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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The U.S.-Dakota War Remembered by Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (Part II)

Westminster Presbyterian Church

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church at its October 7, 2012, worship service remembered the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.[1] This post will review the central part of this very moving service–Listening for the Word.[2]

The Scripture reading for the day was Numbers 15: 37-41 from the Hebrew Bible:

  • “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.”

This reading was followed by a solo rendition of a traditional Ojibwe “Song of Love” honoring the gift of love among all people.

REv. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Westminster’s Senior Pastor, presented the first sermon –“What Is the Role of the Church: To Remember.” This sermon started with the previous Biblical text. Hart-Andersen said:

  • “The Hebrew people were born of memory. Each generation was taught the stories of those who had gone before. Parents told children how their ancestors had been enslaved in Egypt, how Moses led them out of bondage, how God saved them. Over the ages they told their stories – and they remembered themselves into being. As we learn in the text from Numbers this morning the fringe that men wear even today serves as a reminder of their past, lest the people forget. Judaism clings to its stories because they are the lifeblood of the people.”
  • “The Christian Church is not all that different. The Church is the place where the Jesus story is told, where we hear the story of God’s people. That story can be full of light and hope, of goodness and grace, but sometimes it’s hard to hear, sometimes full of pain and sorrow. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as if it will ever come out right.”
  • “The church ceases to be the church when it loses its memory. That may be one of the problems facing the church in America today. We don’t remember why we need God, why we need redemption, why we need each other. We have fed ourselves so long on the myth of self-sufficiency that we no longer need the power of religious tradition to sustain us. The story doesn’t matter much anymore.”
  • “Today we remember the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. It started when the U.S. reneged on yet another treaty promise, leaving the native people destitute. A group of Dakota warriors killed several white settlers, leading to a declaration of war by Chief Little Crow. After six weeks the Dakota were defeated. Thousands were held in disease-riddled camps, including women and children; over 300 warriors were sentenced to die – some in trials lasting a mere five minutes. President Lincoln commuted most of the sentences, but in December, 1862, the largest mass execution in U.S. history took place in Mankato, when 38 Dakota men were hung. The Dakota were expelled from Minnesota and hundreds more died on the march to reservations in the west.”
  • “Presbyterian missionaries played a key role in 19th century Minnesota. The first Christian congregation in the Territory was established by Presbyterian brothers Gideon and Samuel Pond on the shores of Lake Calhoun. They put the Lord’s Prayer into Dakota . . . . Presbyterian missionary Stephen Riggs wrote the first Dakota dictionary. Presbyterian doctor Thomas Williamson oversaw the first translation of the Bible into Dakota. Presbyterian missionaries went with the Dakota when they were banished from their homes.”
  • “But however enlightened our forebears in the church may have been, they – and that means we – were part of ending the Dakota way of life.”
  • “In the 1840’s the native congregation in Lac Qui Parle wrote the Dakota hymn, Many and Great, O God, Are Thy Things, No. 271 in our hymnal. The 38 Dakota men – Presbyterians, many of them – sang the hymn as they mounted the gallows in Mankato on December 26, 1862. We will close our worship this morning singing that same hymn. Listen, especially, to the words of the last verse and imagine the Dakota preparing to die.”
  • “The church is in the memory business. We’re a community formed by the story of God and the stories of God’s people. Sometimes the memories are hard to hear, the stories painful to share. Sometimes they seem unresolved.”
  • “Black Elk, a Lakota Holy Man born in 1863, described the people of the earth as being a ‘hoop,’ an unbroken circle bound together in a sacred way. Toward the end of his life, Black Elk said, ‘The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.’ (Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt, ed. [Albany: SUNY Press, 2008], p. 218)”[3]
  • “Our call as the church is to repair the hoop, to join the work of God in making whole the peoples of the earth, and it starts right here at home.”
Jim Bear Jacobs

The second of the day’s sermons was delivered by Jim Bear Jacobs, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation. The following are excerpts from his sermon:

