Thursday, March 21, 2013

Private Charles Duncan, Fort Abercrombie, Dakota Territory, 1864-66 - Gard Line

Charles Duncan’s life is a microcosm of the frontier experience in nineteenth-century America.  Born in Iowa County, Wisconsin, in 1847, to Robert and Rachel (Gard) Duncan, he moved with his family to New Auburn, Minnesota, at a time when Minnesota was still a territory, not a state.  The Sioux Indians (also referred to as the Dakota) were dominant in the area.  Treaties between the Dakota and the United States had sometimes been broken by the government, and finally, roused with anger, the Indians entered upon violent attacks not only on military sites such as Fort Abercrombie, but also on white settlers, including women, children, and even infants.
            Mrs. Justin Kreiger, an eyewitness to some of the violence, told what the settlers were up against:
"Mr. Massipost had two daughters, young ladies, intelligent and accomplished. These the savages murdered most brutally. The head of one of them was afterward found, severed from the body, attached to a fish-hook, and hung upon a nail. His son, a young man of twenty-four years, was also killed. Mr. Massipost and a son of eight years escaped to New Ulm. . . . The daughter of Mr. Schwandt, enceinte [pregnant], was cut open, as was learned afterward, the child taken alive from the mother, and nailed to a tree. The son of Mr. Schwandt, aged thirteen years, who had been beaten by the Indians, until dead, as was supposed, was present, and saw the entire tragedy. He saw the child taken alive from the body of his sister, Mrs. Waltz, and nailed to a tree in the yard. It struggled some time after the nails were driven through it! This occurred in the forenoon of Monday, 18th of August, 1862."
Fortunately, Charles’s father, Robert Duncan, had made friends with some of the Sioux, who warned him to leave the area before the all-out assault began in what would come to be called the Dakota War of 1862.  This allowed Robert to get the family to the relative safety of Fort Snelling in eastern Minnesota and almost certainly saved their lives.  In December, thirty-eight Sioux were hanged at Fort Snelling for rape and murder of settlers.  More than 300 had actually been sentenced to death, but President Lincoln had commuted all the death sentences except for the thirty-eight. 
            About a year later in the fall of 1863, the U.S. soldiers operating out of Fort Abercrombie attacked Little Crow and a band of warriors near the Pembina River, resulting in the surrender of the leader and about 200 of his warriors, who were held at Pembina, a military outpost at the confluence of the Red River and the Pembina River very close to the Canadian border.   Early in 1864, Little Six and Medicine Bottle were also captured and delivered to Pembina, and late in February Major Joseph R. Brown set out with the captive Indians (all except Little Six and Medicine Bottle) for Fort Snelling.          
The records show that at about this same time, on February 27, 1864, still four months shy of his sixteenth birthday, Charles Duncan fudged on his enlistment papers, saying he was seventeen (the required age for military service) and enlisted with the Independent Battalion Volunteers, Cavalry Co. D (Hatch’s Company).  In March, he was mustered into the Army and in August was sent with his company to Fort Abercrombie where they were under orders to patrol the area near Red River (today the boundary between North Dakota and Minnesota).  According to Fort Abercrombie’s web site, “Minnesota Volunteer soldiers manned the fort when area settlers sought shelter there. The ‘regular’ U.S. Army soldiers had been withdrawn during the Civil War and had been replaced by the Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.”
Winter conditions in the area were (and are) extremely bitter, and in February 1865, a year after his enlistment, the records show that Charles had to be treated for exposure to the elements.  In November of that year the monthly muster documents show that Charles was assigned to be on “Special Duty” to Fort Abercrombie’s quartermaster, a position he held until April, the same month when President Lincoln was assassinated.
The Civil War over, Charles Duncan, who had initially enlisted for a period of three years, continued to serve at Fort Abercrombie until his honorable discharge in May 1866.  The Fort Abercrombie web site lists the various activities the fort supported.  It “guarded the oxcart trails of the later fur trade era, military supply wagon trains, stagecoach routes, and steamboat traffic on the Red River. It also was a supply base for two major gold-seeking expeditions across Dakota into Minnesota . . . and served as a hub for several major transportation routes through the northern plains.”  The Dakota War and these various activities all typify the America of the 1860s and give us a glimpse, through Charles Duncan’s eyes, of what life was like at those times.  And in those eyes it is possible to catch a glimpse of both the terror and the hope of the times. 


“Charles A. Duncan’s Service: Hatch's Independent Battalion, Minnesota Cavalry Dakota Territory, February 1864-June 1866.”  n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2013.

“Dakota War of 1812.” Wikipedia.  2013.  Web.  21 Mar 2013.
Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site. 2013. Web. 21 Mar 2013.

“Fort Abercrombie State Historical Site.”  Wahpeton-Breckenridge Chamber of Commere. n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2013.
“Fort Snelling.”  Wikipedia.  22 Mar. 2013.  Web.  22 Mar. 2013.
Hubbard, Lucius Frederick, et al.  “Hatch’s Independent Battalion of Cavalry.” Minnesota in Three Centuries: 1655-1908. Vol. 3. 1908. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. 

© Eileen Cunningham, 2013


No comments:

Post a Comment

Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney and Lord of Shetland

Robert Stewart (1553-1593) Robert Stewart, Earl of Caithness and Orkney (1553-93),  was a natural son of King James V of Scotland by E...