THE BLOG
02/11/2013 09:18 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

An Early Sign of Lincoln's Greatness

While we wait for Daniel Day-Lewis and Lincoln to win a lion's share of the 2013 Academy Awards on Feb. 24, President Lincoln's birthday is a good time to recall a dramatic example of his political leadership and moral courage that has gone largely unnoticed by historians and movie-makers.

I'm referring to Lincoln's key role in deciding the fate of 303 Dakota Sioux Indians, who were condemned by a military court to be hanged in the aftermath of the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862, when hundreds of white settlers, government agents and soldiers were massacred in southern Minnesota.

The outbreak of violence occurred nearly three years before Lincoln persuaded Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery -- the focus of the Lincoln movie -- and ensuring that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation would survive future political opposition. At the same time, a frustrated Lincoln was prodding the over-cautious General George McClellan to pursue Robert E. Lee's retreating Confederate forces after the Battle of Antietam.

But because Lincoln refused to yield to public pressure and outraged demands by Minnesotans for harsh punishment of the Sioux, the lives of most of the accused Indians were spared.

Even so, the largest mass execution in U.S. history took place on Dec. 26, 1862, as 38 Sioux were publicly hanged before cheering crowds in Mankato, Minn. But only after Lincoln had personally intervened and carefully written out the names of each of the 38 men be executed. The document is the most valuable in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society.

This little-known aspect of Lincoln's legacy is chronicled in two excellent books, including Scott Berg's just-published 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End, and Hank Cox's 2005 Lincoln and the Sioux Uprising of 1862.

I have a personal interest in this story because I grew up in southern Minnesota and was a reporter for the Mankato newspaper at the time of the event's 100th anniversary in 1962. I was daily reminded of the tragic event as I drove to work past a granite monument on Mankato's Main Street that proclaimed, "Here were hung 38 Sioux Indians on Dec. 26, 1862." Native American activists later caused the monument to be removed.

While the Sioux were guilty of countless atrocities, the grievances that led to their uprising were genuine. As one Minnesota trader wrote to Lincoln in October, the uprising "was caused by the wretched condition of the tribes, some of them were almost to the point of starvation, the neglect of Government agents to make the annuity payments at the proper time and the insulting taunts of the Agents to their cries for bread," and to "the rapacious robberies of the Agents, Traders and Government officials who always connive together to steal every dollar of their money that can be stolen."

Nevertheless, most Minnesotans, including Gov. Alexander Ramsey and the state's congressional delegation and leading newspapers, kept up a drumbeat urging Lincoln to order the execution of all 303 of the convicted Indians.

"I hope the execution of every Sioux Indian condemned by the military court will soon be ordered," Gov. Ramsey wrote Lincoln. "It would be wrong upon principle and policy to refused this [lest] private revenge would on all this border take the place of official judgment on these Indians."

When Gen. John Pope, whom Lincoln sent to Minnesota in September to deal with the Sioux after Pope's disastrous defeat at Second Manassas, made it clear that he intended to hang all of them, Lincoln sent him a telegram on Nov. 10. He ordered Pope to hold off the executions and "forward, as soon as possible, the full and complete record of these convictions" and any other information that might help him determine the most guilty parties.

According to Cox's book, after an exhaustive review of the material, "Lincoln painstakingly wrote out on White House stationery the names" of those to be hung, and sent the list to General Pope on Dec. 6. "It was no simple task for many of the convicted Indians shared the same name or similar names."

Cox concluded:

"It was a risky move politically at a time when Lincoln's political career seemed to be hanging by a thread. He and his party had lost ground in the off-year elections only a few weeks before, and the war was going badly. The overwhelming majority of voters in Minnesota were crying for Indian blood and opposed clemency for any convicted Sioux. ... Assuming a tight contest when Lincoln sought reelection ... the loss of Minnesota could have ended his political career and even been the decisive factor in the irreparable breakup of the Union. His action in the Sioux matter was politically reckless."

Lincoln's orders were carried out on Dec. 26 as the condemned Sioux were led through a line of 1,400 soldiers to the scaffold on Mankato's main square and nooses placed around their necks as they continued their death chant while standing on 38 trapdoors. The father of two victims of the uprising cut the rope and they fell simultaneously to their deaths.

(In an ironic footnote, a doctor from a nearby town claimed the body of Cut-Nose, who claimed he had killed 27 people, and used his skeleton to teach his sons anatomy. The doctor's sons were William and Charles Mayo, who later founded the Mayo Clinic.)

Despite Cox's conclusion that Lincoln's decision to intervene was politically reckless, he won reelection in 1864 and carried Minnesota by a slim margin. When Gov. Ramsey, by then in the U.S. Senate, told Lincoln he would have won by a larger margin if he had hanged more Indians, Lincoln replied, "I could not hang men for votes."

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?