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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Military Commission Trials of Dakota Indians After the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 lasted from August 17th through September 24th.  It ended with 447 white people killed, more than 300 of whom were not in any battles, including at least 100 white children and 50 white women. In contrast, only 29 Dakota Indian men had been killed. The U.S. Army also captured many Dakota men, women and children.[1]

Colonel Henry H. Sibley
Colonel Henry H. Sibley

On September 27th Henry H. Sibley, who had been appointed by Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey to be in charge of the militia fighting the War, issued an order creating a military commission to try the captive Dakota Indians. Another order the next day stated that the commission of five officers would “try summarily the Mulatto [Joseph Godfrey],[2] and Indians, or mixed bloods . . . and pass judgment upon them, if found guilty of murders or other outrages [rapes] against the whites, during the present state of hostilities of the Indians . . . . [to be] governed . . . by Military Law and Usage.”[3]

BachmanbookGodfrey was the first to be tried. His Charge was “Murder” with the following two specifications:

1. “Godfrey , a colored man, did at or near New Ulm, Minn., on or about the 19th day of August 1862, join in a War Party of the Sioux tribe of Indians against Citizens of the [U.S.] and did with his own hand murder seven white men and women and children more or less, peaceable Citizens of the [U.S.].”

2. “Godfrey, a colored man, did at various times and places between the 19th day of August 1862, and the 28th day of September 1862, join and participate in the Murders and Massacres committed by the Sioux Indians on the Minnesota Frontier.”[4]

His trial on these charges started with his own detailed testimony that he had felt coerced to join the initial Dakota war party, that minimized his own participation and that he had not killed anyone, but only hit a white man with the blunt edge of a hatchet. Six witnesses testified that Godfrey had appeared to be a willing participant and had said he had killed people, but none said they had witnessed any such killings. His trial took one or two days. Thereafter, Godfrey testified in other cases on behalf of the prosecution.[5]

The commission subsequently issued its decision that Godfrey was “guilty on the charge [of Murder], and second specification [of participation in murders and massacres by the Indians], and not guilty on the first specification [of murdering anyone himself].” The commission, therefore, sentenced him “to be hung by the neck until he is dead,” but recommended “a mitigation of the sentence to imprisonment for ten years.” [6]

The commission also conducted trials of 391 other Dakota Indians over no more than 30 days. Of these, 302 were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging; 20 were convicted and given prison terms of one to five years; and 69, including one Dakota woman, were acquitted.[7]

After all the cases had been tried and decided, the commission sent a message to Sibley renewing “their application for a commutation of the sentence of . . . Godfrey . . . .” They said his “testimony [in other cases] has been invaluable to the State, for without it a large number of men of the very worst character would have gone unpunished.” His evidence “has always proved truthful both by corroborative evidence and by the acknowledgements of the prisoners themselves.” Therefore, “his services . . . warrant the exercise of judicial clemency.”[8]

Sibley, however, refused this unique plea for clemency and did not commute Godfrey’s sentence of death by hanging.[9]

All of these convictions were put on hold when President Lincoln by a November 12th telegram decided that his Administration would review the military commissions’ decisions with an order to General Pope to forward the “full and complete record” of the convictions to the President.[10]


[2]  As discussed in a prior post, Godfrey was a black slave in Minnesota who had escaped his owner in the 1840s and gone to live with the Dakota Indians and who fought with the Indians in this War.

[3]  Bachman at 124-25.

[4]  Id. at 138-39.

[5]  Id. at 138-66.

[6] Id. at 180-81.

[7] Id. at 220-22.

[8] Id. at 218-19.

[9] Id. at 221-22.

[10] Id. at 239. President Lincoln’s review of the convictions will be the subject of another post. Another topic to be explored in another post will be certain legal issues raised by these trials and sentences.

Slavery in Minnesota

Map of U.S.-Dakota War, 1862
Map of U.S.-Dakota War, 1862
Fort Snelling
Fort Snelling, Minnesota

Black slavery existed in supposedly free Minnesota. It happened primarily when U.S. Army officers stationed at Minnesota’s Fort Snelling[1] brought slaves with them at the Army’s expense. This practice did not end until just before the start of the Civil War in 1861 as confirmed by the 1865 adoption of the XIII Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning slavery in this country.

