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The Retreat and the Battle of Hanska Slough

The remains of the James-Younger Gang fled the town of Northfield, Minnesota shortly after 2:00 PM on September 7, 1876. They had just attempted to rob the First National Bank in town, but, unexpectedly, the town citizens fought back. Eight members of the gang entered the town; only six left. Two of the gang, Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell, lay dead on Division Street back in Northfield’s town square. Of the surviving six members, five were wounded. Cole Younger had been shot five times, in the left thigh, left hip, right arm, right side, and left shoulder. Jim Younger had been shot three times, once in each shoulder and in the back of his right leg. Frank James and Charlie Pitts had each been shot once; Frank in the right leg, above the knee, and Charlie in the upper left arm. Frank, however, also had his arm and hand slammed in the door of the vault of Northfield’s bank, and this wound cause him much pain for several days to follow. It was Bob Younger, however, that was in the worst shape. He had been shot twice, in the left leg and in the right elbow. His elbow wound was bleeding profusely and the bone was completely shattered. Only Jesse James was not wounded at all. The total take from Northfield’s bank was mere $26.70, hardly worth what the gang had just endured. To make matters worse, the six outlaws were on five horses; Bob’s had been killed back in Northfield and he was riding on the back of Cole’s horse. Also, the gang’s lone guide, Bill Chadwell, was dead. The entire expedition to Minnesota had depended on Bill’s knowledge on the layout of Minnesota’s lands and back trails. None of the other gang members had ever been to Minnesota in their lives. Without Bill, they were literally riding blind. Minnesota did not provide the hundreds of friends and sympathizers that would shelter the gang and hide them from pursuing posses and the gang certainly could not afford to stop and rest. The thing that may have hurt the gang the worst was the fact that the telegraph lines in Northfield had not been destroyed, as had originally been the plan. In short, the gang couldn’t have been in worse shape if it tried.

Shortly after the gang exited Northfield, a small posse was put together. The posse trailed them for a short while before turning back. Meanwhile, the telegraph wires in Northfield were abuzz, sending messages to every city, town, and village in the area with the news of recent events. By the end of the day, over five hundred men would be on the trail of the gang. Within the next few days, several thousand men were after them. The men ranged from professional law officers, trackers, soldiers, glory hunters, bounty hunters, and fame seekers.

The gang fled until they reached the Cannon River, near the town of Dundas. There, they bandaged their wounds as best they could and tried to come up with some kind of plan. Charlie had previously studied medicine, so his medical knowledge may have helped the gang to some degree. The gang used torn pieces of clothing to bandage their wounds. A sling was made for Bob’s right arm as well. When the bandaging was complete, it was decided that they would travel west, towards the Dakotas, then head south. As these plans were being made, Philip Empey, a Dundas farmer, was passing by the river. The gang spotted him and, at gunpoint, ordered him to hand over his horse. Empey did this and Bob was put on Empey’s horse. With that, the six outlaws rode off.

The gang soon arrived in the town of Millersburgh. Lucky for them, the telegraph wires had not yet brought news of the robbery to Millersburgh. By the time they reached the town, Bob’s elbow needed to be re-bandaged. They stopped at the house of a local named Robert Donaldson and were able to acquire some fresh water and bandaging equipment from him. When Donaldson asked what happened to Bob, one gang member stated he got into a gunfight with a gambler in Northfield named Stiles. The man went on to say that while Bob was wounded, the gambler was killed. With the bandaging complete, the gang left the Donaldson place and continued to ride. By the end of the day, Bob had lost so much blood, he was lightheaded. From then on, Bob would merely hold the horn of his saddle with his left hand while another gang member would lead his horse by the reins. On the night of September 7, the gang reached Shieldsville, where they watered their horses. While their horses were drinking from a watering trough, a local posse was spotted as laying their guns outside of a building before entering it. As the posse exited the building a short time later, they found the robbers aiming several guns at them. The robbers told them not to touch their guns, then rode off quickly. Afterwards, the posse gathered up their guns and went off in pursuit of the gang. They caught up with them four miles outside of Shieldsville and the two groups of men exchanged a few shots, before the gang took off and were once again out of sight. That night, the gang slept in an area known as the “Big Woods.” No one discovered them as they slept that night.

On the morning of September 8, a torrential rain began. The rain would continue for two weeks. This downpour served as both a blessing and curse to the gang, however. While the rain would help cover their tracks, it would also slow them down even more. As the gang continued to move, they would frequently run across a posse. The six outlaws were able to conceal their wounds and merely told the other posses that they were a posse looking for the Northfield robbers as well.

