When you read about the historical accounts of the two attacks that happened at Fort Ridgely (Nicollet County) 152 years ago this month on Aug. 20 and 22 during the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, you naturally focus on the combatants that played a significant role in those battles.
A lot has been written about the exploits of Lt. Timothy Sheehan, Lt. Thomas Gere and Sgt. John Jones among other defenders as well as Chief Little Crow and the Dakota warriors who surrounded the tiny outpost and fought there during that desperate week of fighting.
And then there’s Eliza Muller whose contributions to the defense of the fort was inspirational. Eliza was the wife of Fort Ridgely’s post surgeon, Dr. Alfred Muller, and she’s most recognized for bolstering morale during the battles by caring for the wounded and aiding the fort’s defenders.
In his book, The Dakota War of 1862 – Minnesota’s Other Civil War, author Kenneth Carley wrote that Mrs. Muller became the “Clara Barton of the Minnesota frontier” for her work at the fort, particularly during the two battles when she “calmly and efficiently organized the women to produce cartridges for the men in a ground-floor room of the barracks.”
Carley also wrote that Muller “joined the actual fighting at one stage by helping Sgt. Jones wheel a six pound cannon through a long central hallway of the surgeon’s headquarters building to a spot from which it could be fired at the stables.” The stables had been occupied by the Dakota during the struggle.
On Jones’ command, Eliza pulled the rope to open a door, and he fired a heated cannon ball right through the opening and into the stables. The shot set the stables on fire and forced the Dakota to abandon the position during the battle.
If you’ve ever heard the deafening roar generated from the firing of the New Ulm Battery’s cannon during public demonstrations can you imagine the smoke-filled decibel level in that hallway caused by the reverberation of Jones’ cannon shot?
Muller was constantly on the move during the week-long siege at the fort, making coffee for the soldiers and spending many hours assisting her husband by tending to the sick and wounded. During the first attack, Sgt. Jones’ wife gave birth to a stillborn child, and more than likely Eliza was there with Dr. Muller attending to Mrs. Jones.
No hospital was ever built at the fort, only a log cabin served as that purpose. However, there was an operating room on the first floor of the barracks, and most of the sick were usually confined to their quarters.
At the same time all of this was going on at Fort Ridgely, across the country the Civil War was raging out east. On those battlefields Eliza’s counterpart, Clara Barton, was working as a nurse and providing comfort to the wounded and sick. She attracted national attention for her compassion to Union Army troops, and after the end of that terrible war, her experiences later helped Barton become the founder of the American Red Cross in 1881.
When the Dakota War was over, the Muller’s eventually moved away from Fort Ridgely, and the fort was later abandoned in 1867. Fourteen years after the battles of 1862, Eliza died on Sept. 26, 1876, at age 45. Her final request was that she be buried at her beloved Fort Ridgely, which became a Minnesota State Park in 1911.
In the cemetery she’s buried near the Captain John S. Marsh Monument, which was erected by the state of Minnesota in 1873. Most of the 24 men who died with Marsh in the ambush at Redwood Ferry on Aug. 18, 1862, are buried there in two trenches. A few of the soldiers who survived that ambush eventually found their way back to Fort Ridgely and probably were cared for by Eliza.
The inscription on the Muller State Monument reads: “The State of Minnesota to the memory of Mrs. Eliza Muller, 1877. Her valor and devotion to the care of the sick and wounded soldiers and refugees during and after the Sioux Indian Outbreak of 1862 will forever be cherished in the hearts of a grateful people…Thy mission on earth was unbounded charity, thy reward is eternal peace.”
Muller’s monument was the second of 23 state monuments that were erected by the Minnesota Legislature between 1873 and 1929. The first one being nearby for Capt. Marsh’s State Monument. The pair of monuments represented Minnesota’s first public efforts to mark historic sites connected with the war.
It was once said that Eliza Muller closed many dying eyes during her time at Fort Ridgely. However, I like to think she helped many other eyes remain open as well.