If you've been listening in lately to Dakota Datebook, you'll have followed along as we traced General Henry Sibley's march through Dakota Territory during the summer of 1863. Sibley's army was part of a grand design to engage a group of Dakota who had raided a number of Minnesota settlements the previous year.
During the mid-nineteenth century, field operations were difficult business on the Northern Plains. As Sibley traversed the eastern half of present-day North Dakota, he couldn't simply jump in his Humvee and head down I-94. Instead, the general and his army of thousands were forced to march hundreds of miles through the drought stricken plains of 1863 Dakota Territory, far from reinforcements and the comforts of home.
But for a day at least, Sibley's army had a little respite from the trials and tribulations of cross-prairie travel. As the troops left Camp Smith on this date in 1863, they stumbled across an old trail left by Captain James Fisk, who had lead an emigrant train from Fort Abercrombie to Fort Walla Walla the year before. Even though Fisk's trail lead them from the relatively even prairie into much more rugged country full of high bluffs and deep ravines, the soldiers suspected the old route would direct them to an easily fordable patch in the Sheyenne River. Their hunch proved correct as the Fisk trail crossed the Sheyenne at a beautiful little ford surrounded by luxuriant trees and a number of elk. While many thought the river valley, with its fresh water, shade, fuel and game, a perfect spot for that evening's camp, Sibley's army marched out of the pleasant little wooded vale and back onto the scorched prairie.
Finally, after an eighteen mile trek, the army stopped for the evening and set up Camp Corning, named for Captain Corning, one of Sibley's quartermasters. In their journals, the soldiers noted that instead of pitching their tents by the Sheyenne River, with its fresh cool water and plenty of shade, the army chose to settle by what they termed a "miserable, nasty, muddy pond." Camp Corning was located near a source of water, but the watering hole was actually a small alkali lake with water so rancid it was entirely unfit for drinking. As a result, the soldier's were forced, after their hard day's march, to dig shallow pits in the mud near the pond's shores to fill their canteens; an infuriating job after a long march that left a fresh stream behind. But such was the fate of soldiers in the nineteenth century. As one of Sibley's men wrote of the day's frustrating events, a soldier was "only a step from the sublime to the ridiculous."
Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall
Daniels, Arthur M. A Journal of Sibley's Indian Expedition During the Summer of 1863 and Record of Troops Employed. Minneapolis: J.D. Thueson, 1980.
Pritchett, John Perry. "Notes and Documents on the March with Sibley in 1863: The Diary of Private Henry J. Hagadorn." North Dakota Historical Quarterly 5, no. 1 (1930): 103-129.
Snortland, J. Signe, ed. A Traveler's Companion to North Dakota State Historic Sites. Bismarck, ND: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 2002.