Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history.

Young, Illiterate and Far From Home

Sep. 15, 1894

“An excellent soldier. A true man loyal, honest cleanly & of sweet disposition. Death ere thou hast killed another good & brave & true as he. Time shall throw a dart at thee.”

Company Descriptive Book
Fort Rice, Dakota Territory
May 11, 1865

What would prompt a hard-bitten file clerk at a desolate outpost in Dakota Territory to write the preceding eulogy for one young soldier?

We may never know the answer to that question, but the State Archives and a subscription-based internet military site reveal this and other stories of a band of “volunteer” soldiers in Dakota Territory.

The eulogy is an anomaly among the 24,000 military records I recently researched to gain a better understanding of 645 Civil War soldiers assigned to the 1st United States Volunteer Infantry (1st USVI). The regiment is probably better known as the “Galvanized Yankees.”

The story of how the soldiers came to occupy Fort Rice, a Dakota Territory military post named after a Civil War casualty, is too long to recount in its entirety here. Here is the short version: President Abraham Lincoln was forced to get creative in finding enough troops to fight on the fronts of two contemporaneous wars. The American Civil War was raging in the East and the aftermath of the US-Dakota War of 1862 was smoldering in the Midwest. To address the troop shortage, Lincoln made an offer to Confederate prisoners of war; in exchange for a vow of loyalty to the Union Army, he would send them to the Midwest to “subdue” the Native Americans instead of sending them back to the Civil War.

Many books, stories and articles have been written about the “Galvanized Yankees” at Fort Rice. For my purposes, though, a more thorough study of the individual soldiers was required. After slogging through the military records, I had a much clearer picture of the individuals and personalities involved.

As with the eulogy to Private George Sampson of Company D at the beginning of this post, hints of their stories began to emerge. Private Sampson was a Virginia farm kid. He was described as being 17 years of age, 5 feet, 9 inches in height with blue eyes, light hair, and a light complexion. He died in the Fort Rice hospital on May 14, 1865, of “Typhus Fever.” Unfortunately, it is never revealed why he was singled out for such a unique epitaph and why his superior officer would paraphrase a 17th-century English poem in his honor.

Private Sampson's headstone and entry in the Company Descriptive Book

Left: Private George Sampson’s headstone, Custer National Cemetery, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (Crow Agency, Montana). The soldiers, including Private Sampson, were disinterred from the Fort Rice cemetery in the early 1900s and reinterred at the Custer National Cemetery
Right: Entry for Private George S. Sampson, Company Descriptive Book, 1865

A composite image of the soldiers at Fort Rice is difficult to assemble. Some details, though, can be noted:

The soldiers, as in most wars, were young. They ranged from 14 to 51 years of age with an average of 24 years. Private Clinton Millsaps, also from Company D and another farm kid, was born in Tennessee. He was the youngest of the lot at the age of 14 and measured in at 4 feet, 10 inches tall, which was 2 inches taller than the Springfield muzzleloading rifle he carried. He also had blue eyes, light hair, and a light complexion. At the tender age of 14 he had several things in common with his fellow soldiers: he was already a veteran of the Civil War, he had served time in a Union military prison, and he had survived the trip to Dakota Territory. Unlike Private Sampson and 101 other individuals at Fort Rice, he would survive to return home after his regiment was disbanded. He served as a “musician” at Fort Rice, probably deemed too short to fight.

The majority of the soldiers at Fort Rice were illiterate, as evidenced by the “x” on the signature line of their Union army “vow of allegiance.” Privates Millsaps and Sampson signed their names to the papers; 337 other members of the regiment (52%) signed with an “x.”

The soldiers of the 1st USVI, the first permanent troops at Fort Rice, were mostly southern kids. They hailed from 19 eastern states, with North Carolina being the most represented at 269 individuals. The remainder of the regiment was populated by men from 20 foreign countries including Prussia, Switzerland, and Ireland.

