Confederate prisoners of war played important role in North Dakota history

FARGO -- It's now a forgotten footnote to history. On the very day Abraham Lincoln was mortally wounded--April 14, 1865--erstwhile Confederate soldiers were attacked by Indians while defending a fort in Dakota Territory.

Fort Rice, built in 1864, was made from green cottonwood logs that cracked during the winter. Buildings lacked frost-proof cellars, so fresh vegetables couldn't be kept fresh without freezing. Poor living conditions and lack of vegetables led to a high rate of disease and death among troops, including former Confederate soldiers serving in the Union Army called "Galvanized Yankees." Photo courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota.
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FARGO - It's now a forgotten footnote to history. On the very day Abraham Lincoln was mortally wounded-April 14, 1865-erstwhile Confederate soldiers were attacked by Indians while defending a fort in Dakota Territory.

The former rebel soldiers, prisoners of war held by the Union, swore an oath of loyalty to the other side in the Civil War and were sent to the Western frontier to relieve a manpower shortage.

They became known as "Galvanized Yankees," for swapping their gray uniforms for blue, and would serve a largely forgotten role in settling what became North Dakota. It's a contribution recalled as the nation concludes its 150th-anniversary observance of the Civil War, culminating with Lincoln's assassination.

The soldiers' switch of allegiance offered a ticket out of grim prisoner of war camps, where many perished from malnutrition and disease, but thrust the "volunteers" into an ordeal while serving at remote Fort Rice, located 30 miles south of Mandan.

"They were given the choice of living or dying," said Doug Wurtz, an amateur historian in Bismarck who is researching Galvanized Yankees at Fort Rice. "They would die."


Even getting to Fort Rice proved difficult and deadly.

The riverboat carrying the men up the Missouri River in the fall of 1864 was grossly overcrowded, with a human cargo of 600 men crammed aboard a steamboat designed to carry 100 passengers.

The roster was diluted by 5 percent from men deserting by jumping overboard as the boat crept upriver at 45 miles a day.

Low water levels and sandbars prevented the boat from traveling beyond what today is central South Dakota, forcing a march of 270 miles upriver, with meager rations of hard crackers, coffee grounds, sugar and, once every four days, pork.

When they arrived at the fort, conditions were little improved. The winter of 1864-65 was severe. Bitter cold-temperatures plunged to 34 below and even 40 below--and disease proved to be deadlier enemies than the Indians.

The fort's crudely built log buildings lacked the ability to store vegetables in winter. As a result, scurvy grew rampant. So were diseases from poor sanitation, including dysentery and cholera.

The April 14, 1865, attack by 200 Sioux warriors-which came after the Confederacy had surrendered-involved a detail of soldiers tending to livestock grazing a quarter mile from Fort Rice. The raiders rustled 68 cattle before they were turned back.

Almost nine of 10 casualties suffered at the fort that month came from natural causes; two Galvanized Yankees were killed by Indians, compared to 15 who succumbed to disease.


"Those poor Southern boys are sick and dying," Wurtz said. "That's the theme at Fort Rice-sick and dying."

One soldier pleaded with his fellow troops that if he died to bury him in a deep grave so the wolves couldn't gnaw on his body.

The beleaguered fort came under heavier attack from the Lakota beginning in May. By July the fort was under virtual siege by warriors incensed by the incursion of wagon trains bound for Montana gold fields on their hunting lands.

One of the leaders among the warriors was a hardliner rising in prominence whose name later would become famous: Sitting Bull.

In his research, which has included military and genealogical records, Wurtz has delved into the lives of the soldiers, focusing particularly on six.

"What I'm trying to do is put a face on the Galvanized Yankees," he said.

One of those faces belonged to Patrick Cardwell, an infantry soldier from Virginia. HIs wife, Elizabeth, accompanied her husband to Fort Rice, where she worked as a laundress.

Elizabeth Cardwell and her newborn daughter died days after she gave birth; she was 22 years old.


Another soldier, Dugal Hammons, from West Virginia, was performing guard duty en route to the fort when a soldier deserted by jumping overboard. Hammons was deemed derelict and given a harsh sentence, "death by musketry."

Instead it was death by disease; Hammons, whose sentence was commuted, later died from chronic diarrhea at the Fort Rice hospital.

Tom Isern, a history professor at North Dakota State University, said the soldiers at Fort Rice and the other frontier posts performed a valuable service. Only recently have historians, who traditionally gave credit to the cavalry, acknowledged the primary importance of the infantry.

Fort Rice later would prove to be a bulwark in subduing the Sioux, especially from 1870 to 1876.

"These Missouri River posts, they are what led to the conquest of Dakota Territory," Isern said. Although not sent out on campaigns, the Galvanized Yankees "did hold those posts."

In Wurtz's view, during the time of the Galvanized Yankees, who were discharged from service in November 1865, nothing of lasting military significance happened at Fort Rice.

"They served no purpose," he said, "other than coming out here and dying."

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address:
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