By Mathias Fisch

“All but cowards follow me!”  The captain shouted.  And they did.  Half of them followed him to the grave.”

They were young men, mostly farm boys from Fillmore County in southeastern Minnesota. Now they were soldiers, “volunteers” by request of President Lincoln, Company B of the Minnesota Fifth Regiment, garrisoned at Fort Ridgely. Activities at the fort were routine that hot, humid morning of August 18, 1862. Then J.C. Dickerson, storekeeper at the lower of the two Sioux Agencies, suddenly raced in shouting, “Indians are attacking Redwood!” Post Commander John S. Marsh ordered drummer boy Charles Culver to sound the long drum-roll. Forty-six men were selected, equipped with forty rounds of ammunition, and dispatched to Redwood. Marsh and U.S. Interpreter Peter Quinn, both mounted on mules, led the precession. Four mule-pulled wagons, bringing a day’s ration, quickly caught up with them. To speed the trip, the men climbed in the wagons.  An air of excitement surrounded the restless and untried soldiers, most of whom had only been in the service since February. Marsh, a bold young officer, had fought with a Wisconsin regiment in the first battle of Bull Run, but this was to be his first confrontation with warring Indians.

Most of the twelve miles to Redwood, the road followed the Minnesota River. As the soldiers advanced they met groups of terrified homesteaders fleeing to the safety of the fort. Across the horizon pillars of smoke from the settler’s burning cabins fingered the sky. Six miles from the fort the men passed the home of agency physician Dr. Humphrey. It was in flames. Humphrey’s and his wife’s butchered bodies stretched nearby, along with their dying baby. A half-mile further the troops found a tomahawked man, nearly dead. At Faribault’s Hill, some three miles from Redwood, the wagon road descended from the high prairie. Along the down-hill stretch four more recently slain people were found. At the bottom of the hill stood the half-breed Faribault’s cabin, now sheltering nearly a dozen women and children on their way to the fort. There the river made a sharp turn eastward for a short distance, and a small creek stretched across the wide bottom land, which was covered with tall grass. At the creek four more bodies were found.

Minnesota River

At this point on the Minnesota River the ferry crossed to Redwood. Nearby stands a marker which reads: “In memory of Charles Martel whose bravery as ferry captain at this point saved many settlers in the massacre of 1862.”

The men felt gut-tightening fear. Quinn brushed his white hair back from his face. “Reckon this be all out war,” he said. Marsh thought differently. “Probably a small band of renegades.” The soldiers proceeded on foot in a single file. In the tall grass they found two more bodies. The arms and legs of one of the men were cut off and stuffed into his slashed abdomen. Some of the soldiers turned aside, sickened by the sight. Quinn identified the corpse. “He ran the ferry crossing the river.” Wise in the way of the Sioux, Quinn slowly surveyed the surroundings. “Don’t like the looks of things here,” he cautioned. Marsh pondered briefly. “As an officer I cannot turn back and leave these defenseless women and children between this band of Indians and ourselves.” Duty was duty. He raised his sword. “All but cowards,” he challenged, “follow me.” The men continued in single file, passing a barn to the left and a hundred feet ahead the ferryman’s house. Another two hundred feet further was the river where the flat-bottom ferry waited. On either side of the road heavy grass merged with scattered thickets of hazel and willow, interspersed with open sand patches left by the river’s overflow. One larger thicket extended southward along the river bank for some two miles, varying in width from twenty to two hundred feet.  Across the river the bluff was steep, it’s face covered with a thick growth of young trees and underbrush, and it’s top draped with a deathly cloud of smoke marking the remains of Redwood. At the foot of the bluff marched a single Indian, elaborate in paint and feathers. He stepped on a log and spoke to the soldiers. “Come across. Everything is right over here. We do not want to fight and there will be no trouble.” “That’s White Dog,“  Sergeant John Bishop informed Marsh. “He’s from the Upper Agency and don’t belong here.” “Ask him why he is here,” Marsh instructed Quinn. “Only on a visit for a few days,” White Dog replied and continued to urge the men to cross on the waiting boat. “The trouble is just between the traders and the Indians. Come across and we hold a council.”

