Alvah Getchell enlisted in the Union Army Aug. 14, 1862, fully expecting his 9th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment to be sent to the western campaign area — maybe Kentucky, Arkansas or Mississippi.
But these plans changed when, three days after he signed up, the Dakota Conflict began less than 70 miles from his Brooklyn Township farm home
A Dakota insurgent’s bullet killed Alvah Sept. 3, near his uncle’s farm and the site of the initial Dakota attack in Meeker County. His lifeless body was still on the ground when a wounded fellow soldier tossed army food to their starving attackers, a gesture that ended the assault.
Alvah’s sister and her husband in later years honored him by giving their son Alvah’s name and by returning her dead brother’s remains to their hometown cemetery, where the tombstone may be seen today.
But we’re getting ahead of the story.
It was late summer, 1862, a year and a half after the Civil War had begun. Union soldiers had racked up a few small victories, overshadowed by a string of stunning defeats by Confederates. Then, suddenly and disastrously, armed and bloody conflict erupted very close to home, right here in Minnesota.
On Aug. 17, a group of Indian youths, infuriated by tribal starvation, broken treaties, and delayed governmental payments, went on a rampage in Meeker County’s Acton Township. They killed five settlers from three families. Alvah’s uncle Levi Getchell, a nearby farmer, helped bury the victims.
In the following days hundreds, but not all, of the Dakota men under Chief Little Crow killed dozens of settlers on both sides of the Minnesota River. Twelve infantrymen died when Company B of the 5th Minnesota Regiment splashed into a river-crossing ambush near Fort Ridgely. A few more were killed while defending that fort and some 200 settlers inside its walls.
Shortly after the ambush, some 120 Dakota warriors attacked, but failed to capture, the town of New Ulm. Thousands of refugee settlers streamed back in panic to Mankato, Fort Snelling and Minneapolis.
Meanwhile, Union Army officers under General Sibley hastily patched together military units to relieve the soldiers and protect frantic white settlers. By the time of the Dakota insurgency, Minnesota had sent eight volunteer regiments to combat the stiff Confederate defenses.
Here the story goes back to Alvah Getchell. His parents, Nathan and Hanna, had moved from Maine to Minnesota in 1854 and settled in Brooklyn Township in 1857.
We don’t know when Alvah began drilling with a militia unit, but we do know from research by the Brooklyn Historical Society that on Aug, 26, nine days after the Acton incident and less than two weeks after enlisting, Private Getchell and about 65 other men met at “Bridge Square” (Nicollet and 2nd Street) to form Captain Richard Strout’s Company B of the 9th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
It was less than a scene of military order and precision. The troops had Austrian muskets, but no uniforms, a fact that casts doubt on how much training they had up to this point. But the company had orders to head west to protect settlers in the partially wooded farm country near the site of the first killings.
They moved out immediately and reached Acton Sept. 2.
The company camped overnight near the site of the first massacre, not knowing that some of Chief Little Crow’s Dakota were nearby and bent on attacking more settlers. Warning came from local men in the wee hours of the morning, giving Alvah and his fellow soldiers time to check their powder and shot.
Early-dawn sunlight reflected from the Dakota’s rifles — captured from the river ambush some 50 miles away — told soldiers attack was imminent. What happened next is described in a letter written later by Milton Stubbs, a fellow soldier from Lake Minnetonka:
“Alvah Getchell fell, a bullet piercing his brain. Very soon after, (George W.) Gideon … at my left fell, shot through the heart … Ezra G. Carr’s arm was shattered. Levi Merret [Merritt] (also from Brooklyn Township) shot through the thigh…the Captain ordered a charge … the Indians in front gave way.”
Wounded himself, Stubbs pulled food from a wagon and tossed it to the hungry Dakota men, who then stopped shooting.
A few days later, a detachment from the 3rd Minnesota buried Alvah and two other victims of the attack.
Later that fall, the family had Getchell’s body moved to the Brooklyn-Crystal cemetery. His grave marker reflects how settlers those days felt about the Dakota attacks: “Killed by Indians, Sept. 3, 1862.”
Many members of the Getchell family remained in Brooklyn Township. The Bohanon-Lawrence house, built in 1870 by a family tracing its heritage back to the Getchells, may be seen today on Noble Avenue.
Phil Tichenor is a member of the Brooklyn Historical Society board and a retired journalism professor from the University of Minnesota. He is also coauthor of the biography “Civil War P.O.W.: The Life and Death of a Farmer-Lawyer-Soldier” and the novel “13 Days at Andersonville: The Trial of the Raiders.”
The Brooklyn Historical Society has published “The Patriots of Brooklyn,” a three-volume set that tells the stories of Civil War soldiers from Brooklyn Township. Historical society member Darryl Sannes — also a member of the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force — will discuss the Dakota War at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 24 at Brooklyn Park Library, 8600 Zane Ave. N. Info: thebrooklyns.com.