Life on a frontier army post in the 19th century was filled with hardships. For the men of the 1st US Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Fort Rice, one bright, but fleeting diversion came in the form of a 21-year-old woman named Elizabeth Cardwell.
Raised in Virginia, Elizabeth married Patrick Cardwell shortly before he joined the Confederate Army. Once her husband enlisted, she refused to remain behind on their Virginia farm. She followed Patrick and his regiment throughout the war, even when he was captured and sent to a Union prison camp. There Patrick was offered a unique opportunity; the chance to leave prison, don a Union uniform and serve out west as part of a contingent of former Confederate soldiers known as Galvanized Yankees. Patrick accepted, but once again, Elizabeth refused to be left behind. When the "galvanized" regiment made preparations to leave for Fort Rice in Dakota Territory, Elizabeth secured permission to go along.
By this date in 1864, Elizabeth and the men of the 1st US Volunteers had travelled to St Louis and boarded a riverboat for the final 600 mile voyage to Fort Rice. But low water in the Missouri River forced the soldiers to abandon the boat nearly 300 miles short of their final destination; they would have to walk the rest of the way. As the only woman traveling with the regiment, Elizabeth could have ridden in one of the wagons. She instead chose to walk the 272 miles alongside her husband. Her fortitude proved an inspiration for the long column of foot-sore soldiers; making her an instant heroine.
Once they arrived at Fort Rice, life was fairly pleasant for the young couple. They lived in private quarters and Elizabeth easily made friends with the five other women living at the fort. By July 2 of 1865, Elizabeth had given birth to a daughter; the first white child born at Fort Rice. For the men of the 1st US Volunteers who had endured extreme temperatures, disease, and numerous deaths over the winter months, the birth announcement was a glorious kick-off to the Fourth of July festivities. But within days, their joy turned to sorrow.
The effects of malnutrition from the previous winter claimed two more victims. Elizabeth Cardwell died on July 9th, followed a few hours later by her daughter. The entire post was grief-stricken. Both officers and men honored Elizabeth with a solemn procession as though she had been a member of the regiment. For days, the mood at the post remained subdued; the death of Elizabeth and her child had affected them more deeply than any of the previous losses of their comrades. The fort newspaper later reported, "Thus passed away the young mother and her infant like a dream of the morning...We shall never forget how heroically she endured the fatigue of the march...to Fort Rice."
Dakota Datebook written by Christina Sunwall
Brown, D. Alexander. The Galvanized Yankees. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963.
Butts, Michèle Tucker. Galvanized Yankees on the Upper Missouri: The Face of Loyalty Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2003.
"Death at the Fort." Frontier Scout July 13, 1865, 3. http://history.nd.gov/archives/frontierscout.html.