Remembering the Battle of Birch Coulee 160 years later with visit to historic site near Morton, Minnesota
On Thursday, the Renville County Historical Society held a presentation on the Battle of Birch Coulee, which took place on Sept. 2 and 3, 1862. It was the bloodiest battle of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, claiming the lives of nearly 20 U.S. soldiers and at least two Dakota warriors. Many more were injured on both sides.
MORTON — In the darkness before dawn on Sept. 2, 1862, a U.S. soldier thought he heard a rustle in the tall prairie grass around his unit's camp near Birch Coulee Creek. He fired his rifle and with that single shot began the bloodiest battle of the entire U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 — the Battle of Birch Coulee.
"As it happened so many times, all hell broke loose," said Jerry Weldy.
About 170 U.S. soldiers and 200 Dakota warriors fought across the open prairie field and around 20 soldiers were killed along with at least two Dakota. Many more were injured on both sides and dozens of horses were killed.
Just over 160 years later, at the Birch Coulee Battlefield Historical Site near Morton on Thursday, dozens came to learn about the battle and walk along the path that winds through the site. The event was held by Renville County Historical Society with Weldy leading the talk.
"Not many accounts were written down at the time, many were not put to paper until years later," Weldy said.
On Aug. 31, 1862, Col. Henry Hastings Sibley sent out a burial detail made up of about 170 soldiers from Company A of the 6th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment commanded by Capt. Hiram P. Grant, Company A of the Cullen Frontier Guards commanded by Capt. Joseph Anderson, some civilians and Maj. Joseph Brown. Their orders were to go around the area of the Lower Sioux Agency and search for and bury the remains of those killed during the first weeks of the war, while also scouting for the locations of the Dakota, Weldy said. While they went about their responsibilities, all seemed quiet.
"They saw no Dakota," Weldy said.
Despite that, a band of about 200 Dakota were nearby. They were led by Gray Bird, Mankato, Big Eagle and Red Legs and were headed toward the Lower Sioux Agency and New Ulm.
On the evening of Sept. 1, 1862, the soldiers made camp in an open area just east of the narrow valley of Birch Coulee Creek. Tents were pitched, the wagons were arranged in a large horseshoe and the horses were tied to the wagons in an area the size of a football field. The commanding officers felt the area was safe, but the Dakota in the area had spotted the soldiers near the Lower Sioux Agency and followed them up to Birch Coulee and quietly surrounded the troops.
Weldy said the Dakota had a large advantage over the U.S. forces due to their locations around the soldiers' camp and the features of the battlefield. The white canvas of the soldiers' tents were easy to spot and the tall prairie grasses, some 6 to 8 feet tall, provided adequate cover for the Dakota.
"None of these trees were here in 1862," Weldy said.
The first shots of the battle occurred around 4:30 a.m. Sept. 2, 1862, before sunrise. Weldy said some soldiers were shot and killed as they stood up from their tents.
The Dakota fired hundreds of rounds toward the U.S. camp. Most of the horses were killed during the initial ambush.
The U.S. troops also discovered much of the boxed ammo they had brought with them did not fit the guns they were carrying, causing delays as they shaved the rounds to fit the chambers of the rifles.
"Grant's men were mostly young recruits, 17 to 23 years old with no experience, very little training," Weldy said. "Many of those young guys had never handled a rifle."
While the fighting was fierce for the first few hours, the battle quickly turned into a siege as the Dakota felt they could wait the soldiers out. The soldiers had very little water, food or ammunition. The Dakota, on the other hand, were able to slip from the battlefield and into the creek valley to the east, where Dakota women and children were waiting with food and water.
"They could leave the battlefield, take a nap, get something to eat and go back to the battlefield," Weldy said.
Sixteen miles away at Fort Ridgley, the sounds of the battle could be heard, Weldy said, due to the lack of tree cover. Col. Sibley sent out a relief force under the command of Col. Samuel McPhail. That force would end up being spotted by the Dakota. McPhail decided to send back to Fort Ridgley for more troops before continuing to the site of the battle.
The siege at Birch Coulee would continue through Sept. 2 and into Sept. 3, with intermediate gunfire as both sides tried to conserve their ammunition. In the morning of Sept. 3, about 1,000 troops and additional cannons arrived from Fort Ridgley. The Dakota began to disperse and the remaining soldiers were back at the fort by the end of the day, Weldy said.
"This was the bloodiest battle of the conflict," Weldy said.
The U.S.-Dakota War would continue for another few weeks before coming to an end at the Battle of Wood Lake on Sept. 23, 1862.
Soon after the Battle of Birch Coulee, the battlefield site would be turned over to farming. The site would be leveled and plowed over the years. Because of that and souvenir hunting over the decades, valuable historic detail and artifacts were lost.
In 1898 the Minnesota Valley Historical Society would place four stone markers around the battlefield site, commemorating what occurred there in 1862. Those markers are still visible today.
In 1929, Birch Coulee State Park was established and in 1976 the Minnesota Historical Society would acquire the land, complete two archaeological investigations and create the historic site. The Renville County Historical Society has managed the site for several years.
The historic site is located at the junction of Renville County Roads 2 and 18, north of Morton. It is open from dawn to dusk for visitors to walk along the interpretive trail.