restricted access Remembering the Thirty-Eight: Abraham Lincoln, the Dakota, and the U.S. War on Barbarism
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Remembering the Thirty-Eight
Abraham Lincoln, the Dakota, and the U.S. War on Barbarism

Because of Abraham Lincoln’s intervention, on December 26, 1862, a day that will live in infamy in the hearts and minds of the Dakota Oyate, thirty-eight men were hanged for alleged crimes against white citizens during an armed conflict between the Dakota and the United States. Aside from the fact that this mass execution remains the largest in American history, what makes this travesty of justice all the more egregious is the vindictiveness with which it was carried out by a settler population that saw itself as above the Constitution and beyond any regard for human rights. Although there were some non-Indians, such as Bishop Henry Whipple, who understood that the Dakota were not without mitigating circumstances, the vast majority were like the Indian agent Thomas J. Galbraith, who condemned the Dakota in his 1863 report as inveterate savages, who were only good for complaining about their withheld annuities. Consequently, what Galbraith does not own up to is the fact that he regularly ignored the Dakota’s cries of starvation, which had become in the summer of 1862 an imminent threat to their lives. In fact, in an outrageous attempt at exonerating himself and his office, Galbraith makes the following preposterous claim: “He knows little of the Sioux Indians who has not learned that to imagine, manufacture, and improvise complaints is characteristic of the entire Sioux nation.” Moreover, “it is well to take their stories of hunger, privation, and wrongs cum grano salis [with a grain of salt].”1 Galbraith does admit, however, that there was corruption on the [End Page 5] reservation. What he deliberately overlooks, though, is that the inhumanity the Dakota were forced to endure was perpetrated by dishonest traders who were in partnership with him in a scheme to defraud the Dakota of what few resources they had, namely, the cash annuities they annually received from the U.S. federal government in compliance with the treaties the two nations signed.2 Indeed, what previous scholars have demonstrated is that the culpability for the unjust hanging of the thirty-eight Dakota men extends to all levels of American settler society, from ordinary Minnesota citizens to the governor’s office, the commissioner of Indian affairs, and the U.S. Senate. But what about President Abraham Lincoln? This essay argues that hidden behind the myth of magnanimity—which Lincoln supposedly showed when he “spared” the lives of more than two hundred condemned Dakota prisoners of war—is a cold and insensitive politician who deliberately ordered a mass execution of thirty-eight men illegitimately tried in kangaroo courts. Further, Lincoln willfully ordered this mass hanging in order to appease a Minnesota settler populace threatening riots and anarchy, perhaps even secession, if he did not do as they demanded.

During the war trials that followed the 1862 conflict, President Lincoln was made aware of the conditions on the Dakota reservations, particularly at Lower Sioux, in addition to Minnesotans’ clarion call for the Dakotas’ extermination. With this in mind, the process through which Lincoln decided to reduce the number of condemned from three hundred and three to thirty-nine (with the thirty-ninth acquitted at the last moment) is seen by some as another example of this president’s Solomon-like wisdom. In other words, Lincoln is credited with having drawn a difficult compromise between a vengeful populace and a defeated Indian nation reduced to being prisoners of war. Even Dakota writer and activist Charles Alexander Eastman, whose father and uncles fought against the United States in 1862, expressed his gratitude for Lincoln’s magnanimity, when he stated in his 1915 book The Indian To-Day that a “new Indian policy” emerged when Lincoln refused “to order the execution of three hundred Sioux braves, whom a military court had, in less than two days, convicted of murder and condemned to be hung, in order to satisfy the clamor of the citizens of Minnesota.”3 Although Eastman was only a mere four years of age when hostilities erupted in the middle of August 1862, he was aware of the calamity that...