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Ceremony honors soldiers killed in 1862 Dakota War

Fri, Sep 20th, 2013
Posted in Chatfield Features

The wreath shown above is in honor of Chatfield’s soldiers killed in the 1862 Dakota War. Photo submitted

By Joe Chase

On Sunday, August 25, Chatfield Mayor Russell Smith and four others from Chatfield (Joel and Andrew Young, Michael Martin and myself) attended a memorial service at the cemetery at Fort Ridgely State Park, near Fairfax, Minn. It was an event organized by Minnesota’s Civil War Commemoration Task Force to remember soldiers and settlers killed during the U.S. Dakota War of 1862.

That tragic chapter in Minnesota history began on August 18, 1862, and soldiers from Chatfield and Preston, Minn. were quickly caught up in it. Company B of the 5th Minnesota Infantry Regiment was the garrison that summer at Fort Ridgely, a U.S. army post 150 miles west of Chatfield. Company B was an almost-all Fillmore County outfit. Two-thirds of the company’s 85 men and boys were from Chatfield.

When word reached the fort that the Dakota had attacked the Lower Sioux Agency that morning, Captain John Marsh immediately marched for the agency, 12 miles away, with 46 of his men and civilian interpreter John Quinn. At about noon that day they were ambushed by the Dakota at the Minnesota River crossing called Redwood Ferry. Marsh, Quinn and half the command were killed. Fourteen of the dead soldiers, including 16 year-old Charles French, were from Chatfield.

Back at Fort Ridgely the officer left in command was 19 year-old second lieutenant Tom Gere, of Chatfield—and he was ill with the mumps. Three hundred civilian refugees fleeing the Dakota took shelter that day and night at Fort Ridgely. The survivors of Captain Marsh’s command limped back to the fort. That night, Gere dispatched a rider, Corporal William Sturgis of Chatfield, with a message for Governor Ramsey, the first word state officials would receive that a war had begun on the Minnesota prairie.

Before last month’s ceremony at the fort cemetery, Mayor Smith’s group went to the battle ground at Redwood Ferry. Today, getting to the site on the east bank of the river where Captain Marsh and his men were surprised by Dakota warriors still means crossing a mile of river bottom on a dirt wagon track bordered by shoulder-high grass. The battle ground, outside today’s town of Morton, Minn., is on private property now owned by John Simmons. His family has owned the property since the 1860’s, and Mr. Simmons is accommodating to the handful of visitors who each year show up at his house beside State Highway 19, asking to see Redwood Ferry. The battle site, in the thicket of trees at the river’s edge, is marked by a granite monument placed there by the State of Minnesota, bearing the names of the 24 soldiers and civilian interpreter Quinn who fell there. One hundred fifty-one years ago, at this quiet location, the farm boys and store clerks of Company B, led by a lawyer-turned-soldier, suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves under fire and at war. Some fell without themselves ever firing a shot.

From Redwood Ferry we drove back to Fort Ridgely State Park and toured the historic site. It was here, on August 20 and again on August 22, 1862, that the Dakota, led by Chief Little Crow, attacked and came close to overrunning the fort’s outnumbered defenders, before being driven back by the fort’s artillery. One month later the Dakota War was over. An estimated 450-800 white soldiers and settlers and an unknown number of Dakota were dead. Thirty-eight Dakota men convicted of war crimes in questionable trials were hanged in Mankato, Minn. on the day after Christmas, 1862. Within a year the surviving non-combatant Dakota people in government custody were forcibly moved to a reservation in Dakota Territory, most never to return to their ancestral homeland.

Mayor Smith and our small Chatfield delegation had traveled to the fort to witness the ceremony held at the outdoor amphitheatre adjacent to the fort cemetery. The day was sunny and warm, bordering on hot—not unlike August 18, 1862. Speakers included State Representative Dean Urdahl (a former history teacher, published author and authority on the Dakota War), Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, and recently retired Historic Forestville site supervisor John Grabko, who spoke specifically about the Fillmore County soldiers who fell at Redwood Ferry.

The bodies of the soldiers who died at Redwood Ferry were temporarily interred on the battlefield when the army was able to return to the site 13 days after the fight. Eventually the remains were moved to the fort cemetery, where they now rest beneath a marble obelisk—officially the Captain John S. Marsh State Monument—their names carved in the white stone. The monument was authorized by state statute in 1873 and was the first ever erected by the State of Minnesota.

The hour-long ceremony concluded with a reading of the soldiers’ names, and Mayor Smith’s placement of a wreath and 25 commemorative flags at the Marsh monument. The blue ribbon on the large wreath of red and white carnations, prepared by Chatfield’s Chris Grutzmacher, read: “Fourteen of Chatfield’s Sons,” and carried the 5 B cap insignia of Company B, 5th Regiment.

The Chatfield soldiers who fell at Redwood Ferry were: Russell Findley, Joseph Besse, Solon Trescott, Charles French, John Holmes, Wenzel Kusda, Nathaniel Pitcher, Wenzel Norton, Moses Parks, John Parks, Harrison Phillips, John Parsley, Nathan Stewart, and Charles Smith.

About the memorial ceremony, Mayor Smith said: “When I heard about this event, I knew Chatfield needed to be there. It was an honor to represent Chatfield in the commemoration of the heroism and sacrifice of these young men. This is an important piece of our history as a community. They lived and died a long time ago and now rest in a distant cemetery. But they were our boys and always will be. We will not forget them here in their home town.”

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