__The Last Boy in Blue tells a story of the first 24 hours of the
Dakota War.At dawn on August 18, 1862,
the eastern branch of the great Sioux nation—the Dakota—went to war with the United States to reclaim their hereditary
homeland in southern Minnesota.In the path of Chief Little Crow and his
warriors stood the 85 men and boys of Company B, Fifth Minnesota Infantry,
posted at Fort Ridgely
on the Minnesota River.The Dakota needed to take Fort Ridgely.The lives of the garrison, and of the hundreds
of refugees who had fled to the fort, balanced on the edge of a knife.
Fort Ridgley, 1862
Why tell this tale now,
in Chatfield?Because the men of Company
B came from Fillmore and Olmsted
Counties.Two thirds of them were from Chatfield.The story of their valor in the face of
almost certain annihilation is now nearly forgotten even in their home towns.It deserves to be told again, and this
summer, on the 150th anniversary of the event, it will be.
_It reads like a Hollywood
screen play. When Captain John Marsh, a
headstrong lawyer-turned-soldier from Preston, led out a detachment of troops
to investigate the first reports of the uprising, he left Second Lieutenant Tom
Gere at Fort Ridgely with 30 men, seven of them sick
in the post hospital. Tom Gere was the
scholarly, skinny son of a pioneer Chatfield family. On August 18, 1862 he was 19 years old. And he had the mumps. When Captain Marsh’s force was attacked by
the Dakota and Marsh and half of his detachment were killed, Gere, the teenage
officer, inherited command of the only military post between the Sioux and Fort Snelling,
one hundred miles away.
Like all good stories, this one has fascinating supporting characters. At Tom Gere’s side is a tough old regular army sergeant, an Englishman named John Jones, wounded in the Mexican War and now in charge of Fort Ridgely’s ammunition and artillery. Andrew Myrick, the despised trader who that summer had infamously told the starving Sioux that they “should eat grass,” makes an appearance. Margaret Hern, an army wife scratching out a hard living for her family at Fort Ridgely, joins the battle line alongside the men. Irish Lieutenant Timothy Sheehan commands the fifty men of Company C who race through the night in an attempt to reach and reinforce Fort Ridgely before the Dakota attack. And the whole story is told by Charley Culver, Company B’s 12 year-old drummer boy. Charles Marion Culver would live in Chatfield his entire life, and when he died at 93, he was the last surviving Civil War veteran in southeastern Minnesota: the “last boy in blue.”
_Although it centers on the young soldiers of Fort Ridgely,
Last Boy in Blue tells something of the Dakota as well. Before the Americans came, southern Minnesota had been the
home of the Dakota people for generations.
In 1851, faced with the overwhelming power and population of the westward
migrating whites, Dakota chiefs signed treaties conceding most of southern Minnesota to the United States. The Dakota were moved west to reservations on
the Minnesota River. In exchange for 20 million acres, the Dakota
were promised annual payments in money and food for fifty years.
But by 1862, many Dakota, particularly the young men of
military age, were convinced they had been cheated by the whites. And due to a shortage of game and the failure
of the 1861 corn crop, they were hungry as well. Then the 1862 treaty payment, due in July,
was delayed by wrangling in Washington. When the treaty money still had not arrived
by August 18, the young Dakota men of the “Soldiers Lodge” were fed up and
Little Crow, the most prominent of the Dakota chiefs, warned
the young men that war with the Americans was madness. But when it became clear that the young men
would have their war with or without the old chiefs, Little Crow agreed to lead
his people into their last battle.
The Dakota could not win a war with the United States. But they could overwhelm an isolated army
post garrisoned by a handful of inexperienced soldiers and commanded by a boy
officer. Tom Gere knew this. So did Little Crow. And on the morning of August 19, 1862, Little
Crow brought the Dakota to Fort
Ridgely to do just that.
This play isn’t Rodgers and Hammerstein. (We promise to return with a spectacular
musical in 2013.) It is a gripping, edge-of-your-seat story of real-life
heroism from southern Minnesota’s
past. Plan on joining us August 8-11 for Minnesota’s
unforgettable forgotten story: The
Last Boy in Blue.