who comes there!" as he was being approached by the officer of the guard.
Soon the soldiers slept, little dreaming that the lurking enemy and death
were so near. The awakening to some was in eternity.
BATTLE OF BIRCH COOLIE.
The battle of Birch Coolie was fought September 2 and 3, 1862. It has
never taken its proper place in history, but with the exception of the
massacre at the Little Big Horn, in 1876, it was the hottest and the
most desperate battle fought during the war of the Rebellion or any of
our Indian wars. In comparison to the number of men and horses engaged,
I know of no conflict, the one above referred to excepted, where the
casualties were as great as they were here.
The Indian custom is to make an attack about four o'clock in the morning,
so this relief had been especially cautioned, and soon after the guard
was placed one of them thought he saw something moving in the grass. It
proved to be an Indian, and they were slowly moving in upon us, their
intention being to shoot the pickets with arrows, and as noiselessly as
possible rush in and destroy us in our confusion. The sentinel fired at
the moving object, and instantly our camp was encircled by fire and smoke
from the guns of five hundred Indians, who had hemmed us in. The guard
who fired escaped the bullet intended for him. He said he thought the
moving object in the grass might be a hog or it might be an Indian, and,
hog or Indian, he intended to kill it if he could. The fire was returned
by the pickets as they retreated to the camp, and although there
necessarily was confusion, there was no panic. Quicker than I can write
we were out, musket in hand, but the captain's command to "fall down"
was mistaken for "fall in," which makes a vast difference under such
circumstances. We soon broke for the wagons, however, which were formed
in a circle about our tents, and this afforded us some little shelter.
As this was our baptismal fire, and a most important engagement, I devote
more space to it than I otherwise would. What an experience it was to
inexperienced, peaceable, unsuspecting men! Think of being awakened out
of a blissful sleep by the fire from five hundred Indian rifles - it is a
wonder that we were not all destroyed amid the confusion that naturally
would follow; but we had cool heads among us, and none were cooler than
Old Joe Brown and Captain H. P. Grant, of Company A, who was in immediate
command. I will here refer to two others. First, Mr. William H. Grant, a
lawyer of St. Paul, who still lives in Minnesota. He went out to see the
fun. Well, he saw it, and the "trial" was a severe one. He "objected" and
"took exceptions" to everything the Indians did.
He wore a black plug hat, and this was a good mark for the redskins;
they shot it off his head twice, and it was finally lost altogether.
"Bill" was cool; he did not lose his temper, but laid down very flat on
the ground and gave directions to those about him how to shoot to kill.
We afterward voted him in as a brevet private, and were always ready
to divide grub and "shake." Postmaster Ed. Patch, of St. Anthony, was
another of our citizen escorts. He was a jolly good fellow and "cool as
a cucumber," with a bay window on him like an overgrown bass drum. He
found this excess of stomach very much in the way, in his great desire to
hug mother earth and get out of range of the Indian bullets, and looked
as if he wished he had never been born, or that he had been a disciple of
One of our little thin fellows was lying down alongside of "Ed," and I'll
never forget the expression of his face when he said: "God, bub, I wish I
was as little as you be."
The camp was miserably located, being commanded by the deep ravine on
one side and by a mound on the other, so that the savages were well
sheltered from our fire. Had the instructions given by Colonel Sibley
been followed, which were always to encamp in open and level prairie,
there would have been no such destruction of valuable lives, but the
spot was chosen for our camp because it was near wood and water, and the
Indians were supposed to be fifty miles away. It was a mistake, which we
discovered after it was too late. A brisk fire was opened by the boys,
and soon the cartridge boxes were being depleted. Ammunition was called
for, and upon opening a box, to our dismay we found it to be of too large
a calibre. Other boxes were opened with a like result. In loading up
our ammunition a mistake had been made, and we found ourselves in this
unfortunate dilemma; but no time was to be lost, as we had not more than
an average of twenty rounds to the man, and a hoard of savages about us
who seemed well supplied with powder and ball.
