Here's the truth: so much of the 1862 Dakota War is--and was--unimaginable. Even at the time, what actually happened would have been, just a minute before it did happen, completely unthinkable.
After the carnage at the Lower Sioux Agency, word began to spread--it's hard to imagine life without radio or tv or phone--about what had gone on: the Sioux were on a rampage of ethnic cleansing. The only army garrison in the region was a minor outpost foolishly placed atop a knoll above the the Minnesota River, north side, a scattering of buildings with no fortification to speak of, a place named Ft. Ridgely, the only military fort in southwest Minnesota, home to 76 fighting men, some of whom could hardly be called that since the vast majority of the region's fighting men--real fighting men--were already deported to the South. It was, after all, 1862. What was left was local militias, not exactly lean and mean fighting units.
The place was in charge of a Colonel Marsh, of Fillmore County, who'd proved his mettle at Bull Run but knew next to nothing about the region's Native people, not to mention fighting them.
When he heard what had happened at the Lower Agency, he decided to put the rebellion to rest himself and took 46 enlisted men and an interpreter down to the river, on his way across. On the rutty path down there, more haggard locals met him, and at least one of them--a preacher named Samuel D. Hinman, who, on Sunday, had preached to Little Crow--told him that once he and his men got anywhere near the river, his little band of untested recruits would be vastly outnumbered by the Dakota.
No matter. Marsh couldn't imagine that he and his tough guys couldn't handle the Sioux.
They got to the river at a place called Redwood Ferry, marching single file through the broad stand of marsh grass that created wonderful cover for the Dakota, who were there waiting to take out the soldiers.
When they got to the water, the flatbed boat was conveniently awaiting them. From across the river, a farmer Indian named White Dog yelled at them, asking them to come over for a council. Suddenly, a single shot was fired, and all around them, Dakota warriors, in full battle regalia, arose from the brush and weeds to start shooting.
The fight went on for hours actually, and Colonel Marsh himself, trying to find a place to cross the river, finally drowned in the attempt. His troops were decimated--24 men were killed. Only one of the Sioux died.
It was an intense and glorious victory for the Sioux, an unimaginable loss for the military.
Sergeant John Bishop, just 19, led 15 survivors back to the fort, eight of them wounded. Another eight returned later, on their own.
The fight at Redwood Ferry is a kind of precursor to what would happen 14 years later some 600 miles west at Little Big Horn. While it was, without a doubt, an amazing and unimaginable Dakota victory, a real reason to celebrate, the losses the military suffered virtually assured something Little Crow had made clear to the men who'd wanted war--there would soon enough be more soldiers, hundreds more.
All that blood in the Minnesota River would not go unnoticed. And even in upper Midwest in 1862, much of which was real frontier, there were already more white faces--and so many more--than red. And thousands more still on their way.
The photo, above, is of White Dog's club. White Dog, was a farmer--that is, he'd already exchanged his breech cloth for white man's clothing and cut his hair. What's more, he'd begun to farm, the profession white people felt Native people had to learn to survive. White Dog like many farmer Indians was cast into an impossible situation by the Dakota's determination to run all white people out of their world. In the war, they were neither fish nor fowl, often suffering horrors from both sides. White Dog was hung at Mankato, along with 38 other Dakota warriors, on December 26, 1862.