After more than 150 years, New Ulm Battery still one-of-a-kind
By Jake Calhoun
Journal Sports Writer
NEW ULM – Established in 1863, the New Ulm Battery remains the only town-based Civil War-era militia in the country that is still in existence.
The New Ulm Battery formed to protect the town in the aftermath of the U.S. Dakota War of 1862 (also known as the Sioux Uprising). Today, the Battery is still around to serve as historic reminder of the town of New Ulm’s past.
“This is not only a state and city tradition that’s lasted over 150 years, it’s its own piece of history besides the town’s history,” said Ryan Kelly, a fifth-generation member of the Battery. “During the Sioux Uprising when we were formed, we protected the town all those years. We also had commanders that were forefathers of the Minnesota National Guard.
“So we’ve always been around and we’re more the tradition and the old ways of doing things as opposed to the new Minnesota National Guard and our local 125th. They’re the current history and we are their past.”
Even though the state militia laws were suspended in 1871, the Battery re-formed in 1890 under former German artillery officer Frank Burg in order to preserve its history.
“We want to tell the story of New Ulm, where we’re from and how our town stood together to create our own defense,” Ryan Kelly said. “Obviously we have never had to fire a shot in anger, but in the same spirit we’d like to think that we’re still prepared to protect our town. In that spirit, we try to train and be ready just as they were.”
First Lieutenant John Fritsche has been with the Battery for 50 years and takes a lot of pride in the fact that it still uses horses as well as original equipment from the Civil War era.
“Our boss is the mayor of New Ulm, he’s the one who would tell us what to do – if we had to be called out or anything, that would be him,” Fritsche said. “We’re keeping the history up of what happened here in New Ulm and preserving the guns.”
Following the initial Indian attacks on New Ulm in 1862, a group of Germans in Cincinnati donated a 12-pound Mountain Howitzer to the town. The Howitzer is currently intact and on display at the Brown County Museum.
Around that time, the Battery organized to defend the town and prevent another attack from happening on its soil.
“We were organized strictly to defend the city of New Ulm,” Fritsche said.
The Battery has been called to action on a few occasions outside of the Sioux Uprising. In the 1930s, the Battery was called to help quell the riots and control protestors in Tracy after railroad labor disputes caused unrest in the western Minnesota town.
In 1866, the Battery was also successful in preventing a mob from Mankato from burning down the town after two trappers were mistaken for Native Americans and were hanged from the town’s lamp posts following a drunken bar dispute, during which a bartender was fatally stabbed and another man was axed to death.
“It was definitely an ugly day for New Ulm,” said Sean Kelly, Ryan’s father and fellow Battery member. “They escaped with their lives, both were injured. … They went up to the jail looking for protection, so he put them in a cell because crimes had been committed. A crowd formed outside and said, ‘You give us those two men and we’ll take care of it.’ As the crowd grew, the sheriff didn’t have too much of a choice.”
Folks in New Ulm were not too kind to Native Americans due to the Dakota War that had taken place just a couple years prior, which made the confusion of mistaking well-tanned outdoorsmen for them all the more embarrassing. One of the men mistaken for being Native American was also a Medal of Honor recipient after fighting for the Union in the Civil War.
But the Battery was successful in preventing the angry Mankato mob from burning New Ulm to the ground after the ugly incident.
In its possession, the Battery has a 6-pound field gun that was given to it by former governor and then-state militia Colonel Henry Sibley in 1863. It also still has one of two 3-inch ordinance rifles that were made in 1863.
Nowadays the Battery has taken a more ceremonious role, taking part in numerous parades in southern Minnesota, including two yearly parades in New Ulm, among other activities.
The Battery also takes part in battle reenactments and was even asked to fire its cannons in St. Paul to christen a new monument that was erected on the grounds of the state capitol. The Battery has fired at the state capitol for May Day for the past 10 years as well.
Fritsche said that a Medal of Honor winner from Alabama recruited the Battery to find some Confederate stand-ins for a battle reenactment.
“It was an honor to do that for these guys,” Fritsche said. “We were the only people who were asked to come down to do it.”
The Battery currently has roughly 20 members, which is less than half of the full roster max of 42.
“We’re always recruiting,” Ryan Kelly said. “Because we are low-staffed, we can’t bring as many horses into parades. Not as many guys we have today are as well-trained as the generations of past with horses. We are lucky enough to have some very good recruits and very good members to learn.”
Anyone who is interested in learning more or joining the Battery can contact the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.