In the afternoon of Sept. 8, the gang tried to cross over the Cannon River, but the water was far too high for their horses to cross. They decided to make a detour down nearby Cordova Road. On the road, they met a group of road workers and, once again posing as a posse, they asked the workers where they could successfully cross the river. The workers told them about a nearby bridge and the robbers were on their way. Near the bridge, they discovered another posse and, rather than trying to deceive them by posing as another posse, they headed toward Tetonka Lake. At the lake, another posse spotted them and a few shots were fired at the gang. However, the gang charged their horses into the lake and they managed to make it to the other side.

Throughout the day, the gang managed to steal a total of six fresh horses to replace the ones they already had. By nightfall, the gang was camped near the town of Janesville. Two of the gang, most likely Jesse and Charlie, approached another posse while the rest of the gang set up camp not too far away. Jesse and Charlie were able to borrow a large amount of food from the posse, and they brought it back to Frank, Cole, Jim, and Bob. Throughout the day of the ninth and tenth of September, the gang continued to head west at a slow speed without any notable incident. On the night of the tenth, the gang put up camp on a small island located in Lake Elysian. During the night, a posse of around two hundred men surrounded the lake and waited for the outlaws to awake. Early the next morning, the gang apparently discovered they were surrounded and made a plan of escape. They released three of their horses, which ran off the island and to the shore, creating a much-needed diversion. They left the other three horses tethered to a tree on the island. The six robbers, however, waded on foot from the island the lake’s shore and miraculously escaped once again. A mile or two away from the lake, the gang stopped to dress their wounds again. Later in the day, the gang discovered an abandoned farmhouse near the town of Mankato. Realizing they needed to rest, they decided to stay here for the rest of the day and half of the next. It also became apparent at this time that Bob’s right elbow was beginning to get severely infected. Bob himself was becoming feverish as well. One of Jim’s shoulder wounds began to fester as well.

During the afternoon of September 12, shortly after leaving the abandoned farmhouse, the six fugitives crossed paths with a farmer by the name of Jeff Dunning. Some of the gang wanted to kill Dunning, because he might give away their position, but others thought he should be allowed to live. Eventually, Dunning was made to promise not to tell anyone he had spotted the gang and they let him go on his way. Three hours later, Dunning announced he saw the Northfield robbers. However, by the time anyone could get on the chase, the gang was long gone.

The next day, the thirteenth, the gang stole some chickens for food from the farm of L. M. Demarary. After they finished eating, they crossed over the Blue Earth River on a railroad bridge. Following these railroad tracks, they made their way around the town of Mankato. Bob’s elbow by now was severely infected. He was lightheaded and feverish and was constantly falling out off his horse. The gang would have to stop constantly to get him up and put him back in the saddle. Jim’s shoulder had festered even more as well and neither he nor Bob could keep of the pace of the rest of the group. That night, the gang made camp outside of Mankato. After nightfall, Jesse and Frank left camp in order to go find (and steal) some fresh mounts for them all. They returned a few hours later, but with only two stolen horses; they could find no more. The gang all agreed that next morning, Bob and Jim would ride the two fresh mounts.

Early on in the day of the fourteenth, Bob once again fell off his horse. While the gang stopped to put him back in the saddle, Bob suggested that he be left behind in order to allow the other five to travel faster. Bob was well aware that both he and Jim were slowing the gang down considerably, Bob in particular. If he were to be left behind, the rest of the gang would have a much better chance of escape. However, all the other members of the gang were appalled by the idea and insisted that no one be left behind. This did give Cole an idea, however. He suggested that the gang be divided into two groups: one consisting of the lesser-wounded outlaws and the other of the more badly wounded ones. The lesser-wounded group would be able to travel much faster, while the more wounded group could move slowly and take their time. The rest of the gang liked this idea, since everyone would benefit from it. With the lesser-wounded group traveling faster, the posses would likely pursue them, most likely overlooking the more heavily wounded group’s trail. It was decided that Jesse and Frank would compose of the one lesser-wounded group while the Youngers and Charlie would compose the heavily wounded one. Although Charlie had only received a grazing wound on his arm at Northfield, and therefore should have gone with Jesse and Frank, he insisted that he stay with the Youngers. With that, Cole, Bob, and Charlie gave most of their money and personal possessions to Jesse and Frank, knowing that Jesse and Frank would have better use for their money than they would. Jim, however, apparently disliked the Jameses and didn’t trust them at all, so he kept all of his possessions to himself. With the swapping of possessions complete, the Youngers and Charlie said their good-byes to the Jameses and the gang split up. It was decided that Jesse and Frank would continue to head west, while the Youngers and Charlie would now head directly south.

