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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two young adult children who I love very much. I currently volunteer at Antietam and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. Since 2013 I have been conducting in depth research on the regular artillery companies of the Union Army and their leaders. I hope to turn this into a book on this subject in the future. My perspective comes from a 28-year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Monday, April 16, 2012

September 1862...in Minnesota

Wood Lake Battlefield
I journeyed this weekend to the great state of Minnesota to present a talk on the First Minnesota Volunteers at the Battle of Antietam.  The presentation was part of a day long program put together by the Twin City Civil War Symposium, a group of round tables in Minnesota.  All of the programs were excellent and I made some new friends while there.  It surprised me that at least 80% of the 200 or so attendees had been to the battlefield.  I covered the route of the regiment from the East Woods across the Cornfield and into the West Woods where their brigade and the remainder of Sedgwick’s division was strongly attacked on the left flank by elements of McLaw’s division and other Confederate troops.  I had been perfecting this talk for several months by making a number of treks into the West Woods with my fellow guides and volunteers at Antietam.  Hopefully I will be able to offer this hike to the public while I volunteer on weekends.

Wood Lake Monument Grounds
I am sure that folks learned things about the battle of Antietam from my talk.  But like many things in life, it is what I learned from my Minnesotan friends that are worth mentioning.  Recall that John Pope was sent to Minnesota at the end of the Second Manassas Campaign.  While the First Minnesota Volunteers were engaged in the eastern campaigns during the summer of 1862, family and friends back home faced a serious uprising by the Dakota people.  Starting on August 17th, the Dakotan Sioux frustrated by unfair treaties and bad faith began a killing spree lead by Black Crow that engulfed the frontier.  Isolated settlements were attacked and hundreds of civilians were killed.  The Sioux attacked Fort Ridgely on the Minnesota River twice but were driven back.  The large settlement of New Ulm held off Indian attacks as well but the town was evacuated.  Hundreds of refugee settlers headed east.  Lincoln faced a major crisis on the western frontier at the same time that the Confederates were resurgent in Maryland, Kentucky, and in Northern Mississippi.  John Pope, recently defeated at Second Manassas, was sent to Saint Paul to organize the defenses of the state.  While many people nowadays may view this as exile, the people of Minnesota did not see the crisis in that light and the reality is that Pope’s assignment was an important and delicate one.  He was welcomed with relief and anticipation and to his credit, acted very effectively once he arrived.  As the Maryland Campaign was culminating at the Battle of Antietam on September 17th, the Minnesota Campaign was also reaching a climax.  On September 23, six days after the Battle of Antietam and one day after Lincoln’s issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Minnesota forces under Colonel Henry Sibley engaged the Sioux at Wood Lake and decisively defeated them there. 
While I have heard about the Dakota War in the context of the Civil War, I knew few of the details.  That was about to change this weekend.  During the symposium, I was introduced to Tom and Janet Hosier who are the organizers of the Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Association.  They graciously offered to take me on a tour of the Wood Lake sight.  Though the hour was late, we struck out for southwestern Minnesota.  For the next four hours, Tom and Jan shared their knowledge on the Dakota War with Carol Van Ornum, my friend with the Twin Cities Round Table and me. Carol had been instrumental in securing my invitation to speak.  She and her father had been on a private tour with me several years ago. 
Monument at Wood Lake
I have never been to a frontier battlefield. Wood Lake has a flag and monument on a one acre plot near the Rock Valle Lutheran Church, about eleven miles east of Granite Falls.  Tom has secured an easement for an additional 50 acres of land and is working on other easements.  Plans include some replanting of the tall luxuriant prairie grass that was present on the ground at the day of the fight.  On our arrival shortly after 6PM, it was overcast and breezy.  The sky darkened toward approaching dusk.  In the distance, I saw the white two-spired Rock Valle Lutheran church (which was not there at the time).  There is an air of infinite sadness at this  place.  The wind blows through the grass and an occasional bird chirps forlornly.  I had the same feeling as I often do when I stand at the fence line of the Cornfield or the Sunken Road, or the Cemetery at Antietam.  Despite the greater scope of battle and forces involved, the Battle at Wood Lake was no less decisive for the Minnesota frontier as the Battle of Antietam that had occurred six days earlier and half a continent away, was. 

I plan to learn more.  I purchased a book published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press titled The Dakota War of 1862 -  Minnesota’s Other Civil War, 1976, by Kenneth Carley.    I also made a lifetime membership donation of $10 to the Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Association.  If you are interested in more details, check their website at www.woodlakebattlefield.com.

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