Bachmanbook

These are some of the startling findings in Northern Slave Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey by Walt Bachman, a former Minnesota attorney, an historian and friend.[2]

The focus of the book is Joseph Godfrey, who was born to a black mother (Courtney) and a French Canadian father in the early 1830’s in Mendota, Minnesota across the Minnesota River from Fort Snelling.

At that time Joseph’s mother was a slave owned by Alexander Bailley, a prominent fur trader.  She had been born into slavery around 1812 in Virginia and was owned in that state by James Garland until 1820, when she was sold to his brother, U.S. Army Captain John Garland. The Captain then took her with him on Army postings to supposedly free Michigan and Wisconsin and then in 1826 to Fort Snelling. During this time Garland claimed and received extra compensation from the Army for Courtney until he sold her in 1831 to Bailley.

By virtue of his race and parentage, Godfrey upon birth also was a slave owned by Mr. Bailley and is one of the few African Americans known to have born into slavery in Minnesota and the only one known to have grown from birth to adulthood there. Godfrey lived with the Bailley family in Wabasha, Hastings and Shakopee (then known as Faribault Springs), Minnesota. Probably in the 1840s Godfrey was sold or transferred to Bailley’s brother-in-law, Oliver Fairbault.[3]

In or about 1847 Godfrey escaped his owner and walked about 40 miles southwest along the Minnesota River to Traverse des Sioux, a village at a shallow river crossing.[4] There he presented himself to Alexander Huggins, a militant abolitionist Presbyterian missionary whom he had previously met.

Almost immediately, however, Godfrey fled to join the Indian bands led by Chiefs Wabasha and Wakute along the Mississippi River. In 1853 Godfrey moved back along the Minnesota River in south central Minnesota after an 1851 treaty required those tribes to go to a new Dakota reservation in that location. In any event, Godfrey lived with Dakota Indians for over 12 years after his escape from his owner.

Godfrey thus was living with the Dakota when the U.S.-Dakota War broke out and he joined the Indians in that War. On August 18th he was with a Dakota war party that attacked farmers in Milford. Afterwards he said he had killed several men and children that day although the subsequent military commission apparently did not believe any such statements as he was acquitted of murdering anyone himself. Godfrey also participated in other battles of the War. Exactly what he did in these battles is unclear, but in any event on or about September 24th he along with some of the Dakota warriors surrendered to the U. S. Army.

Later he was tried and convicted by a military commission as will be discussed in a subsequent post.

Godfrey was not the only slave living in Minnesota during these years as Bachman’s book explains.

One of these other slaves was Dred Scott, who lived with his owner, Dr. John Emerson, while he was posted at Fort Snelling from 1836 to 1840. Scott, of course, was the subject of the infamous U.S. Supreme Court case of 1857 holding that Scott because he was black was a non-citizen who had no right to bring a claim in a federal court and invalidating as unconstitutional  the Missouri Compromise law of 1820-1821 prohibiting slavery in the Northern territories.


[1] Today Fort Snelling is close to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and is a National Historic Landmark operated by the Minnesota Historical Society. It is named after U.S. Army Colonel Josiah Snelling, the first Commandant of the Fort while he owned slaves.

[2] The 2013 book is published by Pond Dakota Press, a division of the Pond Dakota Heritage Society of Bloomington, Minnesota ((ISBN 978-0-9850099-0-8. Gideon and Samuel Pond were 19th century Presbyterian missionaries to Minnesota. Bachman is working on another book about the Army’s more general pre-Civil War promotion of slavery in the U.S.

[3]  The current Minnesota city of Faribault is named after Oliver’s brother, Alexander Faribault.

[4] This river crossing was used by generations of Dakota and early French fur traders as a trading outpost. Traverse des Sioux was the site of treaty negotiations in 1851 between the U.S. government and the Dakota. Today the Nicollet County Historical Society operates the site as well as the adjacent Treaty Site History Center.