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  • Dale C. Maley

Story of a local Civil War unit

Most Fairbury men who served in the Civil War were in two primary units.

The largest unit was the Illinois 129th Infantry Company E. About 103 of the 301 total men who served in the Civil War were in Company E. This unit saw many battles geographically south of Illinois. They fought at Vicksburg and also went down to the state of Mississippi. Company E was assigned to participate in General Sherman's March to the Sea campaign. When the war ended, Company E participated in the two-day military parade in Washington, DC, before returning home to Fairbury.

The second primary unit was the Illinois 3rd Cavalry Company K. About 90 o the 301 total Fairbury men who served in the Civil War went into Company K. This unit also fought at Vicksburg and in Alabama and Mississippi. When General Lee surrendered to General Grant in April 1865, Company K was camped in northwest Mississippi.

When General Lee surrendered, the Fairbury men in Company K were probably thrilled and anxious to be sent home. Instead, in May of 1865, Major General Curtiss ordered the unit to travel to St. Louis. When Company K reached St. Louis, they discovered they were going on a three-month Indian expedition to Minnesota. So instead of being released from the military and going home to their families, these Fairbury men had to remain in the army and travel all the way to Minnesota. It is assumed that many of these men were unhappy about staying in the military.

Three years earlier, in 1862, a powder keg of discontent was growing with the Sioux Indians in Minnesota. Although the Sioux had signed many different treaties with the American government, each treaty was broken by the government. American traders would sell food and other goods to the Sioux on credit. The Sioux were slowly starving to death.

One of these treaties stipulated the Sioux would receive a cash pension from the federal government. Unfortunately, the cash never reached the Sioux. The money was either stolen by government agents or given to the traders. The traders told the Sioux the new cash just paid for their old credit charges, and therefore, no new money was available.

On August 17, 1862, one young Dakota with a hunting party of three others killed five settlers while on a hunting expedition. That night a council of Dakota decided to attack settlements throughout the Minnesota River valley to try to drive white settlers from the area. This conflict became known as the Dakota War of 1862 or the Sioux Outbreak of 1862. No accurate record exists of how many white total settlers were killed by the Sioux. President Lincoln, in his 2nd annual address, said no fewer than 800 men, women, and children were killed.

By December 1862, the U.S. Army took over 1,000 Dakota Indians as captives. These captives included women, children, older men, and warriors. A total of 498 military trials were held. Many of the accused could not speak English. The accused also had no legal representation, and trials lasted no more than five minutes each. The result of the military trials was that 300 Sioux were condemned to death.

At this point, President Lincoln intervened. He reviewed all 300 death sentence cases. Lincoln decided that only 38 men should be executed. He commuted the death sentences of the other 262 men. On December 26, the day after Christmas in 1862, all 38 Dakota Indians were executed. This event was the largest one-day mass execution ever carried out in American history. After the execution, all Native Americans were removed from Minnesota. This banishment did not end the conflict between the Native Americans and the white settlers.

John Campbell was a half-breed, and his brother, Baptiste Campbell, was one of the 38 men hung in Mankato. He swore vengeance for his brother's death and said he would burn down the city of Mankato in retaliation. In May of 1865, Campbell murdered Andrew J. Jewett, his wife, father, mother, and a hired man named Charles Tyler. Campbell was captured and hung.

The killing of the Jewett family and other minor uprisings prompted the U.S. Army to launch some expeditions in Minnesota to track down and kill the Sioux in 1865. The Illinois 3rd Cavalry left St. Louis and traveled by two steamboats on the Mississippi River to Fort Snelling at St. Paul, Minnesota. Nine hundred soldiers plus an equal number of horses made the trip.

The St. Paul newspaper recounted that on the same day, the Third Illinois Cavalry arrived in that city, under the influence of intoxicating drinks, members of the organization committed many outrageous acts. These acts likely resulted from the men not being happy about continuing to serve in the military after the Civil War had ended.

The St. Paul newspaper also reported that many of the soldiers in the Third Cavalry were taking "French leave." In that era, "French leave" meant desertion from your military unit. Three members of the Third Cavalry also robbed some local Minnesota citizens. Fortunately, none of the Fairbury men in Company K deserted or got into trouble with the law in St. Paul.

Company K headed west from St. Paul looking for Sioux Indians. They went about 526 miles west of St. Paul all the way to Fort Berthold, North Dakota. This fort was about 150 miles from the Montana border and 100 miles south of Canada. After reaching FortBerthold, they took a different route back to FortSnelling in St. Paul. They were paid in St. Paul. The unit then traveled back to CampButler in Springfield, Illinois. They mustered out of the military service at Camp Butler in October of 1865.

Minnesota's citizens were unhappy about the Illinois Third Cavalry not encountering any military skirmishes with the Sioux Indians on their three-month campaign. The Fairbury men in Company K were probably relieved they had finally finished their military service and could return to their families in Fairbury.

(Dale Maley's weekly history article on Fairbury News is sponsored by Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury and Dr. Charlene & Doug Aaron)

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