  • “It is good for us to speak today about memory. For today we have much to remember. It is with memory that we can recall the stories that are released into any given space. You see memory is integral to the art of storytelling. And my friends today we are surrounded by story.”
  • “It ought not escape our attention that tomorrow [October 8th] many all over this nation of ours will celebrate Columbus Day. This is part of the story that is released upon this land. . . . [This] year let us commit to active engagement with the story that has disseminated its way down into every aspect of American Indian life. When words like ‘discovery’ and ‘new world’ are thoughtlessly used, it is a reminder that the epicenter for knowledge has been and is still White Euro-America. And every year [when] we again celebrate Columbus the discoverer we reinforce in the spirit of American Indian children that unless a white man knows that you exist, you in fact do not yet exist.”
  • “This year in the State of Minnesota we engage the story of the US-Dakota war. 150 years ago in 1862 on the brink of starvation a small group of Dakota warriors had reached a devastating breaking point. Given the choice between fighting for the stores of food that were literally rotting away in the warehouse of the reservation agent, or watching their loved ones slowly decline into death, they made what they thought was the more honorable choice. What followed was six weeks of violent fighting that left around 800 dead and decimated the towns of western Minnesota.”
  • “After the fighting what followed for the Dakota were forced marches, concentration camps, bounties and mass executions. The Dakota creation narrative is centered around the convergence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers [near the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport], and in 1863 with one stroke of a pen in Washington D.C. it became illegal to be Dakota in the State of Minnesota. As a result of that legislation, there are now far more Dakota living in exile outside of Minnesota than live within the borders of their homeland.”
  • “Likewise as we move toward the season of Thanksgiving, we are surrounded by the story of American colonization and settlement. The history books of our childhood tell us of the amicable relationship between the tribal nations of the east coast and the newly arrived seekers of religious freedom. If only it were that simple. You see, for the American Indians this small struggling group of new neighbors signaled the beginning of a wave of change that would sweep over this entire country and leave a devastating scar upon this land and her people. And it pains me to have to admit that because the church was swept up in the power and imperialism of the day, a lion’s share of the culpability lies at our doorstep.”
  • “This morning I greeted you not in the Mohican language but in the Lenape language. So why does a proud Mohican greet you in Lenape and not Mohican. It is because in the wake of Christian missionary work the Mohican language lies dormant in the graveyard of a Lutheran boarding school. We as members of Christ’s body inherit a generational history that is blemished with devastating atrocities committed in the name of our beloved Savior.”
  • “We have all heard it said that time heals all wounds. If this were true for the Native American we would not have the highest suicide rate, the highest high-school dropout rate, or the highest substance abuse rate. In the western way of thinking time may heal wounds if the wound is superficial. But these wounds are not superficial, they are deep, they are fresh and they bleed anew every time a bottle is picked up, or one of our own seeing no hope for a better future puts an end to his or her own life. Because these stories affect every American Indian, the resulting wounds also affect every American Indian. Time cannot heal these wounds because American Indians have little concern for time. For us these stories do not exist in time, they exist in space. As long as we walk upon this land and in this space our chronological distance from these events and stories is irrelevant. It is a heavy burden that every American Indian carries. We must forgive that which is unforgiveable in order to heal and ensure our own survival.”
  • “This morning we gather in another space and engage in a different story. Today we gather around the Lord’s Table and partake in the story of His sacrificial death. In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul warns us against abuses of the Lord’s Table. Within the context that we, the church, are the body of Christ, he tells [us] that when we come together to partake, we are to discern the body lest we drink judgment upon ourselves.”
  • “The “Lord’s Table is a universal table, and we eat and drink as one part of a global body. Today we partake with affluent aristocracy, and we partake with sweatshop laborers. This morning we partake with presidents and kings, and we partake with a small group of Dakota ministers. . . . I said earlier that the American Indian carries the heavy burden of having to forgive the unforgiveable. Likewise the church also carries a heavy burden. Lest we drink judgment upon ourselves, we must discern what is justice for the entirety of this body.”
  • “In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus states that before one is to bring any offering before God, he must go to his brother and be reconciled. With this statement Jesus establishes reconciliation as the first step in the act of worship. Without reconciliation there can be no legitimate worship. Reconciliation is a difficult word for the American Indian. It seems to imply that there is a point in history when there was conciliation. That point in American or church history simply does not exist. So if we as a church speak of reconciliation, let us do so in the context that we desire to go back to the way [the] Creator intended humanity to live. And let us commit to come together and forge new stories that will also be released into this space so that future generations when speaking of reconciliation can remember well the good works that began here.”

[1] Prior posts set forth a summary of the War, a contemporary white settler’s comments on the War and this year’s commemoration of the War.

[2]. A prior post reviewed the initial part of the service–Preparing for the Word. A subsequent post will discuss the last part of that service– Responding to the Word. The following materials about this service are available online: a video, the bulletin and the texts of the sermons. The theological underpinnings for Westminster’s order of worship were reviewed in a prior post.

[3] Earlier that day in an adult education class, Jim Bear Jacobs said that in Indian culture life is lived in a circle or a Sacred Hoop and that death is seen as a return to the Creator/Spirit.