The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and the Battle of Acton

Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
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By Darryl Sannes

Minnesota Civil War

Commemoration Task Force

The Battle of Acton on Sept. 3, 1862, could have easily been the Massacre at Acton. Only through bravery and good fortune did the Battle of Acton turn out the way it did, resulting in it being the least studied and discussed battle of the six-week, U.S.-Dakota War. If circumstances and events had played out with slight changes, the results could have been dramatically different.

While many know about the attacks on Fort Ridgely and New Ulm, and the battles of Birch Coulee and Wood Lake, very little is known or written about Acton.

While Colonel Sibley left Fort Snelling on Aug. 26, 1862, with a force that would grow to about 1,600 men, a much smaller group left Minneapolis on the same day. This group of 65 men was under the command of Captain Richard Strout and had been ordered to advance to Glencoe, Minn., by way of Forest City in Meeker County. Their mission was to "protect settlers from Dakota attacks." Strout's men consisted of 20 new recruits from Company B of the Ninth Minnesota and 45 "citizen soldiers," from Hennepin County, mostly from Minneapolis. These men were inexperienced soldiers.

While Sibley took a direct route to the Minnesota River Valley and Fort Ridgely, Strout and his men made a round-about approach from the north. The thought was that the warring Dakota may send raiding parties from the Minnesota River valley up to the northeast. Strout's company moved through Brooklyn Township, Osseo, Dayton, Monticello and Clearwater, moving along the south side of the Mississippi River. Then they turned to the southwest and reached Forest City, in Meeker County, Aug. 29. After camping the next night in Hutchinson, they arrived in Glencoe, their objective, on Aug. 31.

Finding Glencoe uninhabited, for the most part, Captain Strout returned to Forest City where settlers had congregated, and to assist the local militia that had formed there. They headed to the northwest, staying in Cedar Mills on

Sept. 1, and then spent the next night in Acton Township. They camped next to the Robinson Jones farm, near the sight of the killings on Aug. 17, that had ignited the start of the Dakota War. To this point, Strout had seen no Dakota warriors, nor had received any reports of any sightings, or encounters. On the night of Sept. 2, Strout and his men went into camp feeling safe with the thought that any Dakota were many miles away.

However, during the day on Sept. 2, the Forest City Home Guard, under the command of Captain George Whitcomb, while patrolling on horseback southwest of Forest City in Acton Township, spotted a few Dakota warriors in the distance. Suddenly and without warning, about 150 Dakota sprang up from the grass in front of the patrol, and rifle and gun shots were exchanged. Vastly outnumbered, the home guard squad retreated and escaped back to Forest City. Upon arriving, a messenger from Strout's company was waiting and informed Whitcomb of the plan to camp that night at Acton. Whitcomb quickly realized that Strout and his company were in great peril with so many Dakota near his camp. Whitcomb asked for volunteers to ride that night to Acton to warn Strout. Three men of the Forest City Home Guard stepped forward-Jesse Branham, Thomas Holmes and Albert Sperry.

Milton Stubbs, a member of Strout's company, years later wrote in his account of the events, "Dear reader, can you imagine anything more courageous or unselfish than a ride of 25 miles through enemy country to warn their friends of danger?"

The three scouts rode through a moonless night and found Strout's camp sometime between midnight and 3 a.m. Strout was awakened and alerted of the proximity of the Dakota. Guards were quickly posted and the men prepared for a possible battle. Without this warning the Dakota raiding party, accompanied by Chief Little Crow, could have easily swept through the sleeping camp at first light, killing all of the men where they laid.

It was then that the soldiers made a horrible discovery. Most of the ammunition that they had brought from Fort Snelling was.62 caliber and would not fit their.59 caliber muskets. As Strout and his men set out on the early morning of Sept. 3, each man had only 20, "good" rounds. Any lengthy engagement with the Dakota would bring disaster.

The plan was to have the three exhausted scouts lead them back to Forest City by the route they had used overnight. Slightly less than two miles out, the scouts riding out ahead of the column spotted some of the Dakota hiding in the tall grass and in a wheat field. Strout brought all of his 65 men forward and put them ahead of the wagons which carried the supplies. As the soldiers approached, the Dakota rose up from their positions and fired. In the first few volleys, two of the soldiers were killed. Many others were wounded.

Within moments, Strout realized that the Dakota were not only in front of the company but were now attacking from all directions. Some of the Dakota were on foot and many were on horseback. Estimates range from 150 to 300 for the number of Dakota in the attack. Strout divided the company into four squads of equal number, each facing a different direction, with the wagons in the middle. Pressing the action forward Strout and his men reached the high ground of Kelley's Bluff. These men were not experienced, and A.H. Rose, a citizen soldier, later reported, "I had never fired a gun before the battle, but they showed me how to load, and I pointed my gun at the Indians, shut my eyes, and pulled the trigger."

Being greatly outnumbered and with limited ammunition, Strout knew that he could not stand and fight with his inexperienced soldiers. He ordered his front squad to fix bayonets and charge through the Dakota, while the entire company followed. The Dakota gave way and now they had a clear path of escape to the south.

As long as the company was moving south, rather than turn back toward Forest City, Strout decided to make a run for Hutchinson and the safety of the newly constructed stockade there. It was now a running battle, as the wagons kept moving, leading the way, the men, fired, ran, stopped and reloaded; fired and ran again.

During the run toward Hutchinson, a citizen soldier, was severely wounded and fell. Unable to run and without immediate help he was quickly overtaken by a Dakota warrior and killed. As men were wounded they jumped into the wagons to ride. To make room in the wagons, the wounded threw supplies out. They were surprised to see the Dakota stop to pick up whatever was thrown, giving the men on foot and wagons more time to escape. All of the wagons were soon emptied of supplies, but full of wounded and tired men.

The day before, at a large marshy area, the company had stopped to repair a corduroy road which served as the crossing. Without the work to the road the company could have easily been overtaken by the Dakota. They lost one team and two wagons, but no men.

The fight lasted for eight miles and over two hours, as the Dakota pressed them, but never got close enough to overtake the men and the wagons. The Dakota finally gave up in their pursuit of the company.

Strout, his men and the scouts made it to Hutchinson.  Their losses were three killed and 18 to 24 wounded. They also lost nine horses, two wagons and all their supplies. Dakota losses are not known.

The next day, the town of Hutchinson was attacked by a portion of the Dakota party Strout and his men had faced the day before. The stockade provided adequate protection, keeping the Dakota at bay, but a few settlers who had not sought the safety of the small fort were killed. The Dakota turned to the plundering of the town and the burning of buildings.

Strout and his men spent the winter of '62-'63 at the Hutchinson stockade. During that time, three of the men died of their wounds from the battle. The company was mustered into the army in November, trained through the winter and was moved to St. Peter in the spring, joining the rest of the company. They were sent south to fight in the Civil War in the fall of 1863.

Killed at the Battle of Acton

Alvah Getchell

George Gideon

Edwin Stone

Died of wounds at the Hutchinson Stockade

Frank Beadle

Abner Bennett

N.E. Weeks