5th Minnesota Battle Flag John S. Marsh

Name: John S. Marsh
Company: B
First Lieutenant February 16, 1862; drowned August 18, 1862, at Redwood, Minnesota
  • Date: about 1832-1834
  • Place: Canada
Mustered In
  • Date: February 16, 1862
  • Rank: First Lieutenant
  • Age: 28-30
  • Residence prior to military service: Canada; Preston, Fillmore County, Minnesota
  • Vocation prior to military service: Attorney
  • Date: August 18, 1862
  • Place: Redwood ferry crossing, Minnesota River, Minnesota
  • Burial: Fort Ridgely, Renville County, Minnesota

John S. Marsh Biography and Civil War Narrative

John S. Marsh was born about 1832-1834 in Canada. As a young adult he lived in Preston, Fillmore County, Minnesota, working as an attorney. In 1860 he lived with Josiah F. Marsh (age 35 and also an attorney), Eunice O. Marsh (age 23), and Francis A. Marsh (age 13). All were born in Canada.

John S. Marsh of Preston, Fillmore County, Minnesota enlisted in Company B of the Second Wisconsin Infantry as a private on May 22, 1861. He was discharged in order to accept a commission of First Lieutenant of Company B of the 5th Minnesota Infantry on February 16, 1862. When Captain William B. Gere of Company B was promoted to Major in the 5th Minnesota on March 24, 1862, Lieutenant Marsh was promoted to Captain of Company B.

With Company having left Fort Snelling, Minnesota, on March 22 under the command of First Sergeant Thomas P. Gere, Captain Marsh joined them at Fort Ridgely, near the Minnesota River, on April 16, and took command of the post. On June 29, Captain Marsh ordered Sergeant Thomas P. Gere to report with 50 men from Company B to Agent Galbraith at Yellow Medicine. The purpose of their expedition was to preserve order, protect United States property during the time of the annuity payments to the Indians. Captain Marsh remained at Fort Ridgely. Weeks passed as Indians at Yellow Medicine gathered and waited for their annuity payment.
On August 4th, about 800 Sioux warriors surrounded the camp of the detachment and stormed a government supply warehouse, which the 5th Minnesota soldiers defended. Oscar Wall of Company B describes the subsequent events:

As a result of this apprehensiveness Lieutenant Gere was dispatched to Fort Ridgely on the 5th, to confer with Captain Marsh. This young officer was at all times equal to the demands made upon him. Means for conveyance were not of the best, but leaving Yellow Medicine at four o'clock in the afternoon, and passing through the Redwood Agency at midnight, he reached Fort Ridgely at three o'clock in the morning of August 6th, where he called Captain Marsh from his slumbers, and acquainted him with the dangerous condition of affairs at the Upper Agency.

After a brief conference Captain Marsh joined Lieutenant Gere, and they set out at once for the Yellow Medicine Agency, which they reached at 1:30 o'clock in the afternoon of August 6th. After the arrival of these officers, the hand of violence having been stayed, a council of the Indians was secured by Agent Galbraith and Captain Marsh, at which it was agreed that the stock of annuities, consisting of provisions and other stores, should be issued at once; that the Indians should repair, after receiving their allotments, to their homes or to the great hunting-grounds to the westward, to be recalled again on the arrival of their money. The issue began on the afternoon of August 7th, and continued for two days thereafter, the Indians breaking camp as rapidly as they could be reached in regular order, so that by the time the last of the supplies were issued, the great camp had disappeared. [Recollections of the Sioux Massacre, pp. 26-27]

Captain Marsh and the military detachment at Yellow Medicine left their camp on August 11 and arrived back at Fort Ridgely on August 12. But Captain Marsh was not finished dealing with the Sioux. Wall continues in his Recollections:

