A paper for the people along the Calamus River
Including the town of Calamus and Fort Hartsuff
April 1871 Volume 1 Number 1
Attack on Fort Hartsuff
There has been reported to this paper an incident at Fort Hartsuff. There has been a desperate time at the fort the last few days. Apparently somewhere to the north a band of outlaws has holed up hiding out from justice and the law. They sent a list of demands to the fort demanding beef, bread and bullets. It seems they were trying to take advantage of a time when many of the soldiers normally stationed at the fort had been ordered away into the west to aid in the investigation and possible suppression of renegade Indians rising up in the Wyoming and Dakota Territory. The outlaws, reported to be the infamous Watts-Jordan gang from eastern and southern Nebraska, have been marauding and waylaying innocents along the roads and byways leading into the Dakota Territory. These outlaws sent a dispatch to the fort by way of some terrified local demanding food and ammunition. If their demands were not met, they claimed, they would commence firing upon the fort and the soldiers therein until the fort would capitulate and surrender the demanded goods.
Our fierce commandant, Colonel Shane I. C. Johnson, naturally refused. He would not now nor ever bow bow to such demands, especially from such desperados as the aforementioned gang. Thus it all began. Sometime in the afternoon of the sixteenth of this month, during a slight spring rain, while the changing of the guard was taking place, for the fort was placed on high alert due to the threat, two gunmen opened fire. Bullets slamming into the barracks and officer’s quarters. Some of the soldiers were out drilling when the incident began and one of them declared that a bullet went through his hat missing his head by fractions of an inch. The soldiers, being unarmed, were forced to return to the barracks to gather ammunition to defend themselves.
Commander Johnson immediately ordered that the men form up and attempt to drive off the bandits. They marched out north to the hills and engaged the two men, though not without peril. A number of shots and volleys were exchanged before the invaders disappeared.
Hoping it was all over would not suffice. After waiting for perhaps an hour, the soldiers returned to the barracks, wet and cold, but rejoicing that the incident was over, but no sooner had they relaxed, and the next changing of the guard begun, for Commander Johnson knew the desperation of these desperados out of the north, than shots again rang out. This time there appeared to be almost a dozen of the business, so they returned, with a greater number of men to get their plan in motion. The first firing was beyond the hills to the north of the officer’s house, and a number of windows were shattered and bullets struck the house and some went as far as the barracks where a couple of the men were resting on the veranda.
Several guards at the officer’s quarters and those posted at the barracks were able to return fire immediately, but they were unable to drive the outlaws away. One of the officers, who inadvertently stuck his head out the back door of the house, was also fired upon. Once again the troops were called out. They marched to the north just as they had done before, to aid the hapless guards. The outlaws rans west towards the commandant’s house but kept up a heavy fire upon the advancing warriors. They raced up the ridge in order to deploy along its length and return fire where ever the outlaws may show their heads. Before they could spread out one of the outlaw band jumped up and fired upon them with what appears to have been a repeating Henry rifle. One private was heard saying, “I didn’t know they could come so fast. It seemed like he fired a hundred times before we could even get one shot off.”
The rapid fire caused the men to scatter and dive for cover, but not before one man was slightly wounded in the left arm. They managed to spread out firing upon the man who disappeared behind the hills again. Once again the bandits shifted west and appeared again firing into the end of the line with a blistering fire, but one of them standing on top of the hill was seen to be struck down rolling backwards and vanishing behind the hill. There followed a sharp exchange of fire then in which two more soldiers went down wounded, one of them grievously, and another was killed shot through the heart. After about twenty minutes the shooting stopped. It appeared that one or more of the outlaws may have also been hit, but no one was quite certain.
After waiting for a while longer the first sergeant selected a small patrol of four men to reconnoiter the far side of the hills. They returned shortly afterwards with the report of finding three dead outlaws. One of them, after some further investigating is believed to be one of the leaders of the outlaw gang, Jordan Beetts.
Rain settled in then, and there were no more incidents from the outlaws. They apparently gave up their attack. Colonel Johnson gave the order that the following day another patrol would go out searching for the desperados in an attempt to both locate them and capture them, or drive them out of the territory. All they found when they reported back were cold campfires and bloody rags. Apparently more damage was done to them than was observed from the skirmish.
Corporal Tobey, one of the cooks for the fort, observed, “It was a bit unnerving having bullets come your way and no way to fire back, but I knew our boys could beat them back.”
Apparently Colonel Johnson had to investigate the possibility that one or more workers in the fort had rendered aid to the outlaws. “Yes,” he said. “When that other man, not believed to have been part of the gang was shot and killed on the southwest side of the fort, there were rumors that that Private Schmity or his helper had smuggled information to them. Information about the times of the changing of the guards, but the rumors proved false.”
Schmity declared, “It must have been some slovenly soldier who did this, but it wasn’t me!”
Colonel Johnson commended the fort surgeon, Captain Beton, with saving the life of Private Wayne, the severely injured man, and quickly patching up the other two, so they could return to service. “We are sorry for the loss of the private,” the Captain was heard saying. “It was a little touch and go with the other man, but we managed to pull him through. He should be back to duty in a few weeks.” Colonel Johnson also commended the men for responding so quickly and vigorously to the threat.
“Thank goodness it all seems to be over,” he said. “Once they realized we were not going to capitulate to their demands and they were grievously bloodied by our men, they skedaddled. I believe we hurt them quite badly, by killing one of their leaders, and possibly mortally wounding others. Hopefully it will be an end to the gang. I will only send out another patrol if we hear of more marauding by them.”
This paper is so glad to have the services of this post at Fort Hartsuff. They have been so helpful and open to the countryside. We wish to thank all those who have made it their responsibility to take care of us.