A few days ago we heard of McPhail's Butte Overlook from which Colonel Samuel McPhail launched a crucial cavalry charge during the Battle of Big Mound. That 1863 battle was but one part of the campaign against a number of Mdewakanton and Wahpekute Dakota who were responsible for a series of raids against Minnesota settlements a year earlier.
In response to the raids, the US Army hoped to push the perpetrators deep into Dakota Territory, trap them between two armies and then force them to either fight or surrender. In the spring of 1863 the first of those armies, under the command of General Henry Sibley, set out from Fort Pope; first crossing into Dakota Territory on this day, June 24. Sibley's column spent the next three weeks snaking its way through the drought-stricken plains, moving towards Devils Lake. But on July 17, long before the soldiers reached their destination, buffalo hunters from the Red River informed Sibley that the Dakota they were chasing had already left the Devils Lake region and were moving southwest towards the Missouri. Longing to catch his prey, Sibley immediately made preparations to chase down the fleet-footed Dakota.
The General knew that in order to capture the Dakota warriors, his army had to travel fast and light. While his command had yet to fight any major battles, the harsh realities of traveling through the Northern Plains in the hot summer had left a number of his men sick or wounded. Sibley could not abandon his men, or send them back, so he established a camp at a defensible position on the northeast shores of Sibley Lake, about two miles south of present-day Binford. The wounded men, as well as the extra supplies, would remain behind at the camp, while Sibley's now lightened forces continued the chase.
Named Camp Atchison, after the command's Ordnance and Assistant Commissary Officer, Captain Charles Atchison, the site was perfectly placed to hold out against attack. Besides the newly built trenches and earthen breastworks, it had good water, grass, and a considerable supply of wood. Here Sibley's sick and injured men would be well-attended and protected under the leadership of Colonel William Crooks of the Sixth Minnesota Infantry.
After twenty-one days, three battles and a number of skirmishes, General Sibley's command returned to Camp Atchison to much fanfare, music and flag waving from the post's soldiers. While still weary from the long summer campaign, Sibley's men quickly packed up for the return trip to Minnesota; abandoning the camp on August 12.
Today, visitors to Camp Atchison will find little of the original encampment; all that remains is a small portion of the earthen breastworks and the graves of the two soldiers who died while stationed there. However, the camp is still worth a visit, if not to view the two markers commemorating the old post, then to remember the heroic struggle between the United States and the Dakota fought right here in North Dakota.
Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall
Clodfelter, Micheal. The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865: McFarland, 1998.
Snortland, J. Signe, ed. A Traveler's Companion to North Dakota State Historic Sites. Bismarck, ND: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 2002.