President Abraham Lincoln’s Involvement in the Military Commission’s Convictions and Sentences of the Dakota Indians

President Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln

Before he participated in the U.S. Military Commission’s convictions and sentences of the Dakota Indians, President Abraham Lincoln was involved the U.S.-Dakota War itself in August-September 1862.[1]

Lincoln reentered this drama on October 14th at a Cabinet meeting when Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, read aloud a report from General John Pope that the War was over and that the Army held about 1,500 Dakota prisoners. “Many, Pope said, “are being tried by military commission for being connected in late horrible outrages and will be executed.”[2]

Lincoln and the Cabinet were upset with Pope’s apparent plan to execute many of the captives, and three days later Pope was directed that there be no executions without the President’s approval.

Roughly three weeks later (on November 8th), after the completion of the military commission trials, Lincoln received a telegram from Pope containing a list of the 302 Dakota men who had been convicted and ordered to be hung.[3]

Immediately (on November 10th) the President by a telegram put all of these convictions on hold pending his Administration’s review of these convictions. Lincoln instructed Pope to submit the “full and complete” trial records for these cases to the President along with any materials that might indicate which of the men were the most guilty along with a “careful statement” regarding the commission’s judgments.

This instruction annoyed Pope, who responded the next day not with a “careful statement,” but with a vehement objection to the order. According to the General, “the only distinction between the culprits is as to which of them murdered  most people or violated most young girls.” Moreover, Pope said, “The people of this State [of Minnesota] . . . are exasperated to the last degree, and if the guilty are not all executed, I think it nearly impossible to prevent the indiscriminate massacre of all the Indians–old men, women and children.”

Pope reiterated these sentiments on November 24th when he urged the President to make a speedy decision. He warned, “Organizations of inhabitants are being rapidly made with the purpose of massacring these Indians.”

Exactly what the presidential review would entail was not immediately clear. Lincoln contemplated setting guidelines for executing “only a part” of the 302 men and sending the cases back to Minnesota for an “officer on the ground” to make case-by-case designations. But on December 1st Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General, advised the President that the power of review could not be delegated.

Therefore, that same day (December 1st), the President asked two aides (George C. Whiting and Francis H. Ruggles) to make a “careful examination” of all the transcripts and identify those Dakotas who “had been proved guilty of violating females.” The aides soon responded there were only two who had been so convicted.

Lincoln was surprised so few rapists were among the 302 on death row. Therefore, the President asked his aides to make “a further examination” to identify “all who were proven to have participated in massacres, as distinguished from participation in battles.” Whiting and Ruggles did just that and reported that 38 additional Dakota men had participated in massacres. The report contained a brief summary of the proof against each man plus the transcripts of their trials.

The first man on the execution list was Joseph Godfrey, the escaped black slave who had been the first to be tried by the military commission. The summary of his case by Whiting and Ruggles said, “Engaged extensively in the massacres, and, though sentenced to be hung, recommended to have his punishment commuted to imprisonment for ten years, because of the valuable testimony and information furnished the commission.”

On December 5th or 6th Lincoln reviewed his aides’ report and trial transcripts. He then personally penned his execution order to Colonel Sibley with the names and trial numbers of 39 men to be executed on December 19th.[4] They were the 2 convicted for rape and 37 of the 38 men convicted for participation in massacres. The only one on the latter list of 38 who was not included on the execution list was Joseph Godfrey.

On December 11th in response to a Senate resolution, the President forwarded to the Senate the Whiting-Ruggles report, the trial transcripts and related materials. In his cover letter Lincoln referred to his aides’ list of 38 men convicted for participation in massacres, but said, “One of the [38 men] . . .  is strongly recommended by the [military] commission which tried them, for commutation to ten years’ imprisonment.” Lincoln, however, did not mention the name of this individual (Godfrey) or his black race. This review, Lincoln added, was done “to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on the one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other.”

Throughout this period, the President and his Administration were under great pressure to approve all of the ordered executions in addition to the pleas from General Pope.

Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, who was running for election to the U.S. Senate in January 1863, urged the President to order the execution as soon as possible of all those condemned by the commission. “It would be wrong upon principle and policy to refuse this,” Ramsey said. “[Otherwise] private revenge would . . . take the place of official judgment on these Indians.”

Minnesota’s other public officials and newspapers echoed these sentiments as did letters, petitions and memorials submitted to the White House.

Virtually the only Minnesotans suggesting some mercy were Minnesota’s Episcopal Bishop Henry P. Whipple and other pastors.

