Most soldiers at Fort Ridgely were low-ranking enlisted men, and before 1861 most of these were foreign-born. Out of 166 enlisted men in the 1860 census, 70 were from Ireland, 34 from Germany, ten from Great Britain, and 33 from the United States. The men enlisted for five years. For many, the military provided their first job in America and a way to learn the country's language and customs. Once their enlistments were over, many stayed in the region.Minnesota Historical Society
From 1853 to 1855 the garrison at Fort Ridgely averaged one desertion a month. In July 1855 alone, 31 soldiers deserted. Nearby civilian towns like New Ulm may have tempted the men. Still, the rate was in line with the national average; the U.S. Army annually lost 15 percent of its forces to desertion. Revealing the anti-immigration bias of the time, Fort Ridgely Commandant Major Hannibal Day attributed the desertion rate to "the character generally of our rank and file which I have no doubt, is made up in some measure of criminals from Europe."