Sioux Battle Memorial  Marker

This marker memorializing the men killed in the battle reads: “Attacked near this spot Capt. Marsh and 24 men were ambushed and killed by the Sioux Indians Aug. 18, 1862, also Peter Quinn U.S. Interpreter.”

It had been a hot journey and Bishop stepped down to the river’s edge for a drink of water. He noticed the water was roily and full of twigs and leaves. “I think we are being surrounded by Indians crossing the river above us,” he informed Marsh. Bishop mounted a pile of sand made by grading the approach to the ferry. In a small ravine on the opposite side he could see ponies switching their tails in the brush. William Blodgett, standing in the front rank second from the right, glimpsed Indians moving between the creek and the river. “Look!” he cried. White Dog raised his gun and fired. Instantly a volley of shot came from the brush on the opposite bank. Quinn’s body slumped forward and slid to the ground. Marsh’s mule was shot from under him, sprawling him to the ground. Many of the men fell. Fearful yells filled the air as the Indians rushed in from behind the men. “Fall back to the ferry house!” Marsh ordered.  Blodgett, knocked to the ground with the first volley, was unable to get to his feet until he removed his cartridge belt. A ball had entered between his two lower ribs on the left side and passed out near his spinal column on the same side, making a wound about six inches long. He then ran back up the road and took temporary shelter in the ferryman’s house. Balls pattered through the house and window, and he ran out and across the road to the barn. There he found John Parks, too badly wounded even to stand. Blodgett ran on into the tall brush and grass where he saw three soldiers standing with their backs to a tree. Just as he intended to join them on the fourth side, the last of the three men fell. He looked in the direction from where the balls came, saw an Indian reloading his gun, took quick aim and fired. The Sioux fell. Blodgett reloaded with the ammunition of Corporal Joseph Besse and once more started for the brush, meeting Edwin Cole, whose left hand had been shattered. Cole turned into a path on the left and Blodgett took the path on the right, dropping down and crawling into the grass just as fifer Ezekiel Rose raced up the path ahead of two Indians. Blodgett crawled under some wild morning-glory vines and reached back and straightened up the grass. Hiding there, he heard Cole cry out in great pain. “Squaw,” the Indians called him and laughed. Cole continued to beg as the Indians tortured him. Then came the sickening sounds of the tomahawk, and Cole went silent. In hand to hand combat, each man tried to fight his way out of the deadly encirclement. Bishop worked his way to the ferryhouse only to find it filling with Indians. Although wounded in the thigh, he managed to escape between the house and the barn. He faced a double-barreled shotgun, but the Sioux, firing in haste, missed. Before Bishop could cap his gun, James Dunn, running behind him, fired and the warrior dropped. The two soldiers ran another 300 feet when five Indians jumped from the grass. “Gain the thicket!” Marsh shouted to his men. The pair now turned southward, pressed by additional Sioux, and reached the river-bordering willows. There they found Marsh and thirteen men.

W.H. Blodgett

W.H. Blodgett was wounded in the ambush, but survived. This photo was taken shortly before the uprising.