We went to work cutting the large bullets down with our knives, but this
was a slow and unsatisfactory process. We used the powder from these
large cartridges to load our guns with, putting in an extra amount, so
that when we fired these blanks they made a great noise, and thus kept
up a successful "bluff," though doing no damage. A dead silence would
ensue, and occasionally some of our best shots picked off a more daring
redskin simply to remind them that we were awake. We had but one shovel
and one pick; there were others in some of the wagons, or they had been
thrown out in the grass and could not be found. The captain offered $5
apiece for them, but the bullets were too thick to admit of a search, so
we used jack-knives, spoons and bayonets to dig our intrenchments with.
In time we had very good pits dug, and with the assistance of the dead
bodies of our horses had ourselves tolerably well protected.
With the wounded horses rearing and plunging, the men groaning and
calling for help, the hurried commands, and the unearthly yells of the
five hundred red devils about us, this baptismal fire was trying to the
souls of raw recruits, as most of us were. We were encircled by fire and
smoke, the bullets were doing their deadly work, and it really seemed as
though no man could escape death. Our orders were: "Load and fire, but
steady, boys, and give them hail Columbia!"
Upon the first fire of the Indians two men fled from the camp, one a
citizen, who was with us, and the other a soldier. The citizen we found
afterward on the prairie, dead. He was the last of his family, for we
had buried his wife and two children just the previous day, before going
into camp. The soldier, a Swede, returned, but he was so paralyzed with
fear that he was like a dead man during all this memorable thirty-six
hours, and the poor fellow afterward succumbed to sickness. Everything
was improvised for a barricade - camp kettles, knapsacks, wagon-seats,
etc., and it was done in a hurry, for hot work was on our hands. The
word soon went the rounds: "College is dead, Irvine is dead, Baxter,
Coulter, Benecke, King and a score of others are dead, and nearly all are
wounded." It was only a few minutes after the first fire when we realized
all this, and it verily looked as though the little command would be
wiped out of existence. If a head was shown fifty Indians leveled at
it. During all this terrible fire Old Joe Brown walked about seemingly
unconcerned, until a bullet went through the back of his neck. He came to
the ground as quick as if shot through the heart, for it was a bad wound,
but with it all he continued to give instructions. Nearly all the damage
was done before ten o'clock, for up to that time we found ourselves with
sixty killed and wounded, out of 155, and ninety-five horses dead, out of
ninety-six. The horses saved our little encampment. As soon as they fell
their bodies formed a good barricade for us, and this and the overturned
wagons were our only protection. The Indians, occupying higher ground
than we did, had us at a disadvantage. The day wore on, and all we could
do was to assist Surgeon J. W. Daniels with the wounded and keep the
Indians at bay. Dr. Daniels proved himself a cool-headed, brave man,
never flinching for a moment. Where duty called he was found, and he
immortalized himself with the boys. The great fear of the wounded seemed
to be that we would be obliged to abandon them to their fate, for the sun
was extremely hot and the camp had become very offensive from the smell
of decomposing bodies of horses; besides, we had no means of transporting
the wounded, and their fears were not without foundation, for it looked
as though we would be driven by necessity from the camp. We assured and
reassured them that if we went they would go, too. If we died it would be
in defending them as well as ourselves.
The one thing, aside from cowardice on the part of the Indians, that
saved us from assault was the fact of our having several half-breed
scouts with us, who talked back and forth.
The Indians said: "Come out from the pale-faces; we do not want to kill
you, but we want all their scalps."
Private James Auge of our company was the spokesman. He was a Canadian
Frenchman, but had lived among the Indians, knew them well, and spoke
their language, and as he went so would all the other Indians and
half-breeds who were with us.
BIRCH COOLIE CONTINUED.
On the second day, at about sunrise, we discovered a large body of
Indians closing up nearer to us, when one of their number, probably
Little Crow's brother, came within twenty rods of us. He was on a white
horse, and carried a flag of truce. He held a conversation with Auge, our
interpreter, and tried to persuade him to leave us and bring the other
half-breeds with him. When the conversation was interpreted to Captain
Grant, he said: "Well, Auge, what do you fellows intend to do, go with
the Indians or stay with us?" Auge replied:
"Captain Grant, we want nothing to do with these Indians; we will stand
by you and fight as long as there is a man left, and I will now tell them
so." He did call to them, and said:
"We won't come over to you; we will stay with the soldiers, and if you
come we will kill you if we can. You are cowards to kill poor women and
children, and if we catch you we will treat you as you treated them."
