Battle of Redwood Ferry

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The Battle of Redwood Ferry took place on August 18, 1862, on the first day of the Dakota War of 1862.

Battle of Redwood Ferry
Part of The Dakota War of 1862
Minnesotariver map
DateAugust 18, 1862
Location44°31′45″N 94°57′13″W / 44.52917°N 94.95361°W / 44.52917; -94.95361Coordinates: 44°31′45″N 94°57′13″W / 44.52917°N 94.95361°W / 44.52917; -94.95361
Result Santee Sioux Victory
Dakota (Santee Sioux)  United States
Commanders and leaders
White Dog Executed Disputed Captain John S. Marsh
Units involved
Unknown Co B, 5th Minnesota Infantry, Fort Ridgely
Unknown (more than 47) 47
Casualties and losses
Unknown (1 confirmed) 24 killed, 1 drowned, 5 wounded


At 10 am on August 18, 1862, word of the attack at the Lower Sioux Agency reached Fort Ridgely. Captain John S. Marsh heard news of the killings from J.C. Dickinson, the agency boarding house manager, who had escaped with his family by ferry and had arrived at Fort Ridgely in a wagon.[1] The news that Dakota warriors were attacking settlers and agency staff was soon confirmed by the arrival of more refugees bringing a wounded man.[2]

Captain Marsh decided to go to the rescue at once. The long roll was sounded and the garrison was under arms.[2] Marsh immediately sent Corporal James C. McLean with a message for Lieutenant Timothy Sheehan, who had left Fort Ridgely the day before with 50 men of Company C, 5th Minnesota Infantry Regiment, en route to Fort Ripley. Captain Marsh's message urged Sheehan to return with his command immediately.[1]

Within 30 minutes, Marsh left the agency with 46 enlisted men from Company B of the 5th Minnesota Infantry Regiment and interpreter Peter Quinn on a march toward the Lower Sioux Agency. Marsh and Quinn rode mules. The other men marched for three miles until they were overtaken by wagon teams that had departed Fort Ridgely after them, then boarded the wagons.[2]

Meanwhile, 19-year-old Lieutenant Thomas P. Gere was left to hold the fort with only 22 soldiers available for active duty, as the rest were sick or on hospital detail. He was supported by Post Sutler Ben H. Randall, Ordnance Sergeant John Jones, and the surgeon, Dr. Alfred Müller, who helped Gere deal with the sudden influx of refugees at Fort Ridgely.[1]

On the road, Captain Marsh and the soldiers encountered many settlers fleeing for their lives. One of the refugees was Reverend Samuel D. Hinman, who warned Marsh of the severity of the attacks and that he and his men would be outnumbered if they went all the way to Redwood Ferry.[1]

Six miles from Fort Ridgely, Marsh and his men passed houses that were in flames, and saw numerous corpses of men, women and children "not yet cold" on the side of the road. Captain Marsh continued undeterred toward Redwood Ferry.[2]

In Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, General Lucius Frederick Hubbard wrote: "Still in the hope that all this was the work of some desperate band of outlaws among the Sioux, and strangely confident that it was in his power to quell the disturbance, Capt. Marsh, again forming his command on foot, hurried on."[2]


Historical marker at Redwood Ferry

What exactly transpired in the vicinity of Redwood Ferry is unclear. The ensuing battle would leave Captain John S. Marsh drowned, 24 soldiers killed, including his interpreter, and five wounded.

About three miles from the Lower Sioux Agency, Marsh and his men reached Faribault Hill, and descended the road.[2] About one mile from the ferry, they left their wagons behind and crossed a small stream.[1] Halfway across, they paused to rest, then proceeded in single file toward the ferry house, which stood two hundred feet east of the ferry landing.[2]

Near the landing, which was on the east bank of the Minnesota River, the grass was thick with heavy growth of hazel and willow brush on either side of the road. Dozens of Dakota warriors were hiding in the grass, waiting with guns ready.[2]

Stopping at the ferry house shortly after 12 noon, they found the ferryboat conveniently moored there. Survivors of the ambush would later reflect that the Dakota were probably waiting for them to board the boat, where they would have been an easy target.[1] The soldiers had found the corpse of the dead ferryman on the side of road on their way to the landing.[2]

