New Ulm’s ‘Dept. of Defense’ celebrates 150th anniversary

NEW ULM – There are countless historically interesting elements to New Ulm, but few capture the romantic imagination as much as the only “Department of Defense” in a Minnesota city: the New Ulm Battery, which celebrated its 150th anniversary on Saturday.

Consultant Dan Hoisington, who is currently working on a book about the Battery’s history, gave a presentation at Turner Hall on the organization’s development.

The Battery was formed around 1863 in the wake of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict by requests from Brown County sheriff Charles Roos, who fought in the Siege of New Ulm. His concern primarily focused on his belief that the Dakota would attack New Ulm again at some point, though no subsequent attack ever occurred. He personally oversaw a massive, extensive barrier being constructed in the center of town that stood for several years, even after the Conflict ended.

He also requested weapons in response to homes of New Ulm being ransacked by settlers and U.S. soldiers after residents had to retreat from the area.

The first cannon was eventually sent as a donation by the Cincinnati Turner group in Ohio, which was connected to the Turner organization that founded New Ulm. The cannon was a 12-pound pack howitzer. The Battery also believes a 6-pound bronze cannon was sent by General Sibley around that time. These two guns have since been retired to the Brown County Historical Society for display.

Three more ordinance rifle cannons were eventually acquired by the Battery in 1907. The cannons have been used in parades and demonstrations ever since, as a strong symbol of New Ulm history.

Roos initially ran the Battery when it was an official part of the military. The official military status ended in 1871, though the City of New Ulm continued to boast it is the only Minnesota city to have its own “Department of Defense.”

In 1879, Frank Burg took over and whipped the organization into the coordinated, ceremonial organization it is now widely known for being. In fact, he was so prominent that the organization was known as “Berg’s Battery” during his time and several years beyond. He eventually retired from running the organization in 1912.

Since then, it has become closer to its current organizational form, with dedicated people running it and dressing up for Civil War reenactments. The City of New Ulm eventually stepped in to help fund the organization’s continued existence, particularly since it was part of so many New Ulm parades.

However, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Battery has been its permanent place of reverence among local residents. Other strong New Ulm traditions have eventually drifted out of practice and into history.

Hoisington said that during his work, he also had a hard time defining what exactly about the Battery has made it last. He said it was initially appealing during the period in U.S. history where demonstration of military procedure was widely appreciated. He said it was a big symbol of the Conflict, at times of the settler victory but eventually just as a symbol of the story of New Ulm’s existence. He said it also has a strong appeal for its showmanship aspects, noting how it can make a big difference to actually have firing cannons during the 1812 Overture.

But, he said none of the factors truly capture the Battery’s timeless nature. He said it is more of a representation of the New Ulm people’s respect for their rich history.

“No town in Minnesota quite loves its history as much as New Ulm. And, [The Battery] is one of the more unique organizations I’ve seen,” said Hoisington.

The Battery, which boasts three cannons at this time, plus one borrowed from a similar organization in Wisconsin, will continue with its annual performance this year. The “Thunder in the Valley” program, which features many volleys fired by the Battery set to orchestra music, will take place on Sept. 7. This year, the cannons will fire on Hermann Heights and people will be able to make $100 donations to get a chance to fire the cannons. More details about the event will be released later this year.

Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at

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