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Patrick Springer, Published May 30 2010

A site to remember: Soldiers honored at Fort Abercrombie, though they rest far away

FORT ABERCROMBIE, N.D. - The rustic wooden stockades and blockhouses of this windswept frontier army post form the backdrop for annual Memorial Day ceremonies to honor the nation’s fallen soldiers.

Fort Abercrombie, the northern gateway to Dakota Territory, lost five defenders when Dakota Sioux attacked the post in 1862 during the Santee Conflict that ignited in Minnesota.

During the fort’s 19 years of service, from 1858 to 1877, a total of 79 soldiers, wives, children and scouts were buried in its cemetery.

But when veterans and well-wishers gather every year to fire a Memorial Day volley, play taps and lower the flag with an honor guard departure, the fort’s dead rest far away.

The removal of the graves – not once, but twice – is a largely forgotten chapter in the history of the old fort, abandoned long ago and now a historical site along the meandering Red River.

The saga of Fort Abercrombie’s migrating graves is a combination of battles against nature, army protocol and a crusading newspaper. All came together in a series of events more than a century ago.

The post’s original cemetery, established in the late 1850s and located half a mile southwest of the fort, became a casualty of the impetuous Red River, which developed a cut bank that washed out three graves.

The cemetery was moved to higher ground a mile or more northwest of the fort – no one is certain of the location today, said Paul Nelson, an interpreter at Fort Abercrombie.

“We know where it is to probably a fifth of a mile to a quarter of a mile,” Nelson said, adding the spot could be on pastureland or a farm field, depending on its location. One of the landowners won’t allow access, hampering efforts to pinpoint the old cemetery.

It’s something of a moot point, really. The graves were moved long ago, thanks in no small part to an exposé that appeared in the Daily Argus, a Fargo newspaper that later was acquired by a paper that eventually merged with The Forum.

An anonymous reporter visited the fort and cemetery in 1884, seven years after Fort Abercrombie was decommissioned, and thought the untended graves had fallen into scandalous neglect.

“Once there was a high white picket fence around the plot, three fourths of which is now flat on the ground, some of the posts having rotted off and others having been burned away and for dozens of years neither fence nor graves have apparently had any attention from mankind,” the Daily Argus reported.

“At present only rough board tablets mark the mounds and some of them have been exposed to the storms of a quarter century,” the article continued, and “they are far from legible now.”

A month later, the assistant adjutant general for Dakota Territory ordered the removal of the bodies for reburial in “some more suitable place.”

That place turned out to be Fort Abraham Lincoln, home of Lt. Col. George Custer’s ill-fated Seventh Cavalry, south of Mandan, N.D. Seventy-six bodies were transported in October 1885, in new coffins.

But history wasn’t finished with the graves, which were exhumed once again, in 1896, after Fort Abraham Lincoln was decommissioned.

The Fort Abercrombie graves, along with those from several other forts in Dakota Territory, were relocated to a special section of the Custer National Cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana – presumably their final resting place.

At the time of their removal from Fort Abercrombie, 21 of the graves were unmarked or had illegible wooden markers.

The list of people buried at Fort Abercrombie is surprisingly diverse, said James Acker, site superintendent of the historical fort, who wrote a history of the post cemetery four years ago.

Casualties from the 1862 siege of the fort, which lasted two months, included five dead and five wounded. Most of the soldiers buried at the post, however, died of natural causes or accidents – testaments to the harsh conditions of the frontier.

“Most of them were due to pneumonia, accidental gunshots, dysentery; they fell through the ice during the winter, froze to death,” Acker said.

Joining soldiers in the cemetery were wives, children, nearby residents, Indian scouts – a smattering of the area’s population during settlement, as wagon trains, stagecoaches, steamboats and finally the railroad traversed the area under the fort’s protection.

Contemporary Memorial Day observances at the Fort Abercrombie historical site began about a decade ago and have become a signature event marking the holiday in southeastern North Dakota.

The national holiday had its origins during the Civil War, when Confederate widows began decorating the graves of their husbands.

The holiday’s first national celebration took place in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where both Confederate and Union soldiers were buried.

Fort Abercrombie, in fact, was manned by former Confederate soldiers during the Civil War who swore allegiance to the Union cause, Acker said.

Decoration Day, as Memorial Day used to be called, was observed at the fort, but few details survive about how. It would have been typical, he said, for a quiet wreath-laying during a flag ceremony, with soldiers’ details and chores ending early for the day, perhaps followed by a baseball game.

Three days of Memorial Day observances at Fort Abercrombie will culminate Monday afternoon with a flag-lowering ceremony and folding of the flag to commemorate soldiers, known and unknown, wherever they lie.

If you go

  • What: Memorial Day observances at Fort Abercrombie Historic Site, N.D.

  • When: Continuing today and concluding Monday

  • Details: Today’s events begin at 9:30 a.m. with reveille and a flag-raising ceremony at the old site; tours of historic fort buildings begin at 1:30 p.m. and end at 4 p.m. Monday’s events begin with living history demonstrations and kids’ games at 9:30 a.m., with free visitation and tours starting at 1:30 p.m., and conclude with a flag retreat ceremony at 4:30 p.m.

    Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522