By the evening of the fourteenth, Jesse and Frank had covered a considerable amount of distance compared to when they still were riding with the Youngers and Charlie. That night, they neared a bridge hanging over Lake Crystal. Sleeping on the bridge was a large posse. The brothers hoped to cross over the bridge quietly and not arise the posse. As they first started to set foot on the bridge, they awoke one of the posse members, who raised his rifle and took a shot at them. The single bullet hit Jesse in the leg, tore through it, and went on to lodge in Frank’s leg. The brothers were able to overcome the pain and made their horses charge at breakneck speed in another direction. By the time the rest of the posse awoke, Jesse and Frank were long gone. Shortly thereafter, Jesse and Frank bandaged their new wounds and abandoned the tired horses they had. They then stole two new ones from a local farm and rode them bareback. Over the next few days, it became apparent that the gang’s plan had worked: the majority of the posses were tracking Jesse and Frank and were overlooking the Youngers and Charlie. For forty-eight hours, all of the fifteenth and sixteenth, Jesse and Frank continued to ride nonstop. Late on the sixteenth or early on the seventeenth, the Jameses crossed the Minnesota border and entered South Dakota. Shortly after arriving in South Dakota, the brothers abandoned their horses and stole two new ones. Oddly enough, one horse was blind in one eye and the other was blind in both eyes! After a short time of riding these two horses, the robbing duo ditched them and stole two new ones.

The Youngers and Charlie, meanwhile, had been moving much slower, which wasn’t putting as much strain on their wounds. However, either Cole’s left thigh wound and/or left hip wound were causing him much pain and, when not on his horse, he walked with a walking stick he made for himself out of a large branch he’d found. One night, probably the nineteenth, the gang stopped at a sloping bank near the town of Linden and were able to steal a few chickens, a turkey, a watermelon, and some corn from a local farmer. They prepared the food, but just before they began to eat, they heard voices coming from above them on the bank. Suspecting the voices may belong to posse members, they abandoned their camp (and their food and horses) and took off on foot. It was a good thing they did; it was a posse that was above them on the bank. This posse soon discovered the outlaws’ camp and found several items that had been left behind, such as two coats, a blood-soaked handkerchief, two leather bridles, and two torn and bloody shirts.

By the night of the twentieth, Cole, Jim, Bob, and Charlie had reached the town of Madelia. They put up camp that night about seven miles outside of town. Surrounding Madelia were thick woods, several swamps, and many lakes. In the early hours of the next morning, the twenty-first, the four robbers were following a road along Lake Linden when they encountered a seventeen-year-old boy named Axle Oscar Sorbel milking cows on his family’s farm. The outlaws and young Sorbel casually exchanged greetings and the robbers were on their way. After Sorbel lost sight of the outlaws, he told his father that he suspected they might be the infamous Northfield robbers. His father merely told him to get back to work milking the cows and to stop being so imaginative. An hour or so later, Charlie and Jim returned to the Sorbel farm and asked Axle if they could buy some bread off of him. Sorbel obliged and the two robbers gave him some money for the loaves of bread they were given. After Charlie and Jim wandered off again into the thick woods surrounding the farm, Axle showed his father the footprints the outlaws had left in the mud. He pointed out that the soles of the boots the men were wearing were worn through and that some of their toes could clearly be seen in the mud, as if they had been walking on foot in the mud for a long time. This convinced Axle’s father that the men were possibly the Northfield robbers. He told Axle to get on his horse, ride to Madelia (seven miles away), and tell the sheriff what he saw. Axle did exactly this.

Axle reached Madelia a short time later and told the sheriff, James Glispin, what he saw. Glispin immediately contacted former Union Army captain and Civil War veteran William W. Murphy and Thomas L. Vought. These three men then built up a posse of volunteers as soon as they could. By the time the posse was completed, there were around two hundred members, nearly all the adult male population of Madelia. With that, the large posse and Axle rode as fast as they could to the Sorbel farm.

