Lessons from the Single Biggest Execution in American History

In the face of great anger and violence, Abraham Lincoln and an influential Episcopalian bishop sought reason and mercy.

Monument_smallDeath row in Arkansas holds 38 inmates, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that keeps track of such facts. Now, what if that state were to execute them all at the same time? By hanging — and did so publicly?

An unhappy precedent exists for just such an action — 38 hanged at one time and place. It took place a century and a half ago, on a single gallows built for that purpose in a small Minnesota city called Mankato. Every one of the condemned was a Dakota Indian; the federal government hired the hangmen. Hundreds of people turned out to watch.

The biggest execution on American soil, it could nonetheless have been much, much larger (and therefore that much more shameful) but for the involvement of two men. One everyone has known of since childhood: Abraham Lincoln. The other, these days, is far less recognized: Bishop Henry B. Whipple. Together, they offer an enduring lesson in reason and mercy in the face of great anger and violence.

The mass hanging directly followed the Dakota War, a fierce, five-week-long conflict that swept southern Minnesota in August and September, 1862, when some Dakotas — who had sold off their vast domain to the federal government and felt badly cheated of their compensation — turned violently against a growing population of white settlers. Hundreds died.

How many Indians would be executed as a result lay ultimately with Lincoln. He and Whipple had a crucial conversation about federal Indian policy first.

Here’s the essential chronology, starting with the bishop, among whose papers I’ve spent much time the past three years.

Henry Benjamin Whipple
Henry Benjamin Whipple

Whipple, born in small-town northern New York, entered Episcopal Church orders in his late 20s, serving first a church in an Erie Canal town, then becoming a missionary priest among Chicago railroad workers. In June 1859, aged 37, he received entirely unexpected notice that admirers of his work had elected him the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, then a newly-organized frontier state. He accepted the new job and expanded its outreach to the state’s sizable Native American population. That earned him criticism from many whites, who had little interest in Indians and regarded his work among them as, at best, a waste of time.

Whipple, aware his critics considered him naïve or worse, was not put off. He pointed out that he spent far more time among his white parishioners. But his regular visitations among Minnesota’s two major tribes — the Ojibwe in the state’s north, the Dakota in the south — allowed him to gain a few converts, develop a network of friendships, and also to come to a keen appreciation for Native American life and values, which he publicized. As he wrote to political leaders, business friends and fellow Episcopalians, he found the Indians to be family-oriented, religious and “generally chaste, truthful, honest, generous, and hospitable.” At the same time, he developed a searing critique of the federal government’s Indian policies. He identified the main culprit as the Office of Indian Affairs, which he regarded as rotten with corruption and, at the local level, in league with rapacious traders who preyed on the Indians financially and often abused them.

Had a less merciful chief executive found himself faced with such a decision, all 303 men might have been hanged.

book dudeWhipple began lobbying Washington on the Indians’ behalf in 1860, writing officials and traveling there to demand a sweeping reform of the Indian office. For two years he got nowhere. President James Buchanan left Whipple’s letter unanswered; a Cabinet secretary rudely brushed him off. But Lincoln offered him a breakthrough, courteously responding to a letter from the bishop in April 1862. Whipple wrote him twice more, politely asking that the Indian office be completely de-politicized and future relations between the government and the tribes placed in the hands of a non-partisan group that would be guided by respect and an interest in peace with Native Americans.

It would become all too apparent to the bishop that 1862 was a belated time to win official support for the project, at least for the Dakota. A decade earlier the tribe had signed a treaty, surrendering 24 million acres of their lands for a reservation and an annual annuity with which they were supposed to purchase food, tools for agriculture and other necessities. Typically, the payment was made in June — but not in the Civil War year of 1862. No one in Washington offered either an explanation or a date for the payment. Among the Dakota, hunger and discontent spread. In mid-August, a quartet of young men, out on a hunting expedition, killed five white settlers, an act arising from a trivial disagreement. When news reached the reservation, some Dakota, persuaded they would all be punished for the murders, decided to strike first. At dawn, August 18, the Dakota War began with an attack on a federal installation, the Lower Sioux Agency. Traders became especial targets.

The_Siege_of_New_Ulm_Minn (1)
“The siege of New Ulm, Minn.” by Henry August Schwabe (1902)

The violence spread across southern Minnesota, falling hard on farming families, among whom hundreds died, caught by surprise. Whipple called it — appropriately — a “massacre.” He went to a town near the scene of the fighting and established a temporary hospital, where he worked with a doctor, caring for the wounded. Later, he would go to New York to raise funds for families made homeless by the war. At the same time, he made plans to go to Washington — where he would speak directly with Lincoln to press the cause of reforming Indian policy to avoid another such catastrophe.

The two met in the White House in mid-September 1862, during Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North and before Minnesota soldiers had brought the Dakota War to an end. Whipple laid out his case that the Dakota War’s long-term cause rested with the corrupt practices of the Office of Indian Affairs and rapacious traders who worked with it. Lincoln would later tell an associate that the bishop’s testimony had “shaken him down to his boots.”

Through Whipple, Lincoln gained a different perspective from which to view the conflict. After the Army fought a final battle against the Dakota, it quickly brought nearly 400 Indians to swift military trials and condemned 303 Dakota men to death. Enthusiasm for the verdict was expressed from Minnesota’s governor on down to newspaper editors and terrified citizens in the state’s cities and towns.

lincolnBut the ultimate decision on the men’s fate rested with Lincoln. He took his time, pondering the case through November and early December. Meanwhile, Whipple wrote to Senator Henry Rice, a Minnesotan with whom he kept up a cordial correspondence: “[W]e cannot afford to hang men by the hundreds. . . We claim they are an independent nation and as such they are prisoners of war. The leaders must be punished but we cannot afford by any wanton cruelty to purchase a long Indian war — nor by injustice in other matters purchase the anger of God.” A few days later, he wrote a long essay, published in Minnesota newspapers, warning citizens not to try to take the law into their own hands and lynch the 303 condemned men — a possibility even the governor said could occur. “Punishment loses its lesson when it is the vengeance of a mob,” the bishop wrote.

Lincoln reached his decision on December 6: with little comment, he reprieved 265 men. Thirty-eight — who the president said evidence showed guilty of murder or rape — went to the gallows.

The number remains extraordinary — and, one hopes, never to be matched, much less exceeded. Had a less merciful chief executive found himself faced with such a decision, all 303 men might have been hanged. The stain on the nation might well have been indelible.

Gustav Niebuhr
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  • John Carter

    Might have been indelible. More like “Out, damned spot!”