Plains Folk

The Siege of Fort Abercrombie


You know how when you’ve been living with a project for a long time, you’re happy finally to move it off your desk. Which is what I did this week with a 101-page report to the National Park Service, its subject: the Siege of Fort Abercrombie, 1862.

Then I had to write an executive summary for the report, and I was reminded why I get myself into these messes in the first place. Before going further, I must mention that the report is mostly the product of my exceedingly able collaborator, Dr. Richard Rothaus. But I got to do a lot of the fun parts of research and writing on it.

The siege of Fort Abercrombie was the first episode of the Dakota War in Dakota Territory. Dakota warriors, akicita, attacked the federal outpost on the Red River during late summer and early fall of 1862. The Dakota campaign was assertively and artfully waged; the fort, garrisoned by Company D of the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry and a civilian company, was imperiled and nearly fell, but held out until relieved.

Investigating the siege for the American Battlefield Protection Program of the National Park Service was a learning experience for me. For one thing, the park service enjoins its researchers to deploy what is known as KOCOA analysis of the battlefield, an analytic template from military science that calls for going over the ground and identifying key features of the terrain. This fit nicely with my own predilection for boots-on-the-ground approaches to doing history.

We also were encouraged to think in terms of a venerable tradition in the practice of military history known as inherent military probability. In this line of thought, you are supposed to place yourself in the battle landscape, consider what you know from your sources, and then, as to what you don’t know, ask yourself: What would a trained military officer do in these circumstances?

Attempting this, we recognized something that was both a problem and an opportunity. There were no trained military officers in this battle! The defenders of Fort Abercrombie were raw recruits serving under elected officers. So, we had to ask, what would a grocer or a lawyer do in this situation?

And then, what about the Indian side? We had to consider, what would Dakota warriors do? And that led to another realization. The only trained military personnel on the scene, we realized, were the Dakota fighters, who had been training in martial traditions since the age of eight or so. They knew what they were doing.

To understand what went down, we invoked the doctrine known to historians as agency—the presumption that participants on both sides of the battle were capable of making, and did make, rational decisions, that they could formulate strategies and devise tactics suitable to the situation.

I mentioned that I got to do some of the fun parts of the work. For instance, I got to use and cite the research of my fine students, members of the Senior Seminar in History, who documented the men of Company D.

In addition, because Richard, despite his impressive expertise, doesn’t know much about guns, I got to write about the weaponry: .69 caliber smoothbore muskets, 12 gauge shotguns, and 12 pound mountain howitzers on the federal side, and the lack thereof on the Indian side.

By the way, the folks at Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site are putting together another great lineup of activities for the summer season, and so I encourage you to look them up in Facebook and visit the site.

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