At about 10 o'clock in the forenoon, August 18, 1862, came, like the lightning's flash from a clear sky, the startling news of the horrible massacre begun three hours previously at the Redwood Agency. Down from the northwest, nearing the Fort, was seen the approach of people in great haste. The attention of the garrison was generally attracted to the unusual spectacle, but without once suspecting the cause of it. J. C. Dickinson was in the advance and was the first to enter the Fort. He had scarcely told in a few words of the uprising when a team immediately following him entered under the lash, with a load of refugees, among them a wounded man, who had made his escape after being shot at
the Agency. That savage wrath had burst like a flame was at first inconceivable, but the testimony that the seal ping-knife had flashed from its sheath to follow the deadly work of the gun was all too evident to be questioned. The soldiers gathered around the refugees whose tales were told in shocking, dramatic detail. Captain Marsh did not deliberate, but ordered the assembling of the company at once. Charles M. Culver, the drummer boy, for the first time sounded with meaning emphasis the long-roll. Thrilled with the story of the massacre and the clamor of the drum, men were quickly in line to receive orders. With a haste that seemed imperative a detail of forty-six men was made at once to proceed to the scene of carnage, under the belief that the situation was yet controllable, and in any event demanded the presence of soldiery at the Agency. It was simply a matter of moments between the receipt of the news of the outbreak and the departure of Captain Marsh and his detail for
the scene of the bloody work thirteen miles away.

These were the men to whose lot it fell to go on this expedition:

John S. Marsh

Peter Quinn
R. H. Findley
S. A. Trescott
J. F. Bishop
J. S. Besse
W. E. Winslow
T. D. Huntley
C. H. Hawley

Charles Beecher
Charles R. Bell
W. H. Blodgett
John Brennan
Levi Carr
E. F. Cole
James Dunn
J. W. Foster
C. E. French
A. Gardner
J. Gardner
J. A. Gehring
John Holmes

W. B. Hutchinson
Chris Joerger
Durs Kanzig
James H. Kerr
Wenzel Kusda
Henry McAllister
John Me Gowan
James M. Munday
James Murray
Wenzel Norton
J. W. Parks
M. P. Parks
John Parsley

Thomas Parsley

H. A. Phillips
N. Pitcher
A. Rebenski
Ezekiel Rose
J. Serfling
H. A. Shepherd
C. W. Smith
N. Steward
S. Steward
W. A. Sutherland
O. Svendson
S. VanBuren

At the command, "Forward," the men moved out with elastic step, the very embodiment of splendid soldiery. Teams were hastily hitched up, and carrying light supplies of ammunition and provision, followed and soon overtook the command. Captain Marsh and Interpreter Quinn were on mule-back, and the men now climbed into the wagons that more haste might be made in reaching the Agency.

Fort Ridgely was now practically deserted, Lieutenant T. P. Gere remaining in command of the post with fewer than thirty men. The situation had suddenly become one of the keenest anxiety, and this was increased by the constant accessions of refugees, whose tales of horrible deeds gave evidence of the rapid spread of the frightful work of carnage started at the Agency in the morning, but now sweeping over the adjacent settlements. Fugitives who came in over the Agency road, and who had met Captain Marsh and his men, pronounced the expedition to the ferry one destined to end in the greatest disaster. This was neither reassuring nor comforting to the remnant of the company left in command of the Fort, and was rendered less so because the convictions expressed were those of men of keen discernment, who were well informed on the deplorable situation. In fact these fugitives, when meeting Captain Marsh, cautioned him of his danger, and advised him, if he would not turn back, at least not to enter the valley of the Minnesota River, which he must do three miles from the Agency if he persisted in reaching the ferry.

Before Captain Marsh had covered half the distance to the Agency his command had witnessed buildings aflame and corpses by the wayside to
warn him of the danger that threatened him, and the whole frontier as well. There was no time to deliberate. To march into the jaws of death, as seemed imminent, might make the fall of Fort Ridgely a certainty, and thus expose the frontier settlements to annihilation. On the other hand, if a brave and almost superhuman effort could yet stay the savage hand dripping with blood, incalculable loss of life could be prevented. Captain Marsh knew his men. He had no doubt of their splendid courage. The fleeing refugees warned them that to enter the valley was almost certain death, but all this was met with a stoical determination to do faithfully and bravely the duty pointed out to them by their commander, who believed the great good possible to be accomplished was worth the hazard the undertaking involved.

