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Fort Snelling in the Civil and U.S.–Dakota Wars, 1861–1866

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Black and white photograph of an exterior view of Fort Snelling showing the Round Tower, 1863.

Exterior view of Fort Snelling showing the Round Tower, 1863.

During the Civil War era, Fort Snelling served as an induction and training center for nearly twenty-five thousand soldiers. Many of them fought in the Civil War. Around fourteen hundred of the troops raised at the fort served in the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862. After that war, a concentration camp for Dakota non-combatants was established near the fort. Following the Civil War, the fort supported U.S. military expeditions against American Indians and the garrisoning of western posts.

When the Civil War began, Minnesota re-opened Fort Snelling as a training center for new recruits. The fort had several commandants throughout the period. The First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first unit recruited at the fort in April of 1861.

While at the post, recruits learned the basics of soldiering. They spent the majority of their time marching, drilling with their weapons, and standing guard duty. After the draft began in 1863, several wooden barracks were built outside the fort's walls to accommodate the large number of new soldiers. At times, there were so many soldiers at the fort that some lived in tents.

Once a military unit's term of service ended, Fort Snelling served as its mustering-out point. In total, Minnesota recruited twenty-one military units during the Civil War, totaling about twenty-five thousand soldiers.

When the U.S.–Dakota War began in August of 1862, a number of U.S. regiments were being recruited at Fort Snelling. Colonel Henry Sibley assembled four infantry companies at the fort to march against the Dakota. Later, eight more companies and some mounted militia organized at the fort and joined Sibley at St. Peter.

When the U.S.–Dakota War ended, about sixteen hundred Dakota and mixed-race non-combatants (mostly women, children, and the elderly) were removed to Fort Snelling. They were held in a concentration camp—a place where people are confined, often in poor conditions, without regard to legal norms of arrest—during the winter of 1862–1863 to await expulsion from the state. The camp was enclosed by a stockade and located on the river bottom below the fort in present-day Fort Snelling State Park.

According to eye-witness accounts, Dakota prisoners suffered assaults and violence at the hands of soldiers and white civilians. Conditions in the camp were poor. The Dakota lacked sufficient food. Outbreaks of mumps, measles, and pneumonia killed many. It is estimated that between 130 and three hundred Dakota died in the camp.

In April of 1863, a steamer carrying Dakota men who had been imprisoned at Mankato made a quick stop at Fort Snelling. U.S. soldiers kept the Dakota men from reuniting with their families in the camp. The Dakota men were removed to a military prison in Davenport, Iowa, where the threat of mob violence was less. In May of 1863, the Dakota who had survived the winter in the concentration camp were removed to the Crow Creek Reservation. In addition, over two thousand Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) were briefly held at Fort Snelling before being removed from the state.

After the U.S.-Dakota War, the Dakota leaders Sakpedan (Little Six; "Shakopee III"), and Wakanozhanzhan (Medicine Bottle) were imprisoned at Fort Snelling. A military commission convicted them of murdering civilians and participating in the war. Both men were executed at Fort Snelling on November 11, 1865.

From the summer of 1863 through 1866, troops mustered in and out of the Army at Fort Snelling. It also functioned as a supply base for operations against Dakota who had moved west. The army conducted three “punitive expeditions” into Dakota Territory that targeted Dakota who were deemed “hostile” by the U.S. government. Soldiers recruited at Fort Snelling participated in all three expeditions.

The first two expeditions resulted in battles and attacks on American Indian villages. The vast majority of American Indians involved in these conflicts were Lakota and had not participated in the U.S.–Dakota War. The final punitive expedition in 1865 failed to engage any Dakota. Many of the teamsters who served on the 1863 expedition were recently freed African American men. Many of them enlisted in the United States Colored Troops.

Until 1866, Minnesota troops garrisoned western posts. That year, Brackett’s Battalion of cavalry was the last Civil War-era unit to muster out of service at Fort Snelling.

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Anderson, Gary Clayton, and Alan R. Woolworth, eds. Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988.

Bachman, Walt. Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey. Bloomington, MN: Pond Dakota Press, 2013.

Beck, Paul N. Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863–1864. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

Board of Commissioners, comps. Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, 1861–1865. 2 Vols. St. Paul: Pioneer Press Company, 1899.

Carley, Kenneth. The Dakota War of 1862. 2nd ed. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.

——— . Minnesota in the Civil War. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000.