We felt relieved to know that our half-breeds were loyal. Auge, after
this, was Corporal Auge, and he went all through the South with us,
making a splendid soldier. I shall have occasion to refer to him in
another place in this chapter.
[Illustration: Designed by A. P. Connolly.
Battle of Birch Coolie. Minn.
Fought September 2nd and 3d, 1862. Ninety-five horses lay dead within the
camp; 60 men killed and wounded; 500 Indians were under cover in the tall
grass, and concentrated their fire on the camp.]
Captain Grant told Auge to say to them that we had two hundred fighting
men and plenty of ammunition, and that Little Crow and all his dirty
Indians could not take us, and for him to get out with his flag of truce.
It was a game of bluff, for at that time we only had about sixty-five
effective men, and were nearly out of ammunition.
We did not know whether we could trust the half-breeds or not, and were
instructed to fire on them to kill if they made the slightest move to
desert us. Our firing had been heard at Fort Ridgely, sixteen miles away,
and the Colonel dispatched two hundred and fifty men, with one howitzer,
to our relief.
Just at sunset the second day we saw two horsemen come to the edge of
the woods across the Coolie, but the Indians also saw them, and chased
them back. They returned to their command and reported a large body
of Indians, and said they saw a small camp with the stars and stripes
flying, but as they had no field glass, could not make it out. Colonel
McPhail, who was in command of this relief, ordered the howitzer to
be fired to give us courage, if the little camp proved to be ours. A
shout went up at this welcome sound just as the sun went down. Old Joe
Brown, who had been disabled early in the day, called out from his tent:
"Captain Grant, instruct the men to be watchful; we are in a bad fix;
the Indians will hate to lose our scalps, now that they are so near
their grasp; give them a few shots occasionally, assure the wounded men
that we will not leave them, and keep the pick and shovel busy." We
disposed of ourselves for the night as best we could. Every man was on
guard, and nearly all had two rifles fully charged and bayonets fixed.
We clasped our rifles, looked up into the starry heavens, and, asking
God's protection, swore not to yield an inch. We made this demonstration
to encourage the wounded men, who seemed fearful that something more
terrible was in store for them. The prayers and groans of the wounded
and the awful silence of the dead inspired us to do our whole duty. The
watch-word, "wide-awake," went the rounds every few minutes, and there
was "no sleep to the eye nor slumber to the eye-lids," during all that
Out of our ninety-six horses we had but one left. This was a splendid
animal, and had thus far escaped without a scratch. He was feeding about
the camp, unmindful of the fate of his fellows.
The picture of Birch Coolie is an exact reproduction of the situation.
The ninety-five dead horses were all within the enclosure, and the one
who escaped for the time is grazing among them.
Just before midnight the clouds began to gather, and we felt cheered to
think we would soon have rain. We were sorely in need of water, for we
had not tasted a drop since the night before, and the wounded men were
nearly famished with thirst and burning with fever. As the sky darkened
Captain Grant called for a volunteer to go to Fort Ridgely for relief.
Corporal James Auge volunteered to go, and by this act proved himself
a truly brave man, and if it had been successfully carried out would
have gained for him a commission at no very distant day. The fact of its
not being carried out was no fault of his, and, in the abandonment of
the trial, he was declared not the less brave by all his comrades, who
trembled for him while he was preparing to make the perilous journey.
The night was cloudy, and he being conversant with Indian methods and
well posted in the topography of the country, could be successful in
getting through the Indian's lines, if anybody could; but the chances
were ten to one against the success of the undertaking.
The horse was saddled and the Corporal had his instructions. He had his
foot in the stirrup when the clouds rolled back from the full moon like
the rolling back of a scroll, and it was almost as light as noon-day. The
Indians, ever on the alert, saw the preparations and opened fire anew
upon us, and, long before they ceased, our good horse was pierced by six
bullets, and the project was abandoned - we could only wait anxiously for
results. The enemy did not allow us to wait long, for at four o'clock
they opened a terrific fire, which they kept up for an hour. The only
response they got from us was blank cartridges, but we made a great noise
with them, and it answered the purpose very well. We had ourselves so
well protected that in this fusillade they killed but one man and wounded
The early morning dawn and heavy, dewy atmosphere found our eyes heavy
from loss of sleep, so we divided up and some slept while others watched.