While this march was being made on that quiet summer day, hearts were beating anxiously at the Fort. As the men passed out to the northwestward in the forenoon, they were watched for a mile or so, and disappeared, with a bon voyage, below the intervening prairie-ridge, entering, as it proved, on the threshold of eternity. Refugees came in in increasing numbers, and pointed to the distant columns of smoke as those of burning homes. Some of these people were wounded, and all were fatigued and terror-stricken. There were increasing evidences
of the approach of the savage horde throughout the western and northwestern settlements.

There were none so dull as not to realize that the situation was profoundly critical. Marsh and his little detail were well within the environment of the savages. That they would stay the bloody hand, or even extricate themselves from their perilous predicament, became hourly more doubtful. There was no reserve force to go to their assistance. The Fort itself and all in it must fall if vigorously attacked. This was self-evident. Its hope was not in its ability to resist an onslought, but in the great good fortune that should delay an attack until better preparation should obtain.

When within six or seven miles of the Agency Captain Marsh, seeing evidences of danger on every hand, ordered his men to abandon the wagons and resume their former order of march. The pace of the men was quickened, and believing the Lower Agency the center of disturbance, and that once there cool and wise heads could be conferred with and a stop put to the hellish work, the command hurried with a zeal worthy of a better fate than awaited the brave detachment. Reaching the top of Faribault hill, three miles from the Agency, a view
of the Minnesota valley presented itself. Sickening scenes had been witnessed by the wayside, and there was little else than desolation to be seen from this hill-top. Only men of the rarest courage and of the most perfect discipline would have entered that valley of death in the face of all that was known.

At the Fort the horrible condition at the Agency had now been fully detailed, striking terror to every heart and sealing the doom of Marsh and his men. Among the refugees who arrived in the afternoon from the Agency was Rev. J. D. Hinman, an Episcopal missionary, stationed at Redwood.

Having arisen early to start on a journey to Faribault, he was out in the tranquil morning that gave no suspicion that the curtain was about to rise on one of the most appalling massacres, at his own door, ever known to American history. He was ready for his departure between six and seven o'clock, when unusual signs for the hour among the Indians attracted his attention. The Indians were almost naked, and carried their guns. Their numbers increased, and people began to wonder at their unusual appearance, which some interpreted to mean that a raid was to be made on some Chippewa band known to have invaded the neighborhood. The Indians squatted nonchalantly on the steps of the various buildings, their demeanor betraying no sign of hostility.

Now a signal gun broke the silence in the upper part of town. Even this was doubted to be a sign of hostility until other shooting up the street and the hasty fleeing of people towards the bluff overlooking the river began to be alarming. White Dog ran past Mr. Hinman at this juncture, and to an inquiring word replied that " awful work had been started." He was no doubt himself taken by surprise, though later in the day his cunning and his treachery played an important part in the betrayal of Marsh. Little Crow also passed Mr. Hinman about this time, but with a scowl declined to answer an inquiry of the missionary, though they knew each other well, and the chief, now sullen, had always been polite and friendly. The firing had now become a fusilade, and people were being shot down on every hand. The traders were the first objects of hatred to fall, riddled with bullets. As the bloody work progressed the savages grew wild and furious, their hideous yells, the crash of their guns,
work of the torch, the shrieks of their helpless victims, begging vainly for mercy, creating a scene horrifying in the extreme. Rev. Hinman fled before the spreading tide of death had reached him, and gaining the river, fortunately found a skiff with which he hastily crossed, making good his escape to the Fort.

With this additional information from so high an authority, what could the fate of Captain Marsh and his detail be? Every heart-throb echoed this inquiry ; every glance betrayed the awful misgivings that tongues hesitated to utter.