Fifty-two different professions were embodied at Fort Rice. Their occupations included slaters, coopers, weavers and teamsters. The majority (457 of them) listed “Farmer” as their occupation prior to the Civil War. Despite their collective knowledge, agriculture at Fort Rice was mostly a failure. The grasshoppers were able to muster more troops than the army.

Many more stories were revealed in the archives, but my space has come to an end. The stories of desertions, drownings, “accidental” shootings, court martials, sentences of “death by musketry,” acquittals, deaths from various diseases, and even a couple of deaths at the hands of the Native Americans they had come to subdue must wait for another day.

150 Years of Military History and 120 Feet of Conduit

One of the strengths of our museum collection is the military uniform collection. Ranging from the Civil War era to Operation Desert Storm, there are hundreds if not thousands of pieces, both from peacetime and from major wars. Prior to the expansion project of the ND Heritage Center, the space we had to house this collection was very limited. As a result, uniforms of different time periods were stored together in fairly cramped conditions.

Military uniforms

Pictured is the original row in storage for military uniforms. Because space was very limited, items were overcrowded and a bit random, with the uniforms of different branches of service, time periods, and countries mixed together.

With the recent expansion of the Heritage Center, the Museum Division was fortunate to receive an additional 5,000-6,000 square feet of storage space, and we have been working hard to fill and organize it. We saw an opportunity to rehouse the military uniform collection. Starting in late August, I began transferring the collection over to the new area.

The first step was figuring out a hanging system for the uniforms. The system needed to work with existing shelving units, but ready-made hanging components from manufacturers can be cost-prohibitive. That meant coming up with a custom solution ourselves. After a few trips to the hardware store, we decided to use ¾” conduit that I cut in-house, and then secured it to the shelves with screws and conduit hangers.

Hardware for hanging system

The hardware we used for the hanging system was very simple: sections of ¾” conduit cut to fit the width of each column of shelving, hung from the shelf above it with screws and conduit hangers. The screws fit through existing holes in each shelf. The total cost for the hanging system will be under $200, and all of the components were purchased at a local hardware store.

After the hanging system was in place, it was time to start transferring the uniforms. It seemed to be the perfect project for me, because I got my start in museums as a costumed tour guide at Fort Mackinac, a state historic site in Michigan. In addition to firing a rifle and cannon, we spent a good deal of time talking about the uniforms we wore. I thought I knew army uniforms. I soon found out that I had quite a bit to learn.

I decided to arrange the uniforms in chronological order, separated by branch of service. The items I started with were accepted as early as the 1920s, and I don’t think they had been cataloged since that time. Most had no photos on file and vague or sometimes very inaccurate descriptions, which can make it difficult to determine the date of a uniform, especially from more obscure interwar periods. Over the last month, I have spent quite a bit of time leafing through reference books and performing Google searches. At one point, I even contacted a historian at the North Dakota National Guard for assistance. It has been challenging, but honestly quite fun. I am expanding my own knowledge and adding information to our files, while at the same time, majorly improving the storage conditions for an important part of our collection.

M-1902 dress blouse and Ogden illustration of US Army uniforms

An artist named Henry Alexander Ogden was commissioned by the US government from the 1890s to the early 1900s to create illustrations of US Army uniforms from throughout American history. This Ogden illustration, found in a reference book[1], was especially useful in identifying the M-1902 dress blouse you see in the background. The 1902 dress uniform is similar in appearance to the US Army’s current class A uniform.

As items are placed in their new location, I try to make sure there are a few inches between garments to ensure they don’t touch. I also make sure any hangers used are adequately padded. Both things help to prevent strain and potential damage to the materials and make the uniforms easier to access.

Military uniform collection

The military uniform collection will now be housed in two rows of storage instead of just one, allowing us to decompress them and even leave room for expansion. Uniforms are arranged chronologically and separated by branch of service. So far, I have rehoused uniforms dating from 1860-1906.

So far, I have made it to 1906 with another century’s worth of uniforms to rehouse. It is a challenging project, but one I am excited to continue!

[1] Langellier, John P. Fix Bayonets: The U.S. Infantry from the American Civil War to the Surrender of Japan. London: Lionel Leventhal Limited, 1998.