We heard nothing of the detachment, and as the day advanced the Indians
became bolder. They had driven the relief back and were closing in upon
us, and we, having so little ammunition, could do them but little harm.
They were puzzled at our silence. Some of the chiefs said it was a trick,
others said we were all killed. At any rate, with them "discretion was
the better part of valor," and we didn't object.
About one o'clock the same day we descried the glimmer of the polished
rifle in the distance. We had no glass, but anxious eyes strained to see
what it was, and the dark outline of a moving mass told us reinforcements
were coming. The chiefs, by waving their blankets and shouts, called off
their warriors. "There's a mile of whites coming," they said. They waved
their tomahawks, shouted, fired, and finally galloped off on the prairie.
A few warriors more daring than the others remained behind for a time
to get a scalp, and some of them came so close we could readily discern
their war paint. Before the main body of the Indians left, however, they
rode very close, and gave us several parting volleys. The wounding of a
few of our men was all the damage they did at this time.
Right joyful were we when the reinforcements arrived. Our camp had been
formed by driving twenty teams in a circle, and it can readily be seen
that it was not large. It was about as large as an ordinary circus
tent, and inside of this we had our horses, men and tents. After the
battle the sight was a sickening one, for with sixty dead and wounded
men and ninety-five horses in such a small space, and all the confusion
arising out of such a siege it was enough to appall the stoutest heart.
Strong men, when they beheld the sight, wept like children. It was our
baptismal fire, and the horror seemed greater to us. Our men, whose
nerves had been on a tension so long and bodies exhausted for want of
food, water and sleep, when the relief came, fell down and slept. Colonel
Sibley was the first to arrive, and when he rode up to our barricade,
and saw the terrible loss of life he looked as though he had lost his
best friends. His heart bled at the sight, and the tears he shed spoke
volumes. A detail was at once made to bury the dead side by side in a
temporary grave, dinner was cooked for the remainder of the command
and the wounded were put in ambulances, tents were "struck," and we
took up the line of march for Fort Ridgely, which we reached sometime
during the night. Our tents had been so completely riddled with bullets
that they were condemned as useless, and were finally sent down to Fort
Snelling and placed on exhibition for a long time. One of them had 375
bullet holes in it, and when the people looked at them they wondered
that any man escaped. The narrow escapes were almost miraculous, and
congratulations were frequently in order. It was not every man for
himself, but a strong fellow-feeling sprang up among us that forever
afterwards cemented our hearts. We shared our shelter and encouraged one
another, and no man shrank from duty. We had determined to die together,
and if ever soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder we did on this bloody
spot, where our nerves and courage were taxed to the utmost. Company A,
so nearly wiped out, was ever afterwards considered the "Old Ironsides"
of the regiment.
Before we left, Colonel Sibley addressed a note to Little Crow, and
placing it on a stick stuck it in the ground so he might find it when he
would visit the battle ground, as he surely would do as soon as we were
out of the way. The note was as follows:
"If Little Crow has any proposition to make let him send a half-breed
to me and he shall be protected in and out of my camp.
H. H. Sibley,
Colonel Commanding Military Expedition."
To specify the remarkable escapes would unduly lengthen this chapter,
but, as near as my recollection serves me, no man entirely escaped. I'll
specify two - one an escape and the other an incident. Lieutenant Swan,
of the Third Minnesota, now a lawyer of Sioux City, Iowa, was with us on
this picnic. He was not ordered to go, neither was he detailed, but he
simply went, and he had a very narrow escape. During the sharp firing,
and after we had some shallow pits dug, this officer was in one as far as
his long legs would admit. He had a fine gold watch in his fob pocket,
and one of the boys asked him the time of day. He undoubled as well as
he could and got out his watch, but in returning it put it in his vest
pocket instead of the fob. It was no sooner in his pocket than an Indian
bullet struck it squarely in the center. The concussion knocked the
lieutenant over, but the watch saved his life. He keeps it as a valued
souvenir of the occasion.
