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Archaeological study sheds new light on Battle of Wood Lake

Tom Cherveny / Tribune Archaeologist Sigrid Arnott tells Saturday how artifacts recovered during an archaeological examination of the Wood Lake Battlefield made it possible to identify the locations of the combatants and where the fighting took place during the Battle of Wood Lake. 1 / 4
Tom Cherveny / Tribune Archaeologist Sigrid Arnott holds one of the conical bullets recovered during the 2015 archaeological dig at the Wood Lake Battlefield. 2 / 4
Tom Cherveny / Tribune Archaeologist Sigrid Arnott, right, speaks Saturday -- on the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Wood Lake -- about the findings of an archaeological examination at the Wood Lake Battlefield. She is shown in front of the Wood Lake monument where Henry Sibley and his soldiers camped, near the actual battlefield. 3 / 4
Tom Cherveny / Tribune Archaeologist Sigrid Arnott, left, holds one of the bullets recovered during the archaeological examination of the Wood Lake Battlefield site during a tour of the site held on Saturday, the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Wood Lake.4 / 4

WOOD LAKE — A modern archaeological examination of the Wood Lake Battlefield offers new insights into what is considered the decisive engagement of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The use of modern technology has allowed a team of archaeologists to recover nearly two dozen conical bullets and musket balls fired by the combatants on the site on Sept. 23, 1862, and identify the locations of the U.S. soldiers and Dakota warriors during the fight along a steep ravine and former military road in what is now Yellow Medicine County.

The examination debunked a long-held belief of where the final battle occurred.

And, it has made it possible to almost follow the footprints of soldiers from the Third Regiment in their retreat from the first fighting of that day. Some of the artifacts may actually mark where individuals were injured or killed.

Archaeologists Sigrid Arnott and David Maki, wIth assistance from Douglas Scott, known for his examination of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, analyzed evidence they gathered in 2015 at the site using modern technology, along with the written and oral accounts that have shaped the narrative of this event.

They were able to develop "a really accurate map of where everything was,'' Arnott told members of the Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Association during the organization's annual meeting Saturday, the anniversary of the Battle of Wood Lake.

The association's work has made it possible to protect a 33-acre site where much of the fighting occurred. The American Battlefield Protection Program, part of the National Park Service, funded the work.

Arnott said they were also able to piece together the battlefield history by looking at artifacts taken from the site over the years by private collectors.

On the day of the battle, Lt. Col. Henry Sibley and nearly 1,700 soldiers were slow to break camp. An estimated 700 or more Dakota warriors were concealed along the ravine and roadway the soldiers were to follow. Led by Little Crow and other chiefs, the Dakota planned to ambush the soldiers when they were strung out over a mile or more.

The ambush was foiled when some soldiers from the Third Regiment ventured out on the prairie after daybreak with a wagon to grub for potatoes in gardens located nearby. The hidden warriors opened fire.

The long-held narrative of the battle generally credited the soldiers with the Third Regiment for heroics in eventually turning the battle in favor of Sibley and his forces.

Arnott said the recovered bullets show that members of the Third came to aid their fellow soldiers who had been surprised on the prairie. The Dakota engaged them there, and were drawing the 270 men onto the prairie where they might isolate them.

Arnott said Sibley realized the danger and was able to order their retreat. The Renville Rangers, comprised of mixed blood Dakota who had signed up to fight in the Civil War, provided cover fire as the soldiers raced back to camp. They had to return up the steep-sloped ravine, where they were vulnerable to fire by the Dakota.

As the soldiers in the Third Regiment retreated, fighting broke out nearly simultaneously to the west, where the government trail crossed the ravine. Here is where the final battle took place, according to Arnott.

Sibley took advantage of his artillery, provided by a volunteer militia, and rained shrapnel on the Dakota fighting at this location, according to her report.

The Dakota strategy had been based on both ambushing Sibley's forces as well as using the advantage of the terrain to conceal themselves. The warriors lacked cover from the anti-personnel artillery exploding over their heads, explained Arnott, and so lost both advantages.

The recovered bullets and musket balls confirmed the long-known advantage in firepower that belonged to Sibley. His men were firing Springfield and other models of rifles with ranges and accuracy two and three times greater than the flintlock muskets used by the Dakota. And, Sibley and his soldiers had ample ammunition, while the Dakota had limited supplies of handmade musket balls.

Three musket balls showed sign of teeth marks, suggesting the Dakota held them in their mouths as they loaded their barrels in battle. A number of the soldiers' conical bullets showed signs of having been fired from barrels made dirty by repetitive firing in battle. Some of the recovered bullets showed signs too of having struck soft tissue. Many more hit the ground at the end of their range, evidence of the cover fire provided for the retreating soldiers.

One recovered bullet came from a Sharps carbine. It could have been fired from the gun once used by Joseph DeCamp, who had been killed at the Battle of Birch Coulee. Arnott said a volunteer militia member may have recovered it from DeCamp and carried it to the Battle of Wood Lake.

A thimble from a soldier's sewing kit was also found at the site of the Third Regiment's retreat. It raises the possibility that it fell as someone rummaged through the kit after his death.

Historical accounts record that seven soldiers and 15 Dakota were killed. There were 33 soldiers injured; the number of injured Dakota is not known.

The lethal fire power of the artillery turned the battle in Sibley's favor, Arnott pointed out. The lessons of this battle shaped many to follow as the military campaign began against the western Indian tribes, she said.

Some of the Dakota warriors who had fled west from Wood Lake participated in these subsequent conflicts. It's very likely that some could have participated in the Battle of Little Bighorn, Arnott said.

The Wood Lake Battlefield is one of only two Civil War-era battlefields in Minnesota recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. The Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Association exists "to preserve, restore, promote and respectfully interpret for all people" the Battle of Wood Lake and the history of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The organization's next goal is to develop trails and interpretive signs on the battlefield site to tell the history, association member Tom Ellig told those at the event Saturday.

Arnott said she hopes the information made possible by the archaeological work helps further the association's primary goal. "The final part of our story hopefully is reconciliation,'' she said.

The full report may be found online at www.academia.edu/33041008.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335
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