President Abe Lincoln authorized the executions of Dakota warriors in 1862

As the United States Civil War raged for a second year in 1862, in Minnesota, a separate struggle between the Dakota and the Union Army broke out during the summer of that year.

The Dakota, starving on reservations that they had been forced upon a decade earlier, were angered by the U.S. government’s failure to provide the annuity payments that had been agreed upon for their land in 1851. As food rations grew more sparse, the Dakota rose up and began attacking white settlers across the Minnesota Valley; skirmishes with militia and regular Army personnel also broke out during this six week period.

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(Refugees from the brief Dakota war)

By late September of 1862, the Dakota uprising had been quelled and a military force led by Colonel Henry Sibley captured nearly 1,000 Dakota warriors, along with non-combatant men, women, and children. During the ensuing six weeks, 392 Dakota fighters were tried by hastily convened military tribunals for offenses including murder and rape. 303 Dakota were convicted of those offenses and sentenced to death by hanging.

President Abraham Lincoln exercised his authority as Commander-in-Chief to review the death sentences meted out following the sham trials, ones in which due process of law was not afforded to the defendants–many of whom had no idea what was being said in court due to the fact that they did not speak English. Lincoln would uphold the death penalty for 39 Dakota and commute the sentences of the remaining 265 to imprisonment.

When the condemned Dakota strode to the gallows on December 26, 1862, their plunge to death marked what remains the largest mass execution in American history. What renders this execution all the more suspect is that while President Lincoln would later estimate that nearly 800 white settlers and soldiers were killed during America’s brief war with the Dakota nation, those numbers did not come close to matching the number of Union casualties following battles like Shiloh in April of 1862, or the battle of Antietam–fought during the same time as the Dakota skirmishes–one that historians note as the bloodiest single day battle in U.S. History with over 22,000 casualties.


(Art and actual photos of battle dead from the bloody Battles of Shiloh and Antietam)

As for the macabre execution spectacle near Mankato, Minnesota, an excerpt from the NY Times provided details of the final walk for the Dakota Warriors: “Precisely at the time announced — 10 A.M. — a company, without arms, entered the prisoners’ quarters to escort them to their doom. Instead of any shrinking or resistance, all were ready, and even seemed eager to meet their fate….As they came up and reached the platform, they filed right and left, and each one took his position as though they had rehearsed the programme. Standing round the platform, they formed a square, and each one was directly under the fatal noose. Their caps were now drawn over their eyes, and the halter placed about their necks. Several of them feeling uncomfortable, made severe efforts to loosen the rope, and some, after the most dreadful contortions, partially succeeded.

The signal to cut the rope was three taps of the drum. All things being ready, the first tap was given, when the poor wretches made such frantic efforts to grasp each other’s hands, that it was agony to behold them. Each one shouted out his name, that his comrades might know he was there. The second tap resounded on the air. The vast multitude were breathless with the awful surroundings of this solemn occasion. Again the doleful tap breaks on the stillness of the scene.

Click! goes the sharp ax, and the descending platform leaves the bodies of thirty-eight human beings dangling in the air. The greater part died instantly; some few struggled violently, and one of the ropes broke, and sent its burden with a heavy, dull crash, to the platform beneath. A new rope was procured, and the body again swung up to its place. It was an awful sight to behold. Thirty-eight human beings suspended in the air, on the bank of the beautiful Minnesota; above, the smiling, clear, blue sky; beneath and around, the silent thousands, hushed to a deathly silence by the chilling scene before them, while the bayonets bristling in the sunlight added to the importance of the occasion.”

The question that begs asking is if Confederate soldiers who were captured in 1862 were not hanged to death despite causing deaths or wounds to tens of thousands of whites Union soldiers at Shiloh, Antietam, and other battles back East, why were the Dakota combatants sentenced to hang, particularly once the evidence bore out that only two of the condemned had any credible evidence of having raped a civilian? President Lincoln left little record as to what factored in his decision to execute Dakota combatants while providing quarter, albeit in prisons, for captured Confederate combatants.

However, one could credibly argue that the Native warriors, much like Black soldiers who fought back against white Jim Crow rioters 55 years later during the 1917 Houston/Camp Logan massacre, offended the sentiments of whites who believed that non-whites should readily and happily accede to any and all machinations of white supremacy. Indeed, the processes between the two were eerily similar, with President Lincoln authorizing executions in the same manner that President Woodrow Wilson would for 17 Black soldiers in 1917–hanging–one in which the bodies of the dead were left dangling to remind other would be combatants of their potential fate for fighting back against whites.


(Black soldiers on trial after the Houston/Camp Logan riot in 1917)

So as we continue to consider the racial legacies of American “heroes,” it is crucial to consider the entire record of their words and deeds–not just a few that fit narratives that diminish the role of race and systemic racism towards people of color.