[Marxism] Largest Mass Execution in US History: 150 Years Ago Today

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 26 18:09:58 MST 2012


Largest Mass Execution in US History: 150 Years Ago Today
Jon Wiener on December 26, 2012 - 1:41 PM ET

December 26, 1862: thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hung in Mankato, 
Minnesota, in the largest mass execution in US history–on orders of 
President Abraham Lincoln. Their crime: killing 490 white settlers, 
including women and children, in the Santee Sioux uprising the previous 

The execution took place on a giant square scaffold in the center of 
town, in front of an audience of hundreds of white people. The 
thirty-eight Dakota men “wailed and danced atop the gallows,” according 
to Robert K. Elder of The New York Times, “waiting for the trapdoors to 
drop beneath them.” A witness reported that, “as the last moment rapidly 
approached, they each called out their name and shouted in their native 
language: ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ ”

Lincoln’s treatment of defeated Indian rebels against the United States 
stood in sharp contrast to his treatment of Confederate rebels. He never 
ordered the executions of any Confederate officials or generals after 
the Civil War, even though they killed more than 400,000 Union soldiers. 
The only Confederate executed was the commander of Andersonville 
Prison—and for what we would call war crimes, not rebellion.

Minnesota was a new frontier state in 1862, where white settlers were 
pushing out the Dakota Indians—also called the Souix. A series of broken 
peace treaties culminated in the failure of the United States that 
summer to deliver promised food and supplies to the Indians, partial 
payment for their giving up their lands to whites. One local trader, 
Andrew Myrick, said of the Indians’ plight, “If they are hungry, let 
them eat grass.”

The Dakota leader Little Crow then led his “enraged and starving” tribe 
in a series of attacks on frontier settlements. The “US-Dakota War” 
didn’t last long: After six weeks, Henry Hastings Sibley, first governor 
of Minnesota and a leader of the state militia, captured 2,000 Dakota, 
and a military court sentenced 303 to death.

Lincoln, however, was “never an Indian hater,” Eric Foner writes in his 
Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and 
American Slavery. He did not agree with General John Pope, sent to put 
down a Sioux uprising in southern Minnesota, who said “It is my purpose 
utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so.” Lincoln 
“carefully reviewed the trial records,” Foner reports, and found a lack 
of evidence at most of the tribunals. He commuted the sentences of 265 
of the Indians—a politically unpopular move. But, he said, “I could not 
afford to hang men for votes.”

The 265 Dakota Indians whose lives Lincoln spared were either fully 
pardoned or died in prison. Lincoln and Congress subsequently removed 
the Sioux and Winnebago—who had nothing to do with the uprising—from all 
of their lands in Minnesota.

Mankato today is a city of 37,000 south of Minneapolis, notable for its 
state university campus, which has 15,000 students. In Mankato, which 
has heretofore neglected its bloody past, a new historical marker is 
being erected at the site of the scaffold, at a place now called 
Reconciliation Park. The marker, a fiberglass scroll, displays the names 
of the thirty-eight Dakota who were executed.

The Minnesota History Center in St. Paul is currently featuring an 
exhibit titled “Minnesota Tragedy: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.” “You 
can’t turn your head from what is not pretty in history,” said Stephen 
Elliott, who became the director of the Minnesota Historical Society 
last May after twenty-eight years at Colonial Williamsburg. He told the 
Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Whatever we do, it’s not going to somehow 
heal things or settle it.” The impressive state-of-the-art exhibit 
includes the views of both white settlers and Indians, voices from the 
past as well as the present. “Visitors are encouraged to make up their 
own minds about what happened and why,” the official guide declares. The 
website and online video are particularly impressive.

The mass execution of the Dakota Indians isn’t the only fact missed in 
the Lincoln biopic. Check out Jon Wiener on “The Trouble with Steven 
Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln.’”

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