Lincoln perhaps drew some comfort from a December 17th petition from 38 Dakota leaders that said “the bad [Dakotas] ought to be punished” and all “of the Indians who were engaged in killing the white men and women and children should be hanged.” The “good” Indians, on the other hand, should be “well treated” and permitted to return to their homes on the reservation.

On December 23rd, Lincoln directed the reprieve of one of the 39 to be executed as a result of a last minute plea by a Presbyterian missionary (Rev. Thomas Williamson) and his sister (and endorsed by Brigadier-General Sibley) on the ground that the certain evidence at the trial was unreliable.

Accordingly on December 26th, 38 Dakota men were hung to their death in Mankato, Minnesota.

The fate of the other 264 Dakota men (including Mr. Godfrey) who had been convicted and sentenced to death by hanging by the military commission was not addressed directly by President Lincoln. But they were not pardoned. Instead, they were transferred to a U.S. detention facility in Davenport, Iowa, where most of them spent the next three years. After they were released from detention, they were transferred to several reservations for the Dakota. Joseph Godfrey went to a Nebraska reservation where he lived until his death in 1903.[5]


[1]  As discussed in a prior post, On August 21, 1862, Lincoln’s focus on the worsening situation in the Civil War was interrupted by the news of the start four days earlier of the U.S.-Dakota War in southern Minnesota. About a week later the President reluctantly granted a de facto, indefinite extension of time for Minnesota to fulfill its quota for more troops for the Civil War so that the State could provide men to fight the Dakota War. In addition, on September 5th the President created a new military Department of the Northwest to be in charge of the Dakota War under the command of General John Pope.

[2] This post is based upon David A. Nichols, Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics Ch. VIII (Minn. HIst. Soc’y Press 1978, 2000, 2012) and Walt Bachman, Northern Slave Black Dakota:The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey at 221-22, 228-32, 239, 243-45, 252-56, 262-66,, 352-56 (Pond Dakota Press; Bloomington, MN 2013).

[3]  The commission had sentenced 307 Indians to be hung, but five were removed from the execution list before it was submitted to the President.

4 The original of the President’s order is at the Minnesota Historical Society. Davis, TWO Sioux War Orders: A Mystery Unraveled, Minn. History at 117 (Fall 1968). Through a  subsequent exchange of telegrams the date of the executions was postponed to December 26th. 

5 An evaluation of President Lincoln’s involvement in the U.S.-Dakota War and of legal issues relating to the commission trials and judgments will be the subjects of other posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Abraham Lincoln’s Involvement in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

President Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln
Governor Alexander Ramsey
Governor Alexander Ramsey
Edwin Stanton
Edwin Stanton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.” [1]

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.

General John Pope
General John Pope

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.”

Colonel Henry H. Sibley
Colonel Henry H. Sibley

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.)[2]

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.

Emancipation Proclamation
Emancipation Proclamation

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.


[1]  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.

[2] 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.

Minneapolis and St. Paul Declare the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 “Genocide”

The Minnesota Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul recently adopted resolutions declaring that the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 was “genocide.”[1]

Mpls seal

Minneapolis did so on December 14, 2012. Unanimously introduced and adopted, the City Council’s resolution commenced by stating that the War “led to the mass execution of 38 Dakota, the largest in the history of the United States, and the genocide of the Dakota people.” The resolution also said, “Indigenous women, children and elderly were held in a concentration camp at the base of Fort Snelling, separated from the men, before being exiled to reservations in neighboring states and Canada, and later being stripped of their culture and traditions in boarding schools and subjected to white culture and religions.”

With these factual predicates, the Minneapolis resolution declared that:

  • “every effort must be made to ensure that the Dakota perspective is presented during the year 2012-2013, through discussions at forums, events, symposia, conferences and workshops, to include the complex issues listed above;”
  • “the City of Minneapolis works to promote the well-being and growth of the American Indian community, including Dakota People;”
  • “these efforts during the years 2012 and 2013 will mark the beginning of future dialogues and efforts to rectify the wrongs that were perpetrated during, and since, the year 1862, a tragic and traumatic event for the Dakota People of Minnesota;” and
  • “the year 2012-2013 is hereby designated “The Year of the Dakota: Remembering, Honoring, and Truth-Telling,” from December 26, 2012 to December 26, 2013.”

StPaullogo

St. Paul joined its sister city on January 9, 2013, with a nearly identical resolution by its city council. It labeled the War as the start of “the genocide of the Dakota people” that included holding them after the war “in a concentration camp at the base of Fort Snelling.” This resolution declared 2013 as “the Year of the Dakota.