Clemmons, Linda M. Conflicted Mission: Faith, Disputes, and Deception on the Dakota Frontier. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2014.

Clodfelter, Michael. The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862–1865. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998.

A/.S814 and A/+S814
Franklin Steele Papers, 1839–1888
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence and financial records of Fort Snelling sutler and Minnesota businessman, Franklin Steele.

Historic Fort Snelling. The Civil War (1861–1865).
http://www.historicfortsnelling.org/history/military-history/civil-war

Historic Fort Snelling. U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
http://www.historicfortsnelling.org/history/us-dakota-war

Monjeau-Marz, Corinne. The Dakota Indian Internment at Fort Snelling, 1862–1864. St. Paul: Prairie Smoke Press, 2006.

——— , and Stephen E. Osman. “What You May Not Know About the Fort Snelling Indian Camps.” Minnesota’s Heritage, No. 7 (January 2013): 112–133.

Millikan, William. “The Great Treasure of the Fort Snelling Prison Camp.” Minnesota History 62, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 4–17.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/62/v62i01p004-017.pdf

Newson, Mary Jeannette. “Memories of Fort Snelling in Civil War Days.” Minnesota History 15, no. 4 (December 1934): 395–404.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/15/v15i04p395-404.pdf

Osman, Stephen E. “Flesh and Blood Can Only Stand So Much: Doctor Potts Examines the Recruits.” Minnesota’s Heritage, no. 5 (January 2012): 73.

——— . "General Sibley's Contraband Teamsters." Minnesota's Heritage, No. 7 (January 2013): 54–74.

The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
http://usdakotawar.org/
Editor’s Note: See the U.S.-Dakota War timeline and Oral History Project, which contains interviews with descendants of Dakota survivors.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Holocaust Encyclopedia, Concentration Camps, 1933–1939.
https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005263

United States Office of Indian Affairs. Census of Dakota Indians Interned at Fort Snelling After the Dakota War in 1862. Washington, D.C.: United States Office of Indian Affairs, [1862].

United States War Department. Revised Regulations of 1861. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1863.

Wingerd, Mary. North Country: The Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of an exterior view of Fort Snelling showing the Round Tower, 1863.
Black and white photograph of an exterior view of Fort Snelling showing the Round Tower, 1863.
Black and white photograph of Dr. Thomas R. Potts, c.1855. Potts was the assistant surgeon and medical purveyor at Fort Snelling during the Civil War.
Black and white photograph of Dr. Thomas R. Potts, c.1855. Potts was the assistant surgeon and medical purveyor at Fort Snelling during the Civil War.
Officers of the First Minnesota Volunteers
Officers of the First Minnesota Volunteers
Second Minnesota Volunteer Infantry standing in front of the Long Barracks
Second Minnesota Volunteer Infantry standing in front of the Long Barracks
Company E, Eighth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, Fort Snelling
Company E, Eighth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, Fort Snelling
Sketch of soldiers’ barracks at Fort Snelling, c.1862, by Albert Colgrave.
Sketch of soldiers’ barracks at Fort Snelling, c.1862, by Albert Colgrave.
Black and white photograph of the the Dakota concentration camp on the river flats below Fort Snelling, c.1862–1863.
Black and white photograph of the the Dakota concentration camp on the river flats below Fort Snelling, c.1862–1863.
Black and white photograph of two Dakota women at the Fort Snelling concentration camp, c.1862–1863. Photograph by Joel Emmons Whitney.
Black and white photograph of two Dakota women at the Fort Snelling concentration camp, c.1862–1863. Photograph by Joel Emmons Whitney.
Black and white photograph of Apistoka at Fort Snelling concentration camp, c.1862–1863. Photograph by Benjamin Franklin Upton.
Black and white photograph of Apistoka at Fort Snelling concentration camp, c.1862–1863. Photograph by Benjamin Franklin Upton.
Black and white photograph of wo Dakota men at the Fort Snelling concentration camp, c.1862–1863. Photograph by Benjamin Franklin Upton.
Black and white photograph of wo Dakota men at the Fort Snelling concentration camp, c.1862–1863. Photograph by Benjamin Franklin Upton.
Black and white photograph of a Dakota boy at the concentration camp below Fort Snelling, 1863. Photograph by Whitney’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of a Dakota boy at the concentration camp below Fort Snelling, 1863. Photograph by Whitney’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of Ho-Chunk leader, Winneshiek II, likely at Fort Snelling, 1863
Black and white photograph of Ho-Chunk leader, Winneshiek II, likely at Fort Snelling, 1863
Graphite drawing of Fort Snelling, 1863.
Graphite drawing of Fort Snelling, 1863.
Black and white photograph of Colonel George N. Morgan, 1863. Morgan was the second commandant of Fort Snelling during the Civil War.
Black and white photograph of Colonel George N. Morgan, 1863. Morgan was the second commandant of Fort Snelling during the Civil War.
Black and white photograph of Colonel George McLaren, c.1864. McLaren was a commandant of Fort Snelling during the Civil War.
Black and white photograph of Colonel George McLaren, c.1864. McLaren was a commandant of Fort Snelling during the Civil War.
Black and white photograph of some members of the First Minnesota Mounted Rangers in front of temporary barracks outside the walls of Fort Snelling, 1864.
Black and white photograph of some members of the First Minnesota Mounted Rangers in front of temporary barracks outside the walls of Fort Snelling, 1864.
Black and white photograph of General George N. Morgan reviewing Veteran Reserve Corps troops at Fort Snelling, 1864.
Black and white photograph of General George N. Morgan reviewing Veteran Reserve Corps troops at Fort Snelling, 1864.
Black and white photograph the south side of Fort Snelling showing the gatehouse and shops, c.1864.
Black and white photograph the south side of Fort Snelling showing the gatehouse and shops, c.1864.
Black and white photograph of Fort Snelling, c.1865.
Black and white photograph of Fort Snelling, c.1865.
Black and white photograph of Dakota leader Sakpedan (Little Six, “Shakopee III”) at Fort Snelling, 1864.
Black and white photograph of Dakota leader Sakpedan (Little Six, “Shakopee III”) at Fort Snelling, 1864.
Black and white photograph of Dakota Leader Wakanozhanzhan (Medicine Bottle) at Fort Snelling, 1864.
Black and white photograph of Dakota Leader Wakanozhanzhan (Medicine Bottle) at Fort Snelling, 1864.

