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The Birch Cooley Monument
The History of Renville County, Volume 2
Compiled by Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge
The legislature of 1893 made an appropriation for a monument to commemorate the Battle of Birch Cooley. A commmission was appointed, consisting of Charles D. Gilfillan, of Redwood county; Dr. J. W. Daniels, of Northfield, who was surgeon of the Brich Cooley expedition; William H. Grant, a cousin of Captain H. P. Grant, and who as a citizen soldier participated in the battle, and S. C. Arbuckle, who had been a member of Captain Grant's company. Later Dr. A. G. Stoddard, R. B. Henton and Jerry P. Patten, all of Morton, were added to the commission.
The commission spent many days in discussing the site. Gradually for many reasons the sentiment of the members seemed to favor a site overlooking the village of Morton, the site being a part of the old fair grounds. Space does not permit a discussion of these reasons.
Commissioner Jerry P. Patten says:
"The original intention of the commission was to place the monument on the site of the corral where the brave defense was made. But the owner of the site placed a price on his land which the commission believed to be too high. Captain H. P Grant and S. C. Arbuckle, both of whom had taken part in the Battle of Birch Cooley, favored a site on a commanding crag overlooking Morton, over which the Indians were chased after the battle. This point, a part of the old fair grounds, is visible for miles around, and from its brow can be seen the bottoms and prairies where so many thrilling scenes of the Massacre were enacted. I consulted various survivors of the battle, and all seemed to favor the fair grounds site. State legal authorities declared that a monument under the act of the legislature need not be erected exactly on the corral but could be erected on any spot where any part of the battle was waged. The commission, therefore, proceeded to erect the monument, the site being presented by the Fair Grounds Association and the village of Morton agreeing to give the tract perpetual care."
When the commission met to decide upon the final location of the monument, Dr. Daniels and W. H. Grant voted that it should stand on the battle ground; the other five commissioners voted that it be placed on the fair grounds. Upon directing that the name Capt. H. P. Grant be placed on the die as the commander, only Dr. J. W. Daniels, the surgeon of the expedition, voted no. He said he had been directed by Colonel Sibley to report to Major Brown and receive his orders; that he did so from first to last, without any intimation from any one that Captain Grant was the commander.
"Gentlemen," said he to the other members, "you are falsifying history and doing a cruel injustice to a brave and good man, Major Brown. I dressed the severe wound he received during the battle; I rode with him on the march, and I slept in his tent, and from these circumstances, and Colonel Sibley's express and personal directions, I know that Major Brown was the commander of all of us. I cannot serve any longer with you." Whereupon he withdrew from the conference and never thereafter met with the commissioners or had anything to do with the monument affair.
Even before the dedication of the Birch Cooley monument there was some dissatisfaction among survivors of the battle and other citizens over the selection of its site. They opposed placing the structure anywhere else but on the field of the battle which it was to memorialize. It was declared that a site two miles distant from where the fight actually occurred was unsuited to preserve the actual scene of that fight.
When it became known that the name of Capt. Hiram P. Grant was to be placed on the monument as commander of the white forces in the battle, indignant protests were made against the dedication of the monumental shaft until the alleged error should be corrected. It was asserted that all the authoritative records proved that Maj. Joseph R. Brown was the real commander of the whites; that he was appointed by General (then Colonel) Sibley to command the expedition; that he made a report as such commander; that Capt. Joseph Anderson, the captain of one of the two companies composing the white forces, reported to Major Brown; that these reports were printed, along with other official matter, and the fact well established that Major Brown was the commander-in-chief of the Birch Cooley expedition and Captain Grant was a subordinate commander under him. Several years ago Captain Grant, in a printed story of the battle, acknowledged that when he presented his official report after the battle, he was told by Colonel Sibley to present the report to the commander, Major Brown, and that in his indignation he tore his report up rather than present it to Major Brown.
The people of Morton were much pleased that they were to have the monument as a sort of decoration or embellishment of their fair grounds. On the day of its dedication, September 3, 1894, they gave the visitors an excellent dinner and a cordial welcome to their village, expressing their appreciation of the favor done them by the state in placing the memorial structure in their midst. The village council formally agreed to an ordinance (or resolution) pledging the corporation to maintain it in proper condition so long as it remained in the village. A site of about one acre had been deeded to the state.
