History holds President Abraham Lincoln in awe, but his decisions about whether or not to punish insurgents were not consistent, perhaps reflecting personal and national biases.
After Minnesota became a state in 1861, the U.S. government forced the Dakota Indians to hand over the territory to white settlers, promising food and supplies as partial compensation. In the summer of 1862, the Dakota were starving, but the government ignored its promise. Andrew Myrick, a would-be representative of the native people, responded to their plea for food, saying: “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.”
Dakota leader Little Crow felt he had little choice but to lead a series of attacks on the settlements. Myrick was among the first of the 490 casualties. When his body was found, Myrick’s mouth had been stuffed with grass.
The uprising was short-lived. By the end of six weeks, the state militia had captured some 2,000 Dakota. A military court sentenced 303 to death.
President Lincoln, in an effort to be just, studied the trial records and found inadequate evidence against 265 of the imprisoned Dakotas. For the remaining 38, Lincoln ordered death by hanging.
In Mankato, Minnesota, on the day after Christmas in 1862, hundreds of white people, eager to witness the largest mass execution in U.S. history (then and now), gathered at the center of town. As the condemned men mounted the scaffold and hoods were placed over their heads, they chanted and sang death songs. A member of the crowd reported: “as the last moment rapidly approached, [the 38 prisoners] each called out their name and shouted in their native language: ‘I’m here! I’m here!’?” At a drum signal, the trap door was opened, the prisoners fell through, and the audience cheered.
Lincoln and Congress subsequently removed the Dakotas and Winnebago—the latter were not involved the uprising—from all of their lands in Minnesota.
Lincoln’s harsh treatment of the Indian rebels stands in sharp contrast to his lenient handling of Confederate rebels. After the Civil War, he did not order the execution of a single Confederate soldier or officer, even though the secessionists had killed more than 400,000 Union soldiers.