Lincoln's Other War of Aggression
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March 19, 2007


By Joseph E. Fallon

Lincoln's war against Southern independence is just one component of the American Civil War. Like a Matryoshka doll, the Civil War opens up to reveal a set of nested wars, one inside another. There is Lincoln's war against international law; his war against the Congress; his war against the judiciary; his war against the Bill of Rights; and, finally, his lesser known war against the Indians of Minnesota in 1862—an event that both demonstrated Lincoln's character and influenced U.S. policy toward the Plains Indians for the rest of the 19th century.

For Lincoln, the American Civil War was the instrument he needed to achieve his two key objectives: consolidating political power in the federal government, particularly in the presidency; and imposing Henry Clay's "American System"—corporate welfarism for Northern special interests, such as the banks, railroads, mining, and manufacturers. This system institutionalized corruption and created what Mark Twain would later derisively call the "Gilded Age."

Lincoln's victims were not just the states, both Southern and Northern, but the Indian nations. His conduct toward the Indians revealed his duplicity. While condemning corrupt practices by traders and agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Lincoln supported the immigration of thousands of settlers onto Indian lands and refused to honor existing treaties.

He specifically refused to pay the Santee Sioux of Minnesota the $1.5 million owed them by the U.S. government according to the terms of two major 1851 treaties (Traverse des Sioux and Mendota) and three additional 1858 treaties involving the sale of 24 million acres of land, including most of the state of Minnesota, to the U.S. government. Instead, Lincoln sought new treaties to dispossess Indian nations of additional lands as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

In 1862, after a crop failure, famine broke out among the Indians of Minnesota. The conduct of the U.S. government turned a natural disaster into man-made tragedy. Local authorities refused to supply the starving Indians with the food stockpiled for them in accordance with the terms of the treaties. One Minnesota trading-post operator summed up the government's response: "If they're hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung."

The Sioux, Cheyenne, and Chippewa responded violently, fomenting the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862, in which over 800 white men, women, and children were massacred. The war ended with Lincoln ordering the public hanging of 38 Indians in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

The execution is presented by Lincoln apologists as an act of clemency, since, of the 2,000 Indians captured, 303 had been sentenced to death. However, each of the 303 had been denied a substantial hearing. On average, their trials before a military court lasted just ten minutes each.

Political expediency, not compassion, dissuaded Lincoln from having all the condemned hanged. He feared a mass execution would inflame public opinion in Europe and provide a pretext for the British and French governments to recognize the Confederacy. At the same time, Lincoln had to satisfy the Minnesotans' demand for justice if he was to maintain their support for his war against the South. So he crafted a compromise: Lincoln had only 38 Indians hanged but would later expel the rest of the Indians from the state. As part of that understanding, more than 300 Indians were immediately imprisoned for three years in Davenport, Iowa, where over one third of them died. Their families were incarcerated at Fort Snelling.

Volumes V, VI, and VII of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (Rutgers University Press), contain official correspondence on the 1862 Indian uprising in Minnesota and reveal Lincoln as corrupt and cowardly.

After the military verdicts were handed down, Lincoln sent a letter to Gen. John Pope, the judge advocate general, on November 10, 1862, in which he reveals his hesitancy to accept personal responsibility for the mass execution his staged trials had ordained:

Your despatch giving the names of three hundred Indians condemned to death, is received. Please forward, as soon as possible, the full and complete record of these convictions. And if the record does not fully indicate the more guilty and influential, of the culprits, please have a careful statement made on these points and forwarded to me. Send all by mail.

Gov. Alexander Ramsey telegraphed Lincoln on November 10, addressing Lincoln's hesitancy: "I hope the execution of every Sioux Indian condemned by the military court will be at once ordered. It would be wrong upon principle and policy to refuse this." On November 11, Lincoln endorsed Ramsey's telegraph, "Respectfully referred to Secretary of War."

On December 1, 1862, Lincoln wrote Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt:

Three hundred Indians have been sentenced to death in Minnesota by a Military Commission and execution only awaits my action. I wish your legal opinion whether if I should conclude to execute only a part of them, I must, myself designate which, or could I leave the designation to some officer on the ground?

Replying the same day, Holt wrote:

I do not understand the precise form in which the question, referred to in your note of this morning, presents itself. If it be on an application to pardon the indians [sic] condemned, or a part of them, I am quite sure that the power cannot be delegated . . . The delegation of those upon whom the sentence is to be executed, is but the exercise of the same power . . . I am not aware of any instance in which the delegation of this delicate and responsible trust, has been attempted.

Then, on December 6, Lincoln wrote Gen. Henry H. Sibley:

Ordered that of the Indians and Half-breeds sentenced to be hanged by the Military Commission . . . lately sitting in Minnesota, you cause to be executed on Friday the nineteenth day of December, instant, the following named, to wit [A list of thirty-eight names follows]. The other condemned prisoners you will hold subject to further orders, taking care that they neither escape, nor are subjected to any unlawful violence.

In a follow-up to General Sibley, Lincoln agreed to a slight alteration: "As you suggest, let the executions fixed for Friday, the nineteenth (19th) instant, be postponed to, and be done on, Friday, the twenty-sixth (26th) instant."

On December 27, Sibley reported to the President in a telegraph that "the 38 Indians and half-breeds ordered by you for execution were hung yesterday at Mankato, at 10 a.m. Everything went off quietly, and the other prisoners are well secured."

Months later, Lincoln executed congressional legislation to seize more Indian lands and begin the removal of Indians from Minnesota. The rest of the Sioux were expelled and exiled to Crow Creek, South Dakota, and the Santee reservation in Nebraska. In his Annual Message to Congress a year later (December 8, 1863), Lincoln boasted that

The measures provided at your last session for the removal of certain Indian tribes have been carried into effect. Sundry treaties have been negotiated which will, in due time, be submitted for the constitutional action of the Senate. They contain stipulations for extinguishing the possessory rights of the Indians to large and valuable tracts of land. It is hoped that the effect of these treaties will result in the establishment of permanent friendly relations with such of these tribes as have been brought into frequent and bloody collision with our outlying settlements and emigrants.

On August 23, 1864, Lincoln made good on his promise and signed an order auctioning off the reservation granted by treaty to the Winnebago:

In pursuance of law, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby declare and make known that public sales will be held . . . [a]t the Land Office at St. Peter [Minnesota] . . . for the dispersal of the Public lands comprised in the late reserve for the Winnebago Indians.

Before 1862, relations between the Indians in Minnesota and the settlers—the French, then the British, and later, the Americans—had been relatively peaceful. Lincoln terminated that state of affairs. His refusal to honor treaties fostered racial animosities and provoked the Great Sioux Uprising.

In the end, Lincoln emerged victorious from his war of aggression against the Indians of Minnesota. It appeared this conflict, which lasted from August 17 to September 26, would become nothing more than a footnote in the history of the American Civil War. As one French writer observed, however, "live long enough and every victory turns into a defeat."

The "peace" Lincoln imposed on the Indians of Minnesota soon ignited the Plains Indian Wars, which ultimately engulfed the western half of the United States, stretching from Canada to the Mexican border. It would be a brutal, needless war, bringing death, destruction, and defeat to both sides, from Little Bighorn to Wounded Knee. And it would last not for 6 weeks, but for another 30 years.

Joseph E. Fallon writes from Rye, New York.

This article first appeared in the February 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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