The incident relates to Private James Leyde, of Company A, of the Sixth.
He was a little fellow who could march longer and eat oftener than any
youngster of his size I ever saw. Jimmy was a splendid soldier, always
ready for drill or guard, and never forgot his manners when he met a
"shoulder-straps." He was a pious little fellow, too, and carried a Bible
his mother gave him.
Well, "after the battle" Jimmy was looking over the wreck with his
comrade, Billy Caine, and in taking up his Bible found a bullet embedded
in it. "Hello, Billy, my Bible got struck!" The ball had gone through
Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus, until it stopped half way through
Deuteronomy. Jimmy says: "God, Billy, it didn't get through Deuteronomy
There were many close calls, and it really seemed remarkable that so many
could escape. I could specify scores, but it is not necessary.
Among the incidents on the march before we arrived at Birch Coolie I
might mention the finding of a wounded woman by the roadside. She had
been without food or water for twelve days, and was the only one of a
large party supposed to have been murdered. She did not escape uninjured,
however, for the surgeon took fourteen buckshot from her back. During
our thirty-six hours' siege this poor woman remained in the wagon where
she had been placed the first day, and spent her time in praying for
our deliverance. She sustained a broken wrist in addition to her other
wounds, but after we got to the fort she was among her own people and
soon fully recovered to tell the tale of her twelve days' wanderings and
her marvelous escape.
BATTLE OF WOOD LAKE.
At this juncture the press and people were clamoring for Colonel Sibley's
removal because of his delay and, as they claimed - lack of energy and
judgment. He lacked in neither, for he knew the foe he had to deal with,
and if he had heeded the behests of the press and people, so far away,
not a woman or child of the captives would have escaped. However, he
dispatched Col. William Crooks to St. Paul to explain the situation in
detail to Governor Ramsey and satisfy the clamorous press that they knew
but little of the situation as it existed at the seat of the Sioux war.
After our return to Fort Ridgely and a few more days of preparation, the
command was put in splendid marching condition, and "forward" was the
word for the rescuing of the captives and if possible the capture of the
renegades. We met the Indians next at Wood Lake and had a sharp battle
with them early in the morning. They had come down in force to annihilate
us, but we were glad to meet them in broad day light on the open prairie
and receive them with "open arms to hospitable graves." We were just
up from a good night's sleep and had partaken of a generous supply of
Old Java and "hard tack," and felt abundantly able to defend ourselves.
Besides we were veterans now, for we had profited by our baptismal fire
and had an old score to settle with "Mr. Injun," and we settled to our
[Illustration: Designed by A. P. Connolly.
Battle of Wood Lake, Minn.
Fought September 23d, in which the Indians were defeated.]
Our sappers had gone out to repair a bridge that had been burned, and the
temptation was too great for some of the younger warriors. The plan of
the Indians was to surprise us as we were crossing the river - to divide
our attention by having a small body in the rear and one in front, and
then the main body to spring from their ambush, and in our confusion to
destroy us; but the young bucks, when they saw a few of our men, wanted
their scalps so bad they opened fire. The "long roll" was sounded, and
we stood to arms. Little Crow knew that Colonel Sibley was aware of his
tactics, and was determined to remove him if he could by detailing about
eighty of his best warriors to do the work, and at this battle of Wood
Lake they tried hard to reach him, but he was too watchful to be caught
napping. A detachment of the Third Minnesota, under Major Welch, and
the Renville Rangers charged upon the Indians in one direction, and the
Seventh Minnesota, in command of Col. William R. Marshall, in another,
while the battery, under command of Captain Mark Hendricks, did effective
work also. The Sixth Minnesota, under command of Colonel William Crooks,
routed the Indians from a deep ravine on the right flank of our camp and
probably saved Colonel Sibley from being captured by the picked men sent
out for that purpose by Little Crow.
The conflict lasted more than two hours and was decisive. The Indians
offered to surrender if Colonel Sibley would promise them immunity from
punishment, but this was sternly refused. They fled in dismay, not being