LINCOLN AND THE INDIANS
My grandson, Ryan, will celebrate his 28th birthday on February 12. It is easy for me to remember because this day is also the birth date for Abraham Lincoln. Interestingly, Lincoln’s birthday has never been a national holiday and Presidents’ Day is reserved mostly for Washington. Nonetheless, Lincoln is a revered historical figure and very popular. So I was astonished when I heard a snippet from a documentary on American treatment of Native Americans that simply said, “Lincoln ordered the execution of 39 Dakota Indians.” That was hard for me to accept on face value so I decided to look for more information.
The Dakota tribe had existed for generations on the land surrounding the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, site of the present-day cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Translated roughly into English, Dakota means “the allies, and they were a group of seven Indian bands that lived mostly in harmony in the region’s bountiful river valleys. Their only enemy was the Chippewa to the north. The first European explorers there had done little to alter the Indians’ way of life, although the French dubbed them the Sioux—a mutation of the Chippewa word for “snake. Real change began after 1819, when federal soldiers’ built Fort Snelling, a sprawling outpost above the mouth of the Minnesota River. After that the stream of white traders and settlers became a flood; land treaties in 1837 and 1851 and Minnesota statehood in 1858 pushed the Dakota off their native lands westward to a narrow, 100-mile-long reservation on the harsh prairie along the Minnesota River. The exodus also forced the Dakota to change their way of life. Government agents on the reservation favored those Dakota who settled on plots, learned English, cut their hair, and took up farming.. Those Dakota who refused to give up their traditional ways were in an even worse position and spent many winters in near-starving conditions.
The situation reached its flashpoint in the summer of 1862. The financial cost of the Civil War was bleeding the government dry, and rumors flew that there would be no annuity gold for the Dakota. Traders who had liberally given credit in the past now slammed the door. One trader named Andrew Myrick announced that if the Dakota were hungry they could “eat grass. Tensions mounted until four Dakota led by an Indian named Killing Ghost murdered five white settlers on August 17. Some Dakota leaders sensed this was an opportunity to strike back at the U.S. Government, and they pressed Chief Little Crow, to strike at the whites while many soldiers were fighting in the Civil War. Little Crow initially wanted no part of a war with the whites, recognizing the calamity that would surely follow. But when faced with a challenge to his authority, he reluctantly relented. Ironically, the annuity gold shipment had left St. Paul that same day.
The Dakota raged across the countryside with a fury. Four to eight hundred white settlers were butchered during the first four days of the rampage, while their farms and fields burned. The Dakota hit first and hard at the reservation agency, killing dozens. One of the victims was trader Myrick. His killers stuffed his mouth with grass. The Dakota also struck at the region’s army outpost and towns. They annihilated a detachment of soldiers dispatched from nearby Fort Ridgely before being repulsed in two assaults on the garrison itself. They twice attacked and burned most of the town of New Ulm but failed to capture it from its armed residents.
Panic surged throughout Minnesota. Tens of thousands of terrified settlers fled and virtually depopulated the state’s western regions. Governor Alexander Ramsey dispatched 1,200 men from Fort Snelling under the command of Henry H. Sibley, a former fur trader, politician and friend of the Dakota. Sibley was not regular army, but he heeded Ramsey’s call and accepted a commission as colonel. Unsure of his authority, Sibley failed to declare martial law and moved excruciatingly slowly. He did not engage the Dakota until early September 1862, when Indians surprised and butchered a 150-man reconnaissance detail at Birch Coulee. The debacle slowed Sibley even more, and he did not meet Little Crow in full force until September 22, when he won a decisive victory at Wood Lake. The Dakota scattered over the prairie. Sibley finally managed to capture about 1,200 men, women, and children, but Little Crow was not among them. Sibley intended to prosecute as war criminals those Indians who had participated in the rebellion.
Sibley ordered a commission of five military officers to try the prisoners summarily and pass judgment upon them. If found guilty of murders or other outrages upon the Whites they would be punished. Major General John Pope, recently banished to Minnesota by President Lincoln after Pope’s humiliating defeat at the Civil War’s Battle of Second Bull Run, saw an opportunity to redeem himself at the Dakota’s expense. He immediately approved Sibley’s plans.
The commission began the hearings on the reservation on September 28.. The charges ranged from rape to murder to theft, although most Dakota were accused of merely participating in battles. Of the 393 accused, 303 were found guilty. Pope and Sibley wanted to begin execution immediately, but they needed the President’s consent.
Lincoln asked Pope to send the full and complete record of these convictions and to identify the more guilty and influential of the culprits. As Lincoln began his deliberations, people on both sides of the issue bombarded him with letters and telegrams. Politicians, army officers, and clergy called on the president at the White House, each adding his take on the situation and offering advice. Lincoln dutifully and patiently listened.
Bishop Henry Whipple, head of the Minnesota Episcopal Church, spoke often of the hypocrisy of federal Indian policies. Whipple was a cousin to Henry Halleck, Lincoln’s general-in-chief, so the bishop gained an audience with the president in November and urged clemency. Lincoln was impressed.
The timing of the Dakota crisis could not have been worse for the president. On a personal level, he and his wife, Mary, still grieved over the death, nine months earlier, of their 11-year-old son, Willie. On a political level, the administration faced one crisis after another. The war effort was in tatters. Major General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac lay no closer to Richmond after the ill-conceived Peninsula Campaign and the bloody draw at Antietam. McClellan tolerated precious little advice from the president and sometimes even refused to meet with him. Finally the exasperated president dismissed the insolent general and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside, soon to be responsible for the Union disaster at Fredericksburg. As the blunders mounted, Lincoln also faced a challenge to his leadership from disgruntled cabinet members. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, perpetually jealous of Lincoln and furious that the president did not turn to him for military advice, sulked and plotted behind the president’s back. Lincoln knew of these designs and only tolerated them because Chase was a supremely able leader of his department.
Slavery issues preoccupied Lincoln as well. Somewhere between the bad tidings and bouts of depression the president managed to work on the final drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that would free the slaves in most of the South, even as he was being called upon to suppress the Dakota. The Minnesota business weighed heavily on Lincoln’s mind.
The president could also see how the trials’ rapidity prevented a full and fair analysis of the facts. The weight and impact of evidence simply could not be properly processed in a few minutes, especially in capital cases with their ultimate stakes. Undoubtedly the brevity of the trials resulted from the absence of defense counsel. The president could also see how the commission convicted many men with insufficient evidence.
Nevertheless, Lincoln’s compassion played the largest role in the predicament.. He was only merciless in cases involving cruelty or sex offenses. Lincoln’s order to Sibley—in his own handwriting—allowed the execution of only 39 of the 303 condemned Dakota. Of these, 29 had been convicted of murder, three for having “shot” someone, two for participating in “massacres,” and one for mutilation. As Lincoln told the Senate, only two had been convicted of rape. Curiously, the president allowed the executions of two men who were convicted merely for participating in battles.
This was wartime; Lincoln could not have reversed the convictions wholesale, either ordering new trials or disapproving the proceedings entirely. The former would have caused great delay and the latter great outrage, either of which could have led to mob violence in Minnesota. Such actions would not necessarily have prevented the Dakota from being tried in state courts, where they would have received little sympathy from citizen juries. Lincoln had to make a final decision on the matter, and he did. On December 27 President Lincoln received a telegram from Sibley: “I have the honor to inform you that the thirty-eight Indians and half-breeds, ordered by you for execution, were hung yesterday at Mankato, at 10 a.m.
The full story!