In addition, the St. Paul resolution directed “the City of Saint Paul and its Parks and Recreation Department . . . [to] work with the Dakota Bdote Restoration Consortium to identify, name, and interpret sacred Native American sites at and nearby the sacred Bdote from the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers to Mounds Park; including listing, mapping, identifying Dakota site names in the Great River Passage Plan, and participating in on-going collaborative research to further describe, dually name, publicize, and interpret significant Dakota sites in the Great River Passage Park Implementation;”

Afterwards these resolutions were praised by some. Chris Mato Nunpa, a retired professor and Dakota advocate from Granite Falls, said, “What I regard as significant and important is that key terms were used … I really am elated and excited I have lived long enough to see something like this happen here.”

Others were critical of calling the War “genocide” of the Dakota people. State Representative Dean Urdahl, a longtime history teacher whose ancestors were involved in the war and who has introduced resolutions urging Congress to repeal the Dakota Exclusion Act, said he did not think “the terms genocide and concentration camp accurately portray what it was without further explanation. Horrible things happened, but it wasn’t completely one-sided.”

Comments

Although I am sympathetic to the intent of these resolutions, it has to be noted that in 1862 “genocide” was not a concept or a defined crime in U.S. or international law.

Raphael Lemkin
Raphael Lemkin

The word itself was created in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, in his work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It became a legal concept after World War II with the 1948 adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Thus, there never has been, and never could have been, any official adjudication with the attendant due process protections that any individuals or governmental agencies in 1862 were guilty of the crime of genocide.

If that Convention or treaty had been in effect in 1862, then there are several candidates for prosecution for such a crime.

Governor Alexander Ramsey
Governor Alexander Ramsey

First, as already mentioned in an earlier post, then Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey in a public speech to the Minnesota Legislature in September 1862 proclaimed: “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State. . . . They must be regarded and treated as outlaws. If any shall escape extinction, the wretched remnant must be driven beyond our borders and our frontier garrisoned with a force sufficient to forever prevent their return.” (Emphasis added.)

Today this statement would be a crime under Article III (c) of the Genocide Convention as a “[d]irect and public incitement to commit genocide,” which is defined, in part, in Article II (a) of that treaty as “killing members of [an ethnical or racial] group” with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, [the group].”

General John Pope
General John Pope

Second, as discussed in another prior post, during the War, U.S. General John Pope, who was in charge of ending the uprising, said his purpose was “to utterly exterminate the Sioux [Dakota]. They are to be treated as maniacs and wild beasts.” (Emphasis added.) The next year the federal government offered a bounty of $25 per scalp for every Dakota Indian found in Minnesota.

This statement and action would be a basis for charges of the crime of “incitement to commit genocide” against General Pope and the U.S. federal government albeit only human beings, not legal entities, are subject to criminal liability under this treaty.

Third, other possible hypothetical charges under Article III of this treaty would be against individuals (conceivably both white and Dakota people) for acts of “genocide,” “conspiracy to commit genocide,” “complicity in genocide” and “attempt[s] to commit genocide.” For this broader purpose, “genocide” is defined, in part, in Article II of that treaty as committing any of the following acts with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:”

  • (a) “Killing members of the group;”
  • (b) “Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;”
  • (c) “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

The key issue in any such hypothetical case would be whether the individuals acted with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” (Emphasis added.)


[1] This account of the two resolutions is based upon the following: Melo, St. Paul City Council commemorates U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Pioneer Press (Jan. 9, 2013); Duchschere, St. Paul follows Minneapolis in labeling U.S.-Dakota War as ‘genocide,’ StarTribune (Jan. 10, 2013); Steinmann, Year of the Dakota Resolution passed in St. Paul, denouncing genocide, Daily Planet (Jan. 10, 2013).

Personal Reflections on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

When I moved to Minnesota at age 30 in 1970, I had no knowledge of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 or the execution by hanging of some of the Indian leaders of that war. I had not grown up in the State and had not been exposed to its history, and although I had majored in history in college and had studied U.S. history, the War was not covered.

BannerUS-Dakotawar

By the time I went to church on October 7, 2012, I was aware that during the U.S. Civil War there had been a short war with the Indians in Minnesota and that subsequently some of the Indian leaders were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. That was the sum total of my knowledge of these events.

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

The moving worship service that day at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church was devoted to remembering that War and its aftermath, especially its impact on the Dakota people. The beautiful Indian music and the sermons by Westminster’s Senior Minister, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, and by Jim Bear Jacobs made me realize that the War and the executions of the Indian leaders were important events that had lasting effects to this day at least upon the Dakota people and Native Americans more generally.

