Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Dakota War (AKA ‘Little Crow’s War’): Lincoln the killer or the merciful?

Longtime grasshoppers may remember that about three years ago the Dakota War was a top finisher in our "Obscure American Wars" contest. I mention it now because a new article has changed my views of President Lincoln’s handling of the outcome of that conflict. What is significant, the article says, is not that Lincoln approved ...

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Longtime grasshoppers may remember that about three years ago the Dakota War was a top finisher in our "Obscure American Wars" contest. I mention it now because a new article has changed my views of President Lincoln's handling of the outcome of that conflict.

What is significant, the article says, is not that Lincoln approved the hanging of 38 Dakota Sioux fighters, but that he commuted the death sentences of another 265. The author, Robert Norris, calls this "an act of clemency unparalleled in our nation's history." Indeed, when a Republican politician blamed Republican setbacks in Minnesota two years later on Lincoln going soft on hanging Indians, Lincoln replied, "I could not afford to hang some men for votes." Still, the hanging of the 38 in December 1862 was the largest mass execution in our history.

As I am sure you remember, in November 1862, two months after the war ended, and while our nation was engaged in a great civil war, Gen. John Pope, acting as prosecutor and judge, sentenced 303 Dakota Sioux fighters to death. He didn't seem to be aware that the sentence required presidential approval, and when he did find out, treated it as kind of pro forma. Lincoln didn't. He had two lawyers look into it, then made his decision not to execute most of the men listed. Those who were hanged were the ones blamed in particular for killing or raping settlers.

Longtime grasshoppers may remember that about three years ago the Dakota War was a top finisher in our "Obscure American Wars" contest. I mention it now because a new article has changed my views of President Lincoln’s handling of the outcome of that conflict.

What is significant, the article says, is not that Lincoln approved the hanging of 38 Dakota Sioux fighters, but that he commuted the death sentences of another 265. The author, Robert Norris, calls this "an act of clemency unparalleled in our nation’s history." Indeed, when a Republican politician blamed Republican setbacks in Minnesota two years later on Lincoln going soft on hanging Indians, Lincoln replied, "I could not afford to hang some men for votes." Still, the hanging of the 38 in December 1862 was the largest mass execution in our history.

As I am sure you remember, in November 1862, two months after the war ended, and while our nation was engaged in a great civil war, Gen. John Pope, acting as prosecutor and judge, sentenced 303 Dakota Sioux fighters to death. He didn’t seem to be aware that the sentence required presidential approval, and when he did find out, treated it as kind of pro forma. Lincoln didn’t. He had two lawyers look into it, then made his decision not to execute most of the men listed. Those who were hanged were the ones blamed in particular for killing or raping settlers.

Despite Lincoln’s care, the entire episode is a black spot in the history of American military justice. Most of the Indians tried could not speak English, Norris notes. They lacked counsel. When asked at the trial about what they had done, "some even boasted as proud warriors." Even the executions were botched, with one man named "Chaska" hanged by mistake in place of another named "Chas-kay-don."

All in all, a well-done and interesting article.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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