Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Dakota War--VI

What happened in the Minnesota River valley in 1862 is a horror that goes by a dozen names at least, one of which is "Little Crow's War." In a way, it was. In a tragic way, however, it wasn't.

After March led his ill-fated band of soldiers into an attack he should have foreseen at Redwood Ferry, Ft. Ridgely's roll of fighting me--if they could be called that--numbered less than thirty. Little Crow had, battle ready, four hundred Dakotas--and that doesn't include the bands who were out killing and looting.

Which is not to say there were only thirty human beings at Ft. Ridgely. Almost as soon as the butchery began, survivors, runaways, and walking wounded started coming into the Fort. Now Ridgely never was a "fort" in the sense of "fortress"; there were no huge log walls, nor was there some kind of impenetrable gate. The refugees gained solace in their horror only from being with others, numbers of them. Only because it was hell to be away from the fort was the fort any real comfort at all.

Little Crow wanted the fort, and if he'd taken it, the war and its aftermath could have been significantly different. He wasn't stupid. He'd opposed the war from the get-go, told the young turks that there were thousands of white people for every one of them in the valley and that soon enough more than they could count would come riding up, with artillery, duty-bound to end the bloodshed by killing off every last one of the Dakota.

Little Crow's end strategy was to secure the whole valley, take hundreds of prisoners, and then negotiate an end to the war from a position of power. He had no dreams of tossing every last white face from Minnesota; he knew that would never happen. If the Dakota were to remove all the white people from their land and hold a thousand captives as bargaining chips, they could begin to talk about significant change. He hated the mindless rampage of rape and murder. He knew every bloody story white people told would make negotiation--and victory--more downright impossible. He wanted military gains, not more wives.

Monday night was long and hard for the men and the refugees at Ft. Ridgely. All through the darkness that night, they believed some kind of attack was imminent; but it hadn't come. Early Tuesday morning some lookout discovered a sprawling band of Indians two miles west. With his telescope, he could see them painted in battle colors, their wagons behind them. They were ready to fight and to win, to pillage at will, to carry away the wealth of goods they'd find at the fort.

Little Crow brought his warriors to a halt. He knew he had to convince them--including the cold-blooded murderers among them--that taking Ft. Ridgely was the smart thing to do, not an easy argument. After all, the bloodthirsty figured that any victory there would get them little more than some dead soldiers, soldiers who had fought as valiantly as Dakota braves when they were pinned down at Redwood Ferry. What they'd prefer is the easy pickins of isolated white homesteads, little more than target practice--and the booty was oh, so sweet.

That morning, Little Crow mustered his most eloquent self for yet another council meeting about two miles from the fort. He tried to convince his people--who hadn't been his people, really--that the fort was the legitimate path to victory. Some chiefs dissented; the Dakota were democratic, after all. Arguments swelled, positions solidified. There were winners and losers that early morning, and when all was said and done, Little Crow, whose war, in some ways, it never was, lost once again.

To many Dakota, New Ulm--this odd little German immigrant community--was too juicy a target. They knew the Germans weren't armed, there was going to be much more to win, and, as some chiefs argued there within sight of the fort, there'd be women, much prettier, much younger, great wives.

Perhaps that council, within sight of Ft. Ridgely, was the beginning of the end. Had Little Crow won that day at that moment, had those 400 braves attacked the couple dozen fighting men at the fort, had they taken the artillery for their very own, all the ammunition and horses and supplies, the whole war effort just may have wound its way to a different outcome.

But to many Dakota braves, New Ulm seemed too fat and sweet a target. They decided, right there on the flat land above the Minnesota River, within sight of Ft. Ridgely, to head instead to New Ulm. Little Crow lost--and so did they.

In just a few hours--and Little Crow knew it and he'd told them--those very few troops at the Fort would feel their numbers swell. Reinforcements were on their way. In just a few hours, taking the fort would require much more Dakota blood. He'd told them that, too.

But the warriors wanted New Ulm. Little Crow had lost the battle and the war.

The video below begins at the southeast corner of Ft. Ridgely today, then pans slowly west and north until you'll see the remant outlines of what once was a fort. There are no walls and never were. What's visible here is a dangerous location of the fort, steep valleys on several sides, perfect cover for the Dakota warriors. Behind the building is open plain. Out there, post sentries first spotted the 400 Dakota warriors at the place Little Crow chose for a council, a council that determined to attack New Ulm first.

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