I immediately wanted to share this moving and beautiful worship service with others by writing a blog post about it. I soon realized that there was so much to say about the service itself that I would have to break it up into three posts. I also realized that I needed to know more about the War and about the commemoration this year of the 150th anniversary of the War. This lead to my researching and writing separate posts on these subjects and another about the contemporaneous reaction to the War by my second great-grandfather, Rev. Charles E. Brown.

Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey
Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey
General John Pope
General John Pope

The additional research turned up the September 1862 exhortation by Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey for “extermination” of the Dakota Indians. The same disgusting clamor also was made that year by U.S. General John Pope, who was in charge of ending the uprising. Pope said his purpose was “to utterly exterminate the Sioux [Dakota]. They are to be treated as maniacs and wild beasts.” The next year the federal government offered a bounty of $25 per scalp for every Dakota Indian found in Minnesota.

The evident anger and fear of the white settlers perhaps are akin to that experienced by the American people after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, as noted in a prior post, these public incitements, if made today, would constitute one form of the crime of genocide under international law.

The impact of the War on Native Americans is only one of the many ways in which what has become the dominant culture of the U.S. has denigrated Native Americans. The result is high incidences of public school drop-outs, alcoholism and suicide among Native Americans. All of this reminded me of the testimony in the Minneapolis school desegregation case by a Native American educator who said he was a “well-balanced schizophrenic,” i.e., he had one foot in Native culture and the other in the dominant culture.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich

RoundHouseAnother insight into Native culture was provided by my recent reading of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, which was awarded the 2012 National Book Prize for fiction. One of the central events in the novel is the violent rape of a Native woman by a white man on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in 1988, and the resulting legal problem as to whether the federal or Native American courts had jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the crime.

In an Afterword, Erdrich, who lives in Minneapolis not far from my home, cites a 2009 Amnesty International report that points out that 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime, that 86% of such rapes and sexual assaults are by non-Native men and that few are ever prosecuted.

The novel also discusses something I never learned in law school or in 35 years of practicing law. In Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823), the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice John Marshall, stated that radical title to U.S. land was obtained by European powers upon their “discovery” of the land and that the U.S. government inherited such title upon the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In this context, “tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages.”

Two other U.S. Supreme Court cases were also mentioned in the novel as bearing on the jurisdictional issue presented by the fictional rape. In Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832), Chief Justice John Marshall for the Court decided that the federal government had the sole right of dealing with the Indian nations in North America. Nearly 1.5 centuries later the Supreme Court in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 435 U.S. 191 (1978), determined that Indian tribal courts did not have inherent criminal jurisdiction to try and to punish non-Indians and hence may not assume such jurisdiction unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress.

This research, thinking and writing prompted further reflection on the subject of memory and the October 7th Scripture—Numbers 15: 37-41:

  • “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”

God understands that we humans are forgetful and that individuals and especially groups of people need reminders of important things. Indeed, constant, physical reminders like fringes on the corners of your garments are useful because of our forgetfulness and our sinfulness. Similarly many Christians wear necklaces and pins with crosses for the same reason and to proclaim that they are Christians.

Such practices and the re-telling of important stories also help educate the omnipresent newcomers to the faith or the history. They help to keep the faith or history alive. That certainly happened at the October 7th worship service and at the Minnesota History Center’s exhibit about the War and the other events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the War.

For the same reasons the various ways in which Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero is remembered are important. So too the Holocaust museums in Washington, D.C. and around the world help us remember the horrors of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

At the same time, my reaction to the October 7th Westminster worship service suggests another phenomenon. Memory can be asymmetrical. Most white Anglo-Saxons like myself have or had no memory or understanding of the U.S.-Dakota War. For the Dakota people and Native Americans generally, on the other hand, the War and the executions of the Dakota 38 is an ever-present, painful memory. Thus, this worship service and the events commemorating the War are especially important ways of trying to break through the ignorance of the dominant culture.[1]

My reactions to this worship service also help me understand that the third-part of the Westminster worship service—Responding to the Word—does not end when you leave the sanctuary after the service. It should continue in how you live your life and how you continue to think about and probe the meaning of the Word that day. My contemplation of this worship service and the Word will continue beyond this posting.


[1] A recent article discussed this asymmetrical phenomenon in the context of an individual’s new love for another person. It said that human beings are prone to “hedonic adaptation, a measurable and innate capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes” and that “[h]edonic adaptation is most likely when positive experiences  are  involved . . . . We’re inclined–psychologically and physiologically–to take positive experiences for granted.”