Fort Ridgely learned of the attack on the Lower Sioux Agency on Monday, Aug. 18. Captain John Marsh, interpreter Peter Quinn and 46 men departed to investigate. Lt. Thomas Gere was left at the fort in command of 22 able-bodied men. Marsh found dead bodies along the road. Refugees told him to turn back. The agency was across the river above the Redwood Ferry. Redwood Ferry was about 12 miles from Fort Ridgely. Marsh arrived at the ferry about noon. White Dog was on the other side. He urged Marsh to cross over and have a council at the Agency. More than 300 warriors were concealed and waiting. Their plan was to cut the ferry rope as the soldiers were crossing and kill them as they floated down the river.
Sgt. John Bishop went to the river for water and saw signs that Indians were crossing upriver from them. He reported to Captain Marsh that he suspected an ambush. White Dog raised his gun and fired and immediately a volley of shots came from the brush across the river. About half the soldiers fell on the first volley, including Quinn. Indians rushed in from the rear. Hand-to-hand combat took place as each soldier tried to fight his way through the Indians.
Marsh, Bishop and others reached a thicket below the ferry. The Indians surrounded the thicket, yelling and shooting. About 4 p.m., Marsh decided to cross the river. He entered first, but near the center went down. Two men went after him but failed to rescue him. The first men from Marsh’s detachment reached Fort Ridgely Monday evening. In all, 24 men were killed by Indians. An unknown number of Indians were killed.
On Thursday, Aug. 28, Colonel Sibley’s army reached Fort Ridgely. Relatives of missing persons pressured Sibley to send out a search party to find survivors and bury or recover bodies. On Sunday, Aug. 31, Sibley sent out 170 men under Joseph R. Brown. They moved slowly upriver burying bodies as they went. At Redwood Ferry, they buried the dead of Captain Marsh’s detachment. They camped Sunday night near the mouth of Birch Coulee Creek.
On Monday, they divided. Some crossed the river and some continued up the north side of the river. Monday night, they camped on top of the bluff near Birch Coulee Creek. In two days, they had buried more than 80 bodies and found one woman still alive.
That night, Indians surrounded the camp. Just before dawn on Tuesday, a picket fired at an Indian. Indians immediately poured heavy fire into the camp. Many soldiers were killed or wounded in the first few minutes. Firing became irregular, an occasional volley, then scattering shots, and then for a time it would stop altogether; then heavy firing from a new direction.
When firing slowed, defenses were strengthened. Wagons were turned on their sides.
Men used bayonets, knives, tin cups and plates to dig shallow rifle pits. The Indians stayed hidden and shot at whatever moved. The Indians were afraid to charge the camp. They would have to cross over barricades. They knew the soldiers had bayonets and revolvers.
On Tuesday, a Fort Ridgely sentry, 16 miles away, heard the shooting. Sibley sent out men under Col. Samuel McPhail. Chief Mankato stopped McPhail’s advance. McPhail sent for reinforcements. Sibley and the remainder of his command came out from Fort Ridgely. About noon on Wednesday, Sibley approached Birch Coulee firing his cannons. The Indians withdrew.
In all, 17 soldiers were killed, 43 wounded and about 90 horses were killed. It is not known how many Indians were killed or wounded.
For more information on Fort Ridgely Historic Site and State Park visit the websites of Minnesota Historical Society, Minnesota DNR and Nicollet County Historical Society.