Around an hour’s distance away from the Sorbel farm, the posse spotted the outlaw quartet. They were in a godforsaken boggy swamp surrounded by thick woods known as Hanska Slough. The posse was not able to walk their horses through the thick bog, so they dismounted near the beginning of it to wait for Sheriff Glispin’s orders. The outlaws were heading for the Watawon River, where the Slough would clear. Glispin yelled out to the robbers to halt. The outlaws, startled by this, took off running as fast as their feet could carry them. Glispin ordered his men to open fire, and this they did. Due to the fact that the robbers were so far ahead and concealed mostly by the thick trees, not much affect was caused by the firing. The gang ran deep into the heart of the Slough and decided to make a stand. They were exhausted and realized that they would have next to no chance of escape if they merely continued to run; they would have to fight. Cole, Jim, Bob, and Charlie got behind a large deadfall and prepared for battle. It was decided that, since Bob was far too weak and disoriented to aim a gun with his left hand, he would reload the guns of the other three when need-be. Cole told the others that if they had the chance, all of them would make a run for it, but it would be every man for himself; no one would be able to stop to help a fallen comrade.

With the four outlaws out of sight, Glispin realized that he and his men would have to go into the Slough themselves and drag them out if they had to. Capt. Murphy had an idea and called for five volunteers. Ben M. Rice, Charles A. Pomeroy, Thomas L. Col. Vought, George A. Bradford, and S. James Severson answered the call. It was decided that these five men, along with Murphy and Glispin would march with their rifles into the Slough on foot in a line formation. Meanwhile, the other members of the posse would stay behind on a hill overlooking the Slough. The plan was that the first seven men would march at a steady pace, firing as they went, in an attempt to flush the outlaws out of their hiding spot. The rest of the posse, many yards in the rear, would then be needed to cut the outlaws down as they ran. Glispin announced that his group would not fire unless the outlaws fired first. He also stated that if at any point during the onslaught did the outlaws wish to surrender, that all firing would cease. Their goal was to take the outlaws alive, if possible, and therefore would shoot to wound, not to kill, unless absolutely necessary. With that, Glispin, Murphy, Vought, Rice, Pomeroy, Severson, and Bradford began their march towards the outlaws.

For the first few moments as the seven-man posse marched, everything was silent. Then, suddenly, Cole fired his pistol through the deadfall he was behind. The bullet hit Capt. Murphy in the side, but the wound was not serious at all and Murphy stayed on his feet. With that shot, the Battle of Hanska Slough began. The seven-man group open fired on the deadfall, while the backup posse fired over the heads of the men in the front group. Cole, Jim, and Charlie began rapidly and blindly firing over and through the deadfall as well. In the ensuing melee, Cole was shot three more times, with one of the bullets hitting the right side of his neck. Posse members Severson and Vought were also hit, Severson in the side and Vought hit just above the hip. Charlie as well took four bullets throughout his body. As Jim turned his back to the deadfall for some reason, possibly to reload his pistols, a slug hit him the back, near his spine. Miraculously, he continued to fight with all he had. Seeing how desperate the situation was, Charlie turned to Cole and said, “We and entirely surrounded. We had better surrender.” Cole looked Charlie in the eye and said flatly, “Charlie, if you want to surrender, go, but this is where Cole Younger dies.” The ever brave and tenacious Charlie shrugged, looked right back at Cole and said, “All right, Captain, I can die as game as you can. Let’s get it done.” With that, Charlie jumped straight up, a Colt .45 in each hand. As he jumped up, Glispin spotted him and instantly took a kneeling position, all the while bringing his rifle up to a firing position. At the same instant, Charlie fired each of his pistols once and Glispin fired his rifle once. One of Charlie’s bullets grazed the hand of posse member Bradford, but Glispin’s slug hit Charlie in the heart. With a groan, Charlie fell dead to the ground behind the deadfall, face first in the mud. One of the posse then called out again to the outlaws, asking them to surrender. The response the posse was received was more gunfire from Cole and Jim. A bullet hit Cole’s right hand, knocking the gun he was holding over the deadfall, leaving it unreachable. Cole then reached down and grabbed one of the pistols in Charlie’s dead hands and continued firing. In the next volley of shots, Cole took another bullet, this one in the chest. As Jim peered over the deadfall to better aim his pistol, a bullet, fired by backup posse member Bowen G. Yates, hit Jim in the upper jaw, between the lip and nose. The bullet shattered his jaw and knocked out several teeth, before lodging near the back of his right ear. Jim fell to the ground in a semi-unconscious state, holding his gaping jaw wound with both his hands. As Cole turned his head to look at his fallen brother, yet another slug hit Cole in the back of the head, just behind the right ear. The slug traveled upwards and lodged over Cole’s right eye. With that, Cole also fell in the mud in a semi-unconscious state. Glispin ordered all his men to cease firing and yelled out, “Do you men surrender?” A few seconds later, a faint voice, Bob’s, could be heard saying, “I surrender! They’re all down but me! For God’s sake, don’t shoot me, too!” Glispin ordered Bob to stand up if he really wanted to surrender, and this Bob did waiving a bloody white piece of cloth above his head with his left hand. The Battle of Hanska Slough was now over. As the seven front men approached Bob, one of the backup posse members, Willis Bundy, fired a lone shot at Bob, which hit Bob in the right lung, dropping him to his knees. Glispin, enraged, shouted that the next man to fire a shot without his orders would be shot by Glispin himself. The seven front men reached Bob and helped him to his feet, all the while Bob was muttering, “I was surrendering. Someone shot me while I was surrendering.” The posse went behind the deadfall and saw the dead Charlie and the wounded Cole and Jim. Jim was moaning in agony and was still semi-unconscious. Cole was beginning to awake already and offered to fight the posse’s two best men in hand-to-hand combat. Bob walked over, wrapped his left arm around Cole, and whispered in his ear, “Cole, it’s over. Give it up or they’ll hang us for sure.” Cole reluctantly agreed and also surrendered. Not too long after, Jim also awoke. The three Youngers were then escorted to a wagon and put inside. Charlie’s body was carried out of the Slough and tossed in the wagon with the Youngers. While in the wagon, Bob asked for some tobacco to chew to dull his pain. Axle Sorbel, who came with the posse to the Slough, gave Bob a plug and he thanked him.