Turning Point

On April 13, 1861, Fort Sumter surrenders to Confederate States forces. The next day, Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey volunteers one thousand men for federal service. Fort Snelling re-opens as an induction and training center for Minnesota recruits.

Chronology

April 29, 1861

The First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment musters in at Fort Snelling.

August 18, 1862

Dakota warriors attack the Lower Sioux Agency, formally beginning the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862.

November 7, 1862

Dakota non-combatant prisoners are forcibly removed from the Lower Sioux Agency. They arrive at Fort Snelling six days later.

Winter 1862

Approximately sixteen hundred Dakota people are held in a concentration camp below Fort Snelling, where they remain until the spring of 1863. They are guarded by elements of the Sixth, Seventh, and Tenth Infantry regiments.

April 21–22, 1863

The steamer Favorite, carrying Dakota men who have been imprisoned at Mankato, stops at Fort Snelling. Dakota families are kept from reuniting by U.S. soldiers.

May 4, 1863

The Dakota at Fort Snelling begin to board steamers. The next day, they leave for the Crow Creek Reservation in Dakota Territory.

May 9, 1863

Approximately two thousand Ho-Chunk are briefly held at Fort Snelling before being removed, on May 10, to the Crow Creek Reservation in Dakota Territory.

Summer 1863

Troops recruited at Fort Snelling garrison western posts and participate in the first punitive expedition against the Dakota.

Late 1863

African American men from Minnesota begin to enlist in the U.S. Army. Many have served as teamsters in Sibley’s army during the first punitive expedition.

Summer 1864

Troops recruited at Fort Snelling continue garrison duty in western parts of the state and participate in a second punitive expedition into Dakota Territory.

August 1864

The Eleventh Minnesota Volunteer Infantry is the last Civil War unit recruited at Fort Snelling. Recruitment continues through September.

Summer 1865

Fort Snelling supports a third punitive expedition into Dakota Territory.

November 11, 1865

After being convicted by a military commission, Dakota leaders Sakpedan (“Shakopee III”; Little Six) and Wakanozhanzhan (Medicine Bottle) are executed outside the walls of Fort Snelling.

May 1866

The men of Brackett’s Battalion are the last Civil War soldiers mustered out of the army at Fort Snelling, a process that continues into June.