Lincoln`s Other War of Aggression
March 19, 2007
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
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."
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
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
E. Fallon writes from Rye, New York.
This article first appeared in the
February 2007 issue of
Magazine of American Culture.