Dakota Datebook

The Man Behind the Fort

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Military forts established on America’s western frontier were often named in honor of military personnel – soldiers from enlisted men through generals. They commemorated individual for bravery, military record, death or wounds on the field of battle, or length of service. For example, Fort Lincoln in Texas in was named in 1848 for U.S. Infantry Captain George Lincoln, killed in action the previous year.

Often, through the consequence of forgotten history, contemporary audiences may never realize the reasons for a place’s name. Such is the case of Dakota Territory’s Fort McKeen, named on this date in 1872.

Pennsylvania native Henry Boyd McKean was a Civil War Union Army colonel and commander of the 81st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. McKeen was wounded three times – the first when he led his regiment in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Once back in action, he went on to lead his regiment at Gettysburg in the famous battle in the Wheatfield.

Following the death of his brigade commander, McKean took over, leading the troops in the Mine Run campaign, the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and finally and fatally at Cold Harbor, Virginia on June 3, 1864.

Cold Harbor’s frontal assault against an impregnable Confederate line was shocking in its brutality. The battle was one of the last and most costly of General’s Grant’s attempts to secure the road to Richmond for the Union. The Blue’s initial assault on the Grey was slightly less than an hour, but a bloody hour it was. Leading his brigade, McKean was shot through and perished. He was one of an estimated 7,000 union soldiers killed that day. The gentle-faced bearded officer was 29 years old.

Eight years later, in 1872, when the Northern Pacific reached the Missouri River in Dakota Territory, U.S. Infantry lieutenant colonel Daniel Huston established an infantry post to protect railway workers. Constructed on the west bank of the Missouri River, it was named for the young Pennsylvania commander and fellow infantryman, Henry Boyd McKean.

Fort McKeen would not last long. When General Sheridan visited the site later that year he ordered it moved five miles to the south on the bluffs overlooking the river. The personnel and mission also changed to include cavalry. The name of the first American president to die of assassination, Abraham Lincoln, who had presided over the horror of the War Between the States, was assigned to the new facility. Fort McKean became a footnote in history and Fort Abraham Lincoln entered western lore.

Dakota Datebook written by Steve Stark




Barnes, Jeff Stackpole Books, 2011 Great Plains Guide to Custer, The Forts, Fights and Other Sites




This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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