Night began to gather its unwelcome folds around the distraught garrison. Refugees, principly women and children, had swarmed in with sickening tales, to increase the burdens now illy proportioned to the garrison's defenders. Lieutenant Gere, who now commanded the Fort, though but twenty years of age, had combined within him soldierly ability, courage of the highest order, and discretion beyond his years. His bearing was an inspiration, and he possessed the perfect confidence of what remained of Company B under his command. The gloom
of night had added its dangers to the situation, with no tidings from the brave men who were last reported as they were descending into the val-
ley near the Agency. The men under Lieutenant Gere maintained a courage and loyalty equal to any sacrifice. Whatever fate willed, they would resolutely meet. Dispositions were made for the night to guard as far as possible against a night surprise, and with the few men widely dispersed, the garrison settled down to a death-like stillness, when the first tidings came of the fate of Marsh and his men. Privates James Dunn and William B. Hutchinson were the first to arrive with the story of the frightful disaster at the ferry, they having been dispatched by Sergeant John F. Bishop, who was in command of the only known remnant of Company B to escape the merciless slaughter at the ferry. The little party were carrying a badly wounded comrade, while Bishop himself was wounded. Their progress being thus impeded, Bishop dispatched Dunn and Hutchinson to apprise the garrison of the disaster, himself and party reaching the Fort at ten o'clock at night.

Now the thrilling story was told in detail. Marsh's slender detachment descended into the Minnesota valley at Faribault hill at about midday, and marched across a bottom for three miles over a road not unfavorable to a treacherous foe, grass of a rank growth affording shelter on either hand.

Redwood Ferry Historical MarkerWhen within a mile or so of the ferry the Captain halted his men for a moment's needed rest. Resuming his march the men were moved in open order by single file to minimize the danger from exposure, and in this order continued to the ferry-house, situated on the east side of the road, ten or twelve rods north of the ferry. Just two weeks previously to a day most of these men were actors in the dramatic incident at Yellow Medicine, when, on the 4th of August, they were surrounded by nearly a thousand armed warriors, when the Government warehouse was attacked. Coolness and courage won the day for these same soldiers on that occasion. May they not now overmatch the red-handed savage and yet bring order out of chaos ? There must have been this lingering hope, though conditions were so changed as to make the hope chimerical.

Along the river at the ferry were clumps of willows and other brush, together with a rank growth of weeds and grass, with here and there a sandbar deposited by the river in flood-time. Knowing the stealthy nature of the Sioux, and that war. had been inaugurated, the surroundings were such as any American soldier, willing to meet his foe in the open, would feel ill-at-ease in.

On the high bluff just across the river was the Redwood Agency, the objective point of Captain Marsh, and where he had hoped to meet prominent Sioux chiefs, and through their co-operation restore order. He apparently could not realize that the Agency had been blotted out, and that every soul who had made up its white citizenship lay prostrate where he fell, shot to death and mutilated beyond recognition. The slope leading from the river to the brow of the Agency hill was studded with a thick growth of brushy timber. The disemboweled and acephalous body of the ferryman had already been found, with the ferryboat on the north side of the river, ready for the soldiers to enter upon, as the Indians had no doubt carefully planned, divining that Marsh would seek to cross to the Agency side. Indians there were in plenty, but they kept themselves well concealed. A few warriors on horseback revealed themselves indifferently on the prairie south of the Agency, and at considerable distance from the ferry, their evident purpose being to attract attention from the forces masked in the region of the ferry. Near the ferry landing on the opposite or Agency side of the river, was a lone Indian, chosen for a conspicuous part in the tragedy to be enacted when the plans of the cunning Indians were matured. This was recognized to be no less a personage than White Dog, who himself was clearly taken by surprise by the outbreak as his demeanor to Rev. Hinman revealed in the early morning. White Dog was a prominent Indian at the Agency, having been president of the Indian Farmers' Organization, and his selection as a man likely to inspire confidence in Captain Marsh was neither spontaneous nor accidental. Through Interpreter Quinn Captain Marsh addressed White Dog, who, in reply, suavely invited Marsh to cross, assuring him that the Indians did not wish to fight the soldiers, and that if Marsh would cross to the Agency a council would be called to meet and confer with him. Two soldiers who went to the river's brink to obtain water as this conversation was being carried on, discovered in concealment on the opposite side, near White Dog, many Indians. However, Captain Marsh ordered his men forward from the ferry-house to the ferry-landingr, purposing to cross, his men halting at a front along the river. Sergeant Bishop having stepped to the water's edge for a drink as the ferry ropes were being adjusted, saw evidences in the roily condition of the water that the Indians were crossing up-stream with a view to a rear attack. This conviction expressed to Captain Marsh, was intuitively grasped by White Dog, who knew the moment was critical, and now doubted that Marsh would enter upon the ferry. He therefore fired the signal gun, as was his part in the tragedy, to which Quinn, the white-haired interpreter, sensing its meaning instantly, in his last breath, cried, "Look out !" A deadly volley came from the ambuscade on the opposite side of the river, killing many a brave soldier who had had no opportunity to defend himself. Quinn was among those to fall at the first volley, riddled with no less than a dozen bullets. The volley was high and mainly passed over the heads of the soldiers. Marsh and Quinn stood nearly side by side when the volley was fired, but the Captain was unscathed, and instantly ordered his men to fall back to the ferry house. Now came the awful realization of Bishop's prediction, for with deafening yells there rose from ambush in the rear, and within short range, a legion of naked, frantic devils who poured a merciless volley into the already staggered ranks of Marsh. The effect was deadly. Now the men fought for their lives, and to extricate themselves from their perilous predicament. The losses were already so great that to attempt a stand would be simply to blindly challenge fate. [As stated by Chaska in 1863, when referring to this bloody incident, White Dog gave the death-signal prematurely, for which he was bitterly assailed by Little Crow and other prominent leaders in the massacre. The signal was not to have been given until the savage cordon had been so extended as to prevent the escape of a single man of Marsh's command, in event the soldiers could not be gotten upon the ferry and there annihilated.]

