides by wooded ravines. It's so ordinary and peaceful that it's hard to believe one of the most costly battles of the 1862 war took place on such a seemingly harmless little chunk of prairie grasses. But you can't alter history. People died at Birch Coulee--13 cavalry and just a few Dakota. Dozens were wounded, many severely.
The attack came at dawn, the Dakota surrounding the camp on every side. To them, it must have seemed, for a time, like shooting fish in a barrel. At least thirty men were wounded in just a few minutes; ninety horses--they were tethered to the wagons that surrounded the tents--were shot and killed. Eventually, those soldiers who survived in Brown's camp used the horses' bodies--and even their dead comrades--as cover to keep the Dakota at bay.
The sound of gunfire that day run up the Minnesota River valley, all the way to Ft. Ridgely, where Sibley put together a relief party of 240 men and sent them scurrying down the road to find the battle. When they encountered some trouble themselves, a messenger was sent back to the fort, begging for reinforcements. Sibley himself and most of his men left immediately, hundreds more.
By the time they got to Birch Coulee, on September 3, the Dakota had fled, conscious of the new overwhelming numbers against them. Even though the cavalry had suffered the worst casualties of the war, already by the time of the bloody battle of Birch Coulee there was no question about the outcome of the war.