The services at the dedication were stormy and unpleasant. Such eminent public speakers as ex-Governor William G. Marshall, Capt. Joseph Anderson (who commanded one of the companies in the battle), and Hon. Charles E. Flandrau denounced the placing of the monument on the fair grounds instead of on the battle ground and condemned the placing of Captain Grant's name as the commander as a gross injustice and a falsification of history. Captain Grant mildly defended the action of the commission in both instances, saying, among other things, "So help me God, I was the commander, for Joe Brown did not give me any orders."
Unfortunately the monument itself was faulty. In placing the stones composing the die a botch job was done. These stones bore the names of those officers, soldiers and citizen-soldiers that took part in the battle, killed, wounded and survivors. These names were in columns running from top to bottom. One stone with its list of survivors was placed over part of a column of the list of the killed. The result was that some of the attendants - Judge James G. Egan, of St. Paul, among them - found themselves listed among the killed! The monument was afterward taken down and put together again and the error corrected. The expense of making the correction was $300 and was borne by Hon. C. D. Gilfillan, chairman of the commission. Then the names of two citizens, Carlton Dickinson and S. R. Henderson, who were killed, were left off the inscription, as were the names of two soldiers that were in the fight. The incident was mortifying and displeasing.
Those who opposed the monument site and the retention of the name of Captain Grant on the monument as the commander continued their protest. Major Brown had died in 1870, and representing his family and certain ex-soldiers, R. I. Holcombe, of St. Paul, was given charge of a bill presented in the legislature of 1895 to remove the monument from the fair grounds to the battlefield, and to change the inscription so that it would show the name of Major Brown as in general command of the white forces in the battle, with Captain Grant and Anderson as his subordinates.
The bill was thoroughly investigated by a committee of five former Minnesota soldiers from each house. One of these, Senator Iltis, of Carver county, had been a member of the Sixth Minnesota (Grant's former regiment), and was present in the battle of Birch Coulie. The committee held meetings and received and considered much testimony. Finally they reported unanimously in favor of the bill, and it was passed without dissent in the senate and with only two votes against it in the house. The Grant partisans, with Gen. John B. Sanborn as their attorney, appeared before Governor Clough and asked him to veto the bill, but the governor said: "The monument should stand on the battlefield where the blood ran and the men were killed, even if it is a mudhole. As for the commander, the committee went thoroughly into that, and I believe their conclusion is correct."
The law is Chapter 376 of the General Laws of 1895 (beginning on page 776), and, briefly stated, prescribes that the monument shall be removed "to a portion of the corral or actual battle ground whereon was fought the battle of Birch Coulie." (The act of 1893, appropriating $2,500 for the erection of the monument, provided that the structure should stand "on the land on which was fought the battle of Birch Coulie.") The removal act of 1895 also provides that the inscriptions on the monument be changed "so as to conform to and with the truths of history * * * and in particular said inscriptions shall show the established facts that Major Joseph R. Brown, of the state militia, was in general command of the state's forces."
The removal was placed in charge of Adjutant General (then General) Hermann Muehlberg, who appointed R. I. Holcombe, who had charge of getting the last law passed, as his agent for the work. The agent decided that six acres should be purchased by the state as a new site for the monument and for a park surrounding. He selected the tract, had it surveyed, and negotiated with the owner, a Mr. Weiss. The owner wanted $100 an acre for the land, which the agent deemed an exhorbitant price and under the law brought condemnatory proceedings. The jury of award allowed Mr. Weiss $80 per acre and he appealed to the district court. Judge Webber heard the case at Redwood Falls and rendered judgment sustaining the award. Thereupon the state secured title to the six acres.
The monument was never moved nor the inscriptions changed. The year following the passage of the law (1896) was presidential and gubernatorial election year. It was declared that political motives had something to do with the governor's delay in the matter. So nothing was done about the matter for two years, the appropriation of $1,200 lapsed, and the money was turned back into the state treasury.
Since the erection of the monument various suggestions have offered as to the possibility of making the inscription legible. Owing to the nature of the stone, the quality of its finish, and the method of cutting, the inscription can be read only after long and careful scrutiny, and probably not a single person since the day of the dedication has taken the trouble necessary to read the names of those men whose deeds the monument perpetuates. Probably in time some method will be discovered by which the inscriptions will be made easier reading to the casual observer, and by that time the correction regarding the commanding officer will doubtless be made.
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