Alfred J. Hill’s History of the Sixth Minnesota Infantry, Company E shows that Louis Thiele, “a Prussian settler of the neighborhood, whose family had been murdered by the Indians,” enlisted in the Sixth Minnesota, Company E as a Private at Fort Ridgely on August 30, 1862.
Born in 1829 and trained as a carpenter, Thiele immigrated from Prussia to the United States in 1857. He spoke German his surname (spelled Tilly, Daily, Thiel and Thieler) was probably pronounced “Till-ee.” In 1859, Thiele and ten other settlers took land in the ‘ten mile strip’ of Sioux Reservation lying north of the Minnesota River. The land still belonged to the Lower Dakotas; the Treaty 1858 had not yet ratified when Thiele and his neighbors preempted it.
In August 1862, Thiele, his wife Elizabeth Hoak (Haak) Thiele, and their four-year-old son were living in Flora, a German-speaking Protestant settlement in Renville County on the North side of the Minnesota River opposite the Lower Sioux Reservation.
On August 18, 1862, the Thieles and their neighbors (Meyer, Zitslaff, Inhenfeldt, Sieg, and Hauff) hearing rumors that the Indians across the river had “broken out,” fled in wagons toward Fort Ridgely for safety. Dakota warriors rose up out of a cornfield and started shooting. Thiele ran into a stand of trees and from hiding, watched warriors shoot his wife and son, then strike them with hatchets.
Louis Thiele was the sole survivor of his family when he reached Fort Ridgely and reported the murder of his wife and son. He was captive inside the Fort during its siege. After Sibley arrived and relieved the garrison, Thiele enlisted in the Sixth Minnesota, Company E. Records show that 90% of the men who volunteered for that company, like Thiele, spoke German.
The day after he enlisted, Thiele was detailed to a crew of citizen-soldiers sent out from the Fort to bury the bodies of settlers that had lain exposed to the weather, and to animal predators, since August 18. Minnie Carrigan told this story about Thiele’s experience:
“One day while [Carrigan, a freed captive] was staying at Camp Release, Mr. Thiele… went on talking about how he and a half-breed named Moore, buried the dead. They had buried quite a number before he had courage enough to bury his wife and child. When he came upon their bodies the dogs had eaten most of them and there was nothing but a few pieces of their clothes. He said he knelt down beside them and cried, prayed, and cursed the Indians, all in one breath. He swore that he would shoot Indians all the rest of his life. At last the half-breed could stand it no longer and asked Thiele if he was going to kill him, too. Mr. Thiele did not answer at which Moore threw down his spade and went away, leaving him to bury his dead alone.”
Enter a new settler-soldier grave-digging partner, John Meyer, the only other man to have survived the massacre of Thiele’s party.
Soon, Thiele had a chance to test his vow to kill Indians. Thiele and Meyer saw a figure moving in the distance. Thinking it was an Indian, Thiele raised his gun and almost shot a wounded, lost settler named Justina Kriegher. Thiele mistook Kriegher for a Dakota woman because, depending upon the story: a.) she was crawling through the grass, too injured to walk; b.) her long dark hair had come unplaited and fell down her back; c.) she was wearing nothing more than a calfskin draped around body.
Meyer stopped Thiele from shooting Kriegher. Then they carried her to their army camp at Birch Coulie. The next morning, they were surrounded, ambushed, and besieged by Dakota warriors. Thiele, Meyer, and Kriegher all survived. (Meyer later married Kriegher.)
Thiele’s company was held in reserve during the battle at Wood Lake. Hill’s History laments that the company never got to fight; they spent two hours standing at the ready, itching to shoot Indians. Next, Hill says, Company E was assigned to guard the Dakota prisoners at Camp Release.
Over the next few weeks, records of the military commission show that Thiele testified in the trials of three Dakota warriors he identified as having participated in the massacre at Beaver Creek on August 18. All three men were sentenced to death.
The first week in November, Thiele’s company was detailed to accompany the prisoners’ convoy to South Bend. On Sunday, November 8, 1862, Thiele was assigned to the inner ring of soldiers marching alongside the wagons of Dakota prisoners. Outside New Ulm, in Brown County, Minnesota, the convoy was attacked by enraged German citizens.
The U.S. soldiers escorting the prisoners were armed and had been warned of impending mob violence. Yet soldiers like Thiele did not adequately protect the prisoners. Chained to one another and seated in the beds of wagons, the Dakota men were helpless to defend themselves from the stones and clubs hurled at them. Two Dakota men later died of injuries sustained in the attack.
Did the commanders in charge of the prisoners’ convoy make Co. E the inner ring of guards because they knew they would be passing through German-speaking territory? Or was it a blunder to make Germans like Thiele the Dakota prisoners’s last line of defense? New Ulm plotters put civilian women up front in the attack. Did they guess a German soldier might hesitate to bayonet a German woman?
And what of Thiele himself, who had vowed to kill any Indian who crossed his path? Did Thiele vigorously defend the prisoners in the wagon under his charge?
Seven weeks later, on December 26, 1862, two of the three warriors Thiele testified against were among the 38 men simultaneously executed at Mankato.
Historians have recently pointed out that it is remarkable that the Dakotas who surrendered in 1862 did not come to more harm at the hand’s of Sibley’s soldiers, speculating that officers in charge managed to impose an impressive level of military discipline on their settler-soldier subordinates.
The problem is that the body of evidence continues to evolve. Those of us alive and working today did not inherit this emerging body of soldier-settler stories from previous historians; we’ve only been actively asking these questions for six years. Someday, most of the relevant sources will have been identified and will have given up the stories they contain. But we’re not there yet.
In the mean time, Dakota oral stories of abuse –more extensive than we have yet archivally documented –point the way.
Consider those Dakota stories, along with stories like Louis Thiele’s, this way: If today the government recruited 9/11 survivors and assigned them to guard duty at Guantanamo and subsequently, the prisoners there alleged abuse at the hands of their guards, we would not protest, “These allegations are simply political rhetoric; U.S. soldiers would never behave with such unprofessionalism.”
Rather, we would be asking, “Why in the world did they assign 9/11 survivors to guard duty at Guantanamo Bay?”
That is what we did to Dakota people who surrendered in 1862.
Louis Thiele returned to Renville County in 1864, remarried, and had a reputation for having an “erratic” temper. Thiele lived at least until 1897.