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Col. McLaren’s Civil War diary


“This is an 1861 Navy revolver that belonged to Colonel Robert N. McLaren of the Minnesota Sixth Regiment,” says Dale Peterson, Anoka gun expert and Civil War buff.  He bought the weapon at a gun show, and since the owner’s name was engraved on the wooden grip, he did some research.

He uncovered a treasure trove when the Minnesota History Center gave him access to McLaren’s Civil War diary.  Many of these soldiers spent their time fighting or pursuing Native Americans, particularly during the Sioux Uprising of 1862.  McLaren, who had previously served in the Minnesota Senate from Goodhue County, took part in four of these battles.

The diary begins on June 3, 1864 when McLaren, who had been the post Commander at Fort Snelling, arrived at Fort Ridgely, a three-day journey from St. Paul, during which he “met with nothing worthy of note…except foundering my fine horse, Prince.”  Equipped with another animal, he left Fort Ridgely with two other companies.


“One feels as though he was setting out on a long sea voyage when he starts on an Indian summer campaign, but to me there is a charm in this prairie life, this absence from the form, customs, and vices of civilized life,” he wrote. “Before us all is uncertain; behind us near and dear friends.  God grant that we may all live to see each other in the land of the living!”

The company, described as “an orderly set of men,” arrived at Camp Wood Lake on June 8.  “There is a chain of lakes, a little timber skirts the shore.  The shore is sandy and the men have enjoyed a bath in the clear water, much to their benefit in health and appearance.”  They marched without incident to Camp Sibley. McLaren notes that his commanding officer “has resolved to lie by Sundays, and I rejoice that we can have a opportunity to acknowledge God.  We can hope for success when we recognize Him, and not otherwise.”  Since his regiment had no chaplain, there was no sermon.

They marched from camp to camp, sometimes through 105-degree weather. They survived a “most fearful tornado” which leveled almost every tent except McLaren’s, but sent his carriage through the sutler’s tent.  They traveled down the Missouri River on steamers, then marched again, encountering heat in which “men were sun-struck; dogs died by the roadside; the oxen were left to die.”


At last on July 26, some scouts engaged a party of 40 natives, and two days later, they prepared to do battle at a large encampment.  McLaren was ordered to dismount two companies and “hold a chain of bluffs, which was handsomely done.”  The natives’ camp was shelled and burned down, but most of its occupants disappeared into a wild country of deep gorges and high peaks.  From ambush, they eventually shot two pickets of McLaren’s company.  August 8 brought another skirmish, and by the next day the soldiers’ camp was surrounded.  First ordered to the rear, and then to the front, McLaren apparently acquitted himself well.  It was the last encounter they would have with the enemy.

The diary ends on October 1, when the battalion arrived at Ford Wadsworth in Dakota Territory.  Professional fighting man though he was, McLaren’s sensibilities shine through his journal.  He mentions the “beautiful white lilies,” a black, long-billed raven, the web-footed cormorants nesting in trees, the terrified antelope, flowers which he calls “cactus” in bloom, and the huge buffalo herds.

His fighting days over, McLaren negotiated Native peace treaties in Wyoming and served as both a federal and U.S. Marshall.  He died in St. Paul in 1886, a victim of Addison’s disease, at the age of 59.

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