The wagon and posse headed back to Madelia. On the way, Jim hung his head over the side of the wagon while the blood gushed out of his upper jaw. Cole meanwhile joked and talked with his captors. As the wagon went through Madelia, Cole rose to his feet and tipped his hat to a group of young women standing on the sidewalk watching the entire spectacle. The Youngers were then taken to the Flanders House hotel, where they were allowed to rest and their wounds were clean and dressed. To show the extreme weather they endured, as Cole’s boots were removed, all of his toenails fell off. It was discovered that Bob had suffered a total of three bullet wounds; two in Northfield and the one chest wound at Hanska Slough. Jim had suffered a total of five; three in Northfield, and two at Hanska Slough. Cole had suffered an amazing total of eleven wounds; five in Northfield and six at Hanska Slough. Jim had to have his jaw wound cauterized, what must have been an amazingly painful ordeal. Over the next few weeks, his wound would be cauterized several more times. Eventually, Jim would have to have sections of his upper jaw removed. However, the bullet never could be removed itself and Jim never ate a meal of solid food in his life again.

The James-Younger Gang was obliterated now. On November 18, 1876, with their wounds healed, all three Younger brothers entered the Minnesota State Penitentiary at Stillwater, Minnesota. They had plead guilty to all four charges that they faced: robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield, attacking with attempt to do bodily harm on Alonzo E. Bunker, murder of Nicholas Gustavson, and accessory to the murder of Joseph Lee Heywood. They were all given life sentences. Bob would end up dying in prison of tuberculosis on September 16, 1889. Many believe that he acquired TB from the wound he received in his right lung at Hanska Slough, a wound from which he never recovered. From the time they were captured until Bob’s death, Bob was guilt ridden by the way he insisted on going to Northfield, and thereby getting himself and his brothers imprisoned. Cole and Jim would be paroled on July 14, 1901, after serving twenty-five years in prison. In all these years, neither Cole, Jim, nor Bob ever revealed the true identity the two robbers that escaped Minnesota. Whenever asked, they would give their names as Woodson and Howard (Frank’s and Jesse’s aliases, respectively, although it was unknown at the time). They always denied that either James brother had anything to do with the Northfield raid. Cole was fond of saying, “Stick by your friends even if the heavens fall” to those that asked why he wouldn’t reveal the robbers’ true names.

Meanwhile, Jesse and Frank James began heading south after arriving in South Dakota. Their last confirmed siting was in Sioux City, Iowa on September 25. From there, it’s believed they went either to Nebraska, Kentucky, Texas, or Missouri. They had family in each state that would feed and shelter them. As far as the authorities were confirmed however, the James brothers dropped off the face of the earth. During this time, stories began about the James brothers that said they were down in Mexico continuing their outlaw ways, or that they married a pair of Indians in Nebraska and had children there. These stories are all false. It’s not really known what the brothers did during this time frame, and the odds are that it’ll remain unknown forever. However, in October of 1879, the Jameses would be back in the public eye again, with a bang....when the second James Gang came into view.

James-Younger Gang members involved in Battle of Hanska Slough

Captors of the Younger Brothers