Fort Abraham Lincoln – Symbol of Civil War Memory on the North Dakota Prairie

When Emerging Civil War asked us all to think about whether we might write something on this month’s theme of “Forts” my instinct was to write about Fort Union, New Mexico. In fact, I told our editorial maestro Sarah Kay Bierle that I was going to do just that. With my apologies to Sarah for fibbing, when I sat down and thought about which fort has meant the most to my life – and made the greatest impact on my work – I could not escape the pull to share a few words about a place I would wager even the most intrepid ECW explorers and readers have yet to visit: Fort Abraham Lincoln.

Now, I will also admit that Fort Abraham Lincoln, located near present-day Mandan, North Dakota, is not technically a Civil War Fort. It was constructed in 1872; first as infantry post under the name Fort McKeen but was quickly redesignated as a cavalry post and christened Fort Abraham Lincoln in November 1872. The post was important as a practical measure, giving George Custer and his Seventh Cavalry troops a place to live for four years, for example, but I will suggest that it played an important role in the reconstruction of the country and the process of reconciliation.

Fort Lincoln was located along the banks of the Missouri River (about 60 miles south of the site where Lewis and Clark chose to spend the winter of 1804 at Fort Mandan) and along the route of the Northern Pacific Railroad Line, which, in 1872 was yet under construction. As railroad workers and surveyors laid down ties and rails across the West, an arial view might have shown what looked like stitches across the landscape binding the East to the West and, perhaps, helping to sew the nation back together.

Fort Abraham Lincoln; Custer House

The western progress of the railroads and the army forts built to protect their constructors, were a direct result of Union victory in the Civil War. To be sure, railroads were a continual topic of conversation in the antebellum federal government and, as Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis had four potential routes surveyed in the early 1850s, but, after the Civil War, they symbolized the triumph of free labor over slavery—and the flourishing of capitalism in the West. And the media celebrated them and the men who made them possible. In Harper’s Weekly, peace arched over the railroad and text from Ulysses S. Grant’s famous utterance from the Overland Campaign underscored the degree to which Americans viewed unchecked western expansion as a right they had won by triumphing over the Confederacy.

We’ll Fight It Out On This Line If It Takes All Summer (Harper’s Weekly, August 22, 1868)

Fort Lincoln was also an important post for it symbolized in terms of reconciliation, or the process by which veterans of both sides made amends after the war. This was made evident to me in the case of George Custer, the post’s most famous (or infamous) occupant, who reunited gladly with a former foe while posted to the North Dakota prairie.

Early in the text of Boots and Saddles, her famous memoir of her life in the U.S. Army, Elizabeth Bacon Custer recalled the journey made by the Seventh Cavalry from Elizabethtown, Ky., to Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, in 1873. While delighted at the prospect of escaping Reconstruction duty, Libbie arrived at present-day Bismarck, N.D., to find that she would not be allowed to travel with her husband while he accompanied a surveying expedition to determine a route for the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Despite her disappointment in being left behind, Libbie gladly recounted her husband’s reunion with his old West Point comrade Thomas L. Rosser, a former major general in the Confederate Army who had taken a position as the chief engineer of the Northern Pacific. Libbie told her readers of Custer and Rosser’s long association, from their West Point days to their frequent encounters commanding troops in opposing armies on the battlefields of the Shenandoah Valley.

In 1870 Rosser seized an opportunity with the Northern Pacific Railroad and was soon an assistant engineer. He posed with his children Sarah, Will, and Thomas, Jr., in a tent city in Fargo, North Dakota. Rosser Family Papers, University of Virginia Library)

 

During the war, Libbie suggested, neither man felt any true animosity toward the other, even though Custer had captured all Rosser’s supply wagons or routed his troops in battle. Libbie explained that even when one soldier got the better of the other, the letters that followed addressed a “dear friend.” That the two former generals should fall back into such an easy friendship, reclining on a buffalo robe and spending “hours talking over the campaigns in Virginia” provided evidence of an easy reconciliation. The West and the work that it offered – for some in the army and other in civilian life – allowed reconciliation to occur without the trappings and geography of North and South.

George and Libbie Custer in the general’s study; Fort Abraham Lincoln.

 

Today, the Fort Lincoln site features a few reconstructed buildings — including the “Custer House” where the general lived with his wife Libbie and their African American cook Eliza Brown. Visitors can tour the home — presented in the months before the summer of 1876 and Custer’s expedition to Montana. Also on view are the block houses built to protect the fort from any advance on the garrison via the Missouri River. Visitors can also see a reconstruction of the Mandan On-A-Slant village; which was occupied by members of the nation until 1781, when a smallpox epidemic devastated the population and forced survivors to move north and join with the Hidatsa people along the Knife River.

It is place well worth visiting in a region rich with history and the stories of Native peoples, white settlers, immigrant communities, army explorers, and many others. Though it is not at first glance, a Civil War fort, it was a community populated by Civil War veterans who lived their days recalling the heroic deeds and victories of 1861-65. As seen in the photo above, George Custer kept multiple reminders of the conflict close at hand as he worked and studied. He did so in a place that physically represented the processes of reunion and reconciliation, as the nation looked West.

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4 Responses to Fort Abraham Lincoln – Symbol of Civil War Memory on the North Dakota Prairie

  1. Terri says:

    Having just visited this very fort last summer, it’s most certainly worth the visit! The Custer House, though not the original, has a number of items used by the Custers. Highly recommend!

  2. Jay says:

    I was also there last summer. In the barracks, there are brief biographies of some on the soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry. These tell about the individual’s service record, his fate at the Little Bighorn, and any family members left behind. Very poignant way to remember the soldiers.

  3. scott s. says:

    An interesting time period. The Northern Pacific was being built by banker/financier Jay Cooke who was instrumental working with Chase in floating the loans used to pay for the war. After the war he got the idea that Duluth, Minn would be an ideal railroad terminus to rival Chicago. But in my estimation he lacked the engineering smarts to efficiently build the NP. To promote business for the road, he pushed for immigration from northern Germany and Scandinavia under the theory that the climate in Dakota was similar. But the combination of Credit Mobilier and Franco-Prussian war resulted in financial panic in 72-73 and that took down Cooke and the railroad. The NP would eventually be completed, but was in ruinous competition with the Great Northern and Canadian Pacific which served the same market.

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