The Third Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment's record of service varied greatly. The regiment endured a controversial surrender in Tennessee, played a decisive role in the climactic battle of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, and helped win Union control of the vital Mississippi River.
The Third Minnesota mustered into service at Fort Snelling in October and November of 1861. In late November the regiment departed for the South. The officers and men spent much of their first year on garrison duty in Kentucky and Tennessee as part of the Army of the Ohio. Shortly after the Third arrived in Kentucky, Henry C. Lester became the regiment's colonel. Lester had been a captain in theFirst Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, and he quickly drilled the Third into a disciplined and competent fighting force. This, along with his care for the well-being of his men, earned for him the confidence and respect of the regiment.
This relationship changed abruptly in the summer of 1862. While guarding the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the Third and other units of its brigade were attacked by Confederate Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest in the early morning hours of July 13. Leaving a small force to guard its camp, the Third marched a short distance toward the sound of the fighting, then halted. Part of Forrest's force attacked the Third's camp guard consisting of about thirty men. This small detachment put up a stubborn fight, finally becoming overwhelmed with the Confederates' third attack. Meanwhile, the balance of the Third Minnesota remained idle. The vast majority of the regiment believed that they should go to the aid of their comrades and could defeat Forrest's relatively small force. Instead, Col. Lester decided to surrender the regiment. This caused the officers and men great shame and embarrassment. Lester and the officers who voted for surrender were eventually dismissed from the service.
The Third was sent to St. Louis to be paroled, and then returned to Minnesota to await prisoner exchange. This would allow them to again take the field against the Confederates. The men's arrival in Minnesota was timely, because in August warfare had erupted on Minnesota's frontier between settlers and Dakota led by Taoyateduta (Little Crow IV). Gen. Henry H. Sibley assembled a force to deal with the crisis. This force included 250 men of the Third Minnesota.
On September 23, 1862, Taoyateduta's men lay in wait, ready to ambush Sibley's soldiers as they marched from their camp on the road to the northwest. However, a group of soldiers from the Third left camp, without orders, to search for potatoes. They came upon part of Taoyateduta's force lying in the tall grass. This chance encounter precipitated the Battle of Wood Lake. The Dakota were unable to spring their planned ambush, and being spread out, not all of them reached the scene of the fight before the battle ended. The experience and discipline of the Third affected the outcome of the battle. Along with men of the Renville Rangers, the Third held together and made the final charge. The defeat of Taoyateduta's warriors at Wood Lake led to the release two days later of over 100 white captives and effectively brought an end to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. If the Third hadn't been surrendered in Tennessee two months earlier, this chapter in Minnesota's history may have had a completely different outcome.
In early 1863 the exchanged Third Minnesota returned to the South. In June and July they participated in Ulysses S. Grant's Vicksburg Campaign. Next they took part in the campaign to expel the Confederates from Arkansas. On September 11, the Third triumphantly entered Little Rock. They garrisoned the city for the next seven months, using the state capitol as quarters. On April 1, 1864, part of the regiment fought the Battle of Fitzhugh's Woods. The remainder of the regiment's service was spent at various posts throughout Arkansas.
Throughout the summer of 1864, the regiment suffered terrible sickness while stationed in a swampy area at Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Many men died of disease during the regiment's stay here.
The Third Minnesota returned home after the war and was discharged at Fort Snelling on September 16, 1865.