On August 21, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln learned about the start four days earlier of the U.S.-Dakota War in southern Minnesota. This was the news in a telegram from Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey to U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. It said, “The Sioux [Dakota] Indians on our western border have risen, and are murdering men, women, and children.” 
Another telegram came from Governor Ramsey four days later (August 25th). He said the War was worsening, and the “panic among the people has depopulated whole counties.” As a result, Ramsey requested an extension of the deadline for a U.S. draft of an additional 5,360 men for the Civil War.
This was not good news for Lincoln and his Administration. The Civil War was not going well for the North, which desperately needed more troops. Indeed, earlier that month the President had ordered the call up of 300,000 additional men. Although Minnesota’s quota of 5,360 was not large, such an extension could set a dangerous precedent for other states and thus the Union Army. In addition, the Administration needed the troops because of fear that the Confederate states were attempting to enlist Indians in the northwest as allies.
Therefore, Secretary Stanton denied Ramsey’s request, prompting the latter’s August 27th direct request to Lincoln for a month’s extension to cope with half of the state’s population being “refugees.” This time Lincoln responded the same day to Ramsey. Lincoln’s telegram said, “Attend to the Indians. If the draft can not proceed, of course, it will not proceed. Necessity knows no law. The government cannot extend the time.” (Emphases in original.) In other words, a de facto extension was granted.
In addition, on September 5th the Administration granted another Ramsey request, this one to create a new military Department of the Northwest. Its commander appointed that day by Lincoln was General John Pope, who had just suffered defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas) and whom Lincoln wanted out of the Civil War.
Pope arrived in Minnesota on September 16th and immediately wired his superior in Washington, D.C. that there would be a loss of half the population of Minnesota and Wisconsin and “a general Indian war all along the frontier, unless immediate steps are taken to put a stop to it.”
Therefore, General Pope ordered Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley to destroy Indian farms and food. Pope said, “It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux [Dakota] if I have the power to do so and even if it requires a campaign lasting the whole of next year. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.” (Emphasis added.)
By the end of September, however, the U.S.-Dakota war was over with the surrender of many Dakota to the U.S. Army and the escape of the other Indians to the west. Military commissions were then established to try the captured Dakota men. These commission proceedings and President Lincoln’s review of its judgments will be subjects of future posts.
Another important issue was weighing on President Lincoln at this time was preparing the Emancipation Proclamation and deciding when to release it.
He did so in a preliminary version on September 22nd that declared he would order the emancipation of all slaves in any state of the Confederate States of America which had not returned to Union control by January 1, 1863. None returned.
Thus, the actual Proclamation, which was issued on January 1, 1863, proclaimed all those enslaved in Confederate territory to be forever free, and ordered the U.S. Army (and all segments of the Executive branch) to treat as free all those enslaved in that territory.
 A prior post contained a brief account of the War. This post is based upon Chapter VII “Rebellion in Minnesota: ‘A Most Terrible and Exciting Indian War,'” in David A. Nichols, Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics (Minn. Historical Soc’y Press; 1978, 2000, 2012). This enjoyable book is regarded as the definitive study of President Lincoln’s policies and actions regarding Native Americans, and a future post will rely upon its discussion of President Lincoln’s review of the U.S. military commission’s convictions and sentences of Dakota men after the War.
 General Pope’s statement along with a similar statement at the time by Governor Ramsey raise interesting legal issues that will be discussed in another post.
4 thoughts on “President Abraham Lincoln’s Involvement in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862”
Additional Resource on U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and Mass Execution of 38 Dakota Indians on December 26, 1862
John Bessler has provided an interesting account of the mistreatment of the Dakota Indians by the U.S. Indian Service, circa 1862; the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862; the U.S. military commissions’ judgments for death by hanging for 303 Dakota for their alleged involvement in that war; Bishop Whipple’s advocating for commutation of many of these death sentences; President Lincoln’s review of the military commission’s judgments and commutation of many of death sentences; the demands for execution of all those found guilty from Minnesota officials and people; and the December 26, 1862, mass execution of 38 of the Dakota in Mankato, Minnesota.
Bessler, “On Lincoln’s Orders: Mankato’s Mass Hanging,” Chapter 2 in Legacy of Violence (Univ. Minnesota Press, 2003).