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The Last Quiet Day

8/19/2015:

On this date in 1862, the Civil War was raging. Battles had recently been fought at Memphis, Gaines Mill, and Malvern Hill. But at Fort Abercrombie in North Dakota, it was just another dull day of sentry duty, herding cattle, and hauling water. The Gateway to the West was far from the combat -- no trouble of any kind, and no sign of trouble to come. Many of the soldiers thought longingly of their comrades in arms who were engaged in gallant battles back east, but little did they know that August 19th would be their last quiet day for some time to come.

Joe Demerais, the post interpreter, came galloping into the fort on August 20th. He had been in Minnesota where he saw how angry the Dakota were about the failure of the government to deliver promised annuities, and he realized that violence could easily break out. The Dakota were starving and desperate, and Demerais reported that an uprising was imminent.

Captain Vander Horck, commander of the fort, thought Demerais was overstating the danger. He was unaware that fighting had already broken out and people on both sides had already been killed. But he began to make preparations nonetheless. He recalled a detachment that had been sent to Georgetown. Guards were doubled, and he sent messengers into the countryside to urge civilians to take shelter at the fort.

At the time, Fort Abercrombie did not look like a frontier fort out of a John Wayne movie. There were only a few buildings and no protective stockade. The armaments consisted of muskets and three mountain howitzers. The previous July, one traveler noted that “this fort, or rather post, is not sufficiently compact to repel Indians….”

The soldiers hurriedly made barriers out of cordwood, barrels, and anything else they could find. And on September 3rd, the first serious attack came when the Dakota ran off the livestock. Another attack came on September 6th. Artillery fire broke up that attack. Although food and ammunition were running low, the defenders held out until reinforcements arrived on September 23rd. Many of the soldiers who had previously longed for the thrill of combat no doubt looked forward to days when the only excitement would be the arrival of the stagecoach.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Sources:

Reid, Russell, Editor. North Dakota History. Bismarck: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1957.

Johnson, Roy. Red River Valley. Moorhead: Red River Valley Historical Society, 1982.

Friends of Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site. "http://www.ftabercrombie.org/the-siege-of-fort-abercrombie.html" http://www.ftabercrombie.org/the-siege-of-fort-abercrombie.html Accessed 27 May, 2015.

State Historical Society of North Dakota. "http://www.history.nd.gov/historicsites/abercrombie/abercrombiehistory2.html" http://www.history.nd.gov/historicsites/abercrombie/abercrombiehistory2.html Accessed 27 May, 2015.