The initial onslaught lasted only twenty minutes. After the Indians closed in it became nearly impossible for a soldier to rejoin his command if he had been separated from it. The Sioux planned to cut off the men one or two at a time and thus kill them all. Now they surrounded the thicket, yelling and pouring in buckshot and ball thick and fast. The soldiers were forced to ration their ammunition carefully. By four o’clock the soldiers had worked themselves to the end of the thicket and were reduced to no more than four rounds to a man. Marsh decided their only chance of escape was to cross the river and work down the wooded side. He raised his sword and revolver, entered the water, and was half-way across when he cried out and went down. Several soldiers reached for him, but he slipped away and disappeared. For the next hour the remaining men huddled under the river bank, deciding what to do. Nineteen-year-old Bishop, now the senior survivor of the battle, took command. There had been neither sound nor shot from outside the thicket for some time, and the men cautiously began working their way down the bank toward the fort. The Sioux, thinking the soldiers had crossed the river, forded downstream and waited to ambush them on the other side. The soldier’s progress was slow; Bishop was lame and Ole Svenson sobadly injured he had to be carried. When it was dark, Bishop dispatched two soldiers ahead to alert the fort of the disaster. Darkness also encouraged Blodgett to crawl painfully from his hiding place and go to the river for a drink. Unable to work his way down the river at night, he lay down and slept. “Don’t leave me,” he called out several times, dreaming he was seeing ambulance driver Jack Fauver. Then he would awaken and remember the Indians and lay silent. William Sutherland, who had fallen face down near the river, regained consciousness. He was stripped of everything  but his blood-stained shirt and trousers, but miraculously had not been scalped as had the others. A ball had entered his chest, passed a lung, and exited out his back below the right shoulder blade. He dragged himself to the river for a drink and found a skiff stashed there, partially filled with water. After bailing it with his hands, he pushed the boat into the sluggish current, climbed in, and lay on the seatless bottom.

Sergeant John F. Bishop

Sergeant John F. Bishop took command after Post Commander John S. Marsh was lost to the swirling water of the Minnesota River.

When Bishop and his men were yet some five miles from the fort, they heard a movement ahead in the grass and froze. After a seemingly endless wait Bishop called a challenge. A woman rose up from the grass. “Have I found help at last?” she whispered. “Am I saved?” Nearby lay her sister with an hour-old baby. The group travelled together, reaching the fort around ten. Later that night, James Foster and Tom Pearsley straggled in. Foster had escaped detection under a vine-covered wild plum tree, hearing the “fiendish contortions of exultation” as the Sioux “dispatched and mutilated his helpless, pleading comrades.” After dark he crept from his hiding place and, within a dozen paces, stumbled over a body. He had a feeling it was not a dead man. “Is this one of the boys from the fort?” he whispered. Parsley, the sole survivor of four men cut off in a smaller thicket, rose up. James Munday and Ambrose Gardner also returned that night. Charles Beecher made his way back two days later. Rose was picked up wandering on the prairie, lost and nearly dead from loss of blood from an arm wound.

All the next day Blodgett, racked with pain, tortured by mosquitoes, cold, wet and hungry, struggled to reach the fort. Once he sought the road but, alerted by the tinkling of pony bells, spied Indians ahead and returned to the river. He swam along the bank until he found an overhang of brush and vines to conceal himself. Around midnight, still three miles from the fort, Blodgett entered a ran-sacked cabin, hoping to find food. As he chewed on a meatless ham bone, there came a pounding on the door and a man called out, “If there are any whited in there, let them come out ago to the fort.” He was John Fanska, a wounded survivor of Redwood. The pair traveled on, resting often. Fanska would stand, spit blood from the arrow in his back; Blodgett would take hold of his own clothes and pull himself up. Half a mile from the fort they were challenged by a guard, a survivor of the previous day. “My God,” he stammered, “it cant be, for I saw Blodgett fall a second time!” That same night, more than twenty-four after he had entered the skill, Southerland abandoned the water-logged boat on the bank opposite the fort, swam across and arrived, a “gaunt, bent, blood-stained, half-naked apecter, as if risen from the dead.” Back a the ferry crossing the bodies of twenty-four men sprawled on the blood-soaked river silt. Except for Quinn, they were young men, not yet at the high sun of their lives. There was not a coward among them.

Six Members of Company B

Six members of Company B who survived the Redwood Ferry ambush are shown many years later, top to bottom and left to right: Sergeant John F. Bishop, W.H. Blodgett, Levi Carr, W.B. Hutchinson, Ole Svendson, and Stephen Van Buren.

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