Fort Ridgely was built in 1853 as a military outpost to maintain peace along the Dakota Indian reservation. It was a relatively small and quiet garrison until 1862 when became the focal point of the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. Below is an excerpt from Thy Eternal Summer and the main character’s first encounter with Fort Ridgely.
The fort was unlike anything I had expected. I had imagined it would be smaller than Fort Snelling, but what I came upon hardly appeared to qualify as a fort. What struck me most was that there was no stockade, no breastwork, and no protecting walls. This so-called fort was exposed without any defenses. The location of the garrison did not prove itself to be much better. The fort sat on a plateau about one hundred fifty feet above the Minnesota River and about one half mile north of it. It was surrounded on three sides by deep wooded ravines which acted as perfect points of concealment for any enemy to cleverly exploit. To the northwest of the fort was a wide and vast prairie from which enemies could pour in. The fort did not appear, by any means, well adapted to repel attack.
“Welcome,” came the stern voice of a rather fine looking officer. “I am Lt. Thomas Gere, acting officer in charge.”
I assumed Lt. Gere had replaced the fallen Lt. Marsh. Few of his men returned alive, and I was told Captain Marsh drowned trying to ford the river.
“In that direction you will find the barracks,” Lt. Gere said with his arm held straight out. “You will find shelter there among the other refugees.”
The barracks were a long, stone building on the north end of the parade ground. It was the largest building and one of just two made from stone. Just to the west of the barracks was the other stone building which appeared to be the commissary or storehouse. South of the storehouse were two wood frame buildings, one of which appeared to be the fort headquarters. The south end of the parade ground was left mostly open. To the east were more wood frame buildings, which I gathered to be the officer’s quarters. Beyond the main parade ground, there were many varied outbuildings. In the south were the stables for housing horses, mule, and oxen. In the far northwest was the magazine for housing additional ammunition, cartridges and field pieces. Just behind the barracks were a number of small log homes. These did not seem to serve any military purpose and must have been quarters for families of the officers and privates. Off to the west, beyond the commissary, was the sutler’s store where the privates could obtain personal supplies.
“The circumstances at the fort are somewhat dire,” explained Lt. Gere as he led us to the barracks. “Firstly, and as you may well know, the regular army had previously been ordered south in order to fight the Rebel army and preserve the Union. Therefore our humble garrison is stationed with Minnesota’s volunteer regiments.”
Lt. Gere himself was commanding Company B of 5th Minnesota Infantry.
“To make circumstances worse,” he continued, although I could not understand why he felt compelled to share such negative news, “the fort’s numbers are considerably low at the moment, thus making us vulnerable to attack. “Not only did we lose many good men during the ambush on Lt. Marsh, but just two days ago Lt. Timothy Sheehan had been ordered back to Fort Ripley along with fifty men.”
“Fifty men!” I said with surprise.
“Yes,” said Lt. Gere. “But thankfully Lt. Marsh had the presence of mind to send a messenger after Lt. Sheehan the moment he learned of the outbreak. It is my hope that he will return, along with his men, shortly, but until he does the fort has only thirty-five active and healthy soldiers.”
This news was painfully distressing, but completely outside of my control.
“You will find rest here,” Lt. Gere said as we finally reached the barracks. “However, we ask that all able-bodied men assist in defense of the fort, if necessary, by any means possible. An attack,” he said, “could happen at any moment.”
We entered the long, two story stone building to find that it was filled with people. The floor, the beds, the hallway, everywhere I looked, there was a refugee whose life just days ago seemed serene. There must have been close to three hundred people in a building meant to house only fifty men. I could not move forward without stepping over a woman with her child or a man turned over and unconscious with sleep. The whole scene was a chaotic mess of displaced people, most of whom were women and children. Despite the huge number of people, the building was surprisingly quiet. There were a few people milling around in search of water or food or somewhere to rest, and there was the sound of mothers soothing and hushing their infant children, but the majority of the building was still. But it was not a pleasant stillness. It felt more like gloom or despair.