John S. Marsh MonumentThe Indians had secured possession of the ferry-house by this time. The righting now was of the most desperate character, being hand to hand or at the range of a few paces. The soldiers made deadly work in the ranks of the savages, who were no match for the trained infantrymen in open combat; but realizing they could not withstand the already overwhelming and constantly increasing numbers, Marsh gave the order to gain at all hazards the thicket along the river, of which the savages had not yet secured possession. This was accomplished under a furious fire, fifteen out of the original number, after fighting like demons, reaching the sheltering copse. To reach the Fort over an unknown country, pathless, and beset with a desperate enemy, was the only hope of the brave commander and his shattered force. The thicket was raked with the guns of the savages, but the men were now fighting from cover with a deliberateness of aim that kept the enemy well at bay. Covering their retreat carefully, the men fought their way down through the brush until they apparently must soon expose themselves to Indians seen out on the Fort road, who were believed to be moving" eastward to intercept the retreating detachment. Captain Marsh believed safety lay alone in crossing to the south bank of the river, and led in an effort to accomplish this end. This was at about 4 o'clock p. m. The Minnesota River at this point was fifty yards or more in width. Lifting his sword and revolver above his head the Captain waded successfully two-thirds of the way across. Getting beyond his depth he could no longer retain his weapons of defense, and dropping them, attempted to swim. In this he was unsuccessful, and called to his men for assistance. Brennan, Dunn and VanBuren, all men of heroic mould, hastened to the rescue of their commander, but he was doomed by the treacherous waters, and though seized by Brennan's strong arm, as he was sinking the second time, and brought to the surface, and although the Captain grasped the shoulder of the athletic hero daring all to save him, the hold of the officer and that of the soldier were broken in the struggle, and Captain Marsh disappeared beneath the merciless waters to rise no more.

Following Captain Marsh's death, the survivors under the leadership of Sergeant John F. Bishop carefully continued their self-defense and made their way back to Fort Ridgely. First Lieutenant Norman K. Culver was promoted to Captain as Marsh's successor.

John S. Marsh's body was recovered and buried at Fort Ridgely. Monuments were erected at both Fort Ridgely and at the location of the Redwood Ferry crossing to commemorate both the events and the men at the Battle of Redwood.
The G.A.R. Post #85 at Redwood Falls, Minnesota, was known as the John S. Marsh Post.


"John Marsh: Fate of Original Company B Soldier" by Jeff Alderson

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