Role of White Dog[edit]

Across the river, they saw White Dog (Śuŋkaska), who was known as a "cut hair" Dakota,[1] standing on the bluff on the west bank.[3] He had previously overseen the farmer Dakota at the Lower Sioux Agency, until he was replaced by Taopi.[4] They also spotted a few Dakota women and children on the bluff.[2] John Magner, a soldier in Marsh's command who knew White Dog well, later testified that that White Dog had been holding a large tomahawk and was "all painted over red" on his face and head. The red paint generally signified a willingness to die in war.[3]

Marsh began a conversation with White Dog through Quinn.[2] Quinn asked White Dog why he seemed so "out of character," to which White Dog replied that he had brought the tomahawk "to smoke."[3] He reassured Marsh and Quinn that he did not intend to fight and that there would be no trouble.[5]

White Dog then invited Marsh to cross the river in the ferry for a council. White Dog himself would later confirm this much at his trial after the war.[5]

Some sources later accused White Dog of deliberately prolonging his exchange with Marsh to allow the other Dakota to ford the river upstream, take cover in the thicket, and take control of the ferry house.[5] Magner reported that Marsh had instructed him to look upriver for movements, when he saw in the river and in the weeds to the north that "the place was red with their heads." Marsh then ordered his men to retreat.[3]

White Dog then appeared to give the signal for the Dakota warriors to shoot, killing twelve and wounding many more.[5][3]

Prior to his execution, White Dog stated to Reverend Stephen Return Riggs that after inviting Marsh to cross the river, he spotted the warriors lying in wait for an ambush, and gestured to Marsh to stay back. White Dog also denied telling the Dakota warriors to fire. He complained bitterly that he did not have a chance to tell the whole story, and that he and others had not had fair trials.[5] However, most sources seem to contradict White Dog's version of events.[3][6]

Exchange of fire[edit]

Marsh and his men made no move to cross the river. Suddenly, a single shot rang out. The Indians sprang up from the bushes and trees where they had been hidden. Quinn and twelve soldiers were killed. Marsh's mule was killed but he rallied his men for a volley at the warriors who had taken over the ferryhouse behind him. They then moved to the Faribault cabin, at the bottom of "Faribault Hill".

Escape downstream[edit]

Cut off on three sides, Marsh then led his men along a thicket extending two miles downstream. As they reached the end of the brush, they could see Indians blocking their path back to the fort.

Marsh then decided that their only choice was to cross the river and started to lead his men across. Although he was a strong swimmer, he had a cramp and drowned, pulled under by the swift current. The Indians apparently thought that Marsh and the remaining 16 men had crossed successfully, so they hid in a dam, ready to ambush.


McLean was able to relay message and Lt. Sheehan with C Company returned to reinforce the beleaguered outpost.

The surviving members of Company B made their way back towards Fort Ridgely. As it was getting dark, Lt. Bishop sent Privates James Dunn and William B. Hutchinson to Ridgely to tell the post commander what happened. They arrived at Ridgely at 2200 hours. The remaining men returned to the fort on August 20.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Carley, Kenneth (1976). The Dakota War of 1862: Minnesota's Other Civil War. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press. pp. 15–16, 26. ISBN 978-0-87351-392-0.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Narrative of the Fifth Regiment". Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, 1861-1865. St. Paul: Printed for the state by the Pioneer Press Co. 1890–93.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Anderson, Gary Clayton (2019). Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 98, 303. ISBN 978-0-8061-6434-2.
  4. ^ Quinn, George (1898). Carley, Kenneth (ed.). "As Red Men Viewed It: Three Indian Accounts of the Uprising". Minnesota History (published September 1962). 38: 3. JSTOR 20176459.
  5. ^ a b c d e Folwell, William Watts (1921). A History of Minnesota. Vol. 2. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press. p. 113.
  6. ^ In 1898, George Quinn (Wakonkdayamanne) told historian Return Ira Holcombe that all the Indians he had spoken to said that White Dog had told Captain Marsh to stay back, but that he himself was unsure what to believe. (Quinn and Carley (ed.), "As Red Men Viewed It")

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