[This is] a cause lost, and the country ruined.
Morton S. Wilkinson, 1862
Believing that the summary trials were necessary to avoid vigilante justice by angry mobs of Minnesotans, Sibley ordered the removal of the entire Dakota people from the Lower Agency at Redwood. “I have learned,” wrote missionary John Williamson on November 5, “that orders have been issued to convey all the Indians who have not been convicted to the neighborhood of Fort Snelling. They will probably take up their march tomorrow. The men who have been convicted are to be taken to Mankato for what disposal is not made known. It is a sad sight to see so many women & children marching off—not knowing whether they will ever see their husbands & fathers again.”
Before departing from the Lower Agency for Fort Snelling, Lieutenant Colonel Marshall, trying to mitigate some of the fury that both convoys would surely encounter, wrote to assure Minnesotans that “some 300” of the “guilty Indians . . . are to be executed.” But he admonished would-be troublemakers to restrain themselves. “I would risk my life for the protection of these helpless beings, and would feel everlastingly disgraced if any evil befell them while in charge. . . . I want the settlers in the valley . . . to know that they are not the guilty Indians . . . but friendly Indians, women, and children.”
But as the train of wagons and riders passed through Henderson, they were attacked by an “angered mob . . . cursing, shouting, and crying.” Men, women, and children, armed with guns, knives, clubs and stones, rushed upon the Indians as the train was passing by, and, before the soldiers could interfere and stop them, succeeded in pulling many of the old men and women, and even children, from the wagons by the hair of the head and beating them, and otherwise inflicting injury upon the helpless and miserable creatures. A sympathetic observer, Samuel Brown, called the settlers’ mob “as bad as savages,” and wrote that he witnessed “an enraged white woman . . . snatch a nursing babe from its mother’s breast and dash it violently to the ground.” The baby was returned to its mother, but it later died and its body was “quietly laid away in the crotch of a tree,” according to Dakota custom. Brown also recalled another incident at Henderson: “As the train was passing through the town one of the citizens with blood in his eyes and half-crazed with drink rushed up with a gun leveled at Charles Crawford [Samuel Brown’s uncle], one of the friendlies, and was about to fire, when ‘the bold charger of the Indians,’ Lieutant Colonel Marshall, who happened along on horseback, rushed between them and struck down the gun with his sabre. He got Crawford out of the way, thus saving a life at the risk of his own.”
Meanwhile, farther south, Sibley led his convoy of convicted prisoners to the camp in Mankato. On November 9 the prisoners, shackled together in horse-drawn wagons, were attacked on the outskirts of New Ulm by a mob that pelted them with bricks and other missiles, seriously injuring some prisoners and guards. The crowd was driven back by a bayonet charge, and some fifteen men were arrested, marched with the wagon train to camp, reprimanded, and released. Two of the prisoners later died from their injuries. By the time the convoy arrived in Mankato, Sibley’s nerves were frayed. Corporal Montgomery, one of his men, heard him say, “If the guilty were released by God he would resign; [and he would] notify the citizens to come . . . [and] do as they pleased with them.” The young and wide-eyed corporal did not seem as affected by the pressure mounting around him until he took in the sobering spectacle of the condemned Dakota prisoners:
We have here all the Indians who were captured and found guilty numbering about 400. They are all chained together by two’s and confined in a long narrow shed in the form of a square and in the center of the encampment. They are shoved together so close as they can sit and have little fire here and here among them. They are fed on crackers and in addition they have the care of a dozen squaws who administer to their wants by giving them water and soup made from the offal of bones of cattle killed. These squaws and Indians present the most haggard species of humanity that I ever saw—dirty, filthy, and lazy. . . . They are contracting diseases in their close confinement and cannot stand it here in winter.
On November 10 Lincoln wired Pope for “the full and complete record of their convictions,” requesting distinctions be made as to the seriousness of alleged crimes. Pope complied with a characteristic commentary: “I desire to represent to you that the only distinction between the culprits is as to which of them murdered most people and violated most young girls.” He then echoed the governor’s dire warning characterizing what had happened in Henderson, just days earlier. “The people of this State . . . are exasperated to the last degree, and if the guilty are not all executed, I think it nearly impossible to prevent the indiscriminate massacre of all the Indians—old men, women, and children.”
Pope stepped up the pressure by sending Lincoln daily descriptions of the funerals for white settlers killed in the uprising, and he wanted the president to know that his troops fully sympathized with the citizenry. He offered Lincoln a relatively painless way out of the situation: “I would suggest that even if the gov’t be unwilling at so great distance to order the execution of the condemned Indians the criminals be turned to the State Gov’t to be dealt with.” For more than a month, Lincoln and his aides labored over the trial transcripts. They discovered an appalling lack of evidence against most of the accused, who had merely been warriors in battle. Lincoln’s fears had been justified. The Minnesotans were seeking blood vengeance, not justice.
Meanwhile, on the evening of November 13, one week after they set out from the Lower Agency at Redwood, and four days after the attack in Henderson, Marshall’s convoy of “friendly” Dakota arrived at Fort Snelling. On the first night the group camped on the bluff above the river, but the next day Marshall moved them down to below the fort. Soldiers guarding them were ordered to allow no one to enter without a pass from the fort commander. In a few days a stockade was built to keep the Dakota from wandering and to protect them from curious and vengeful whites, who included some of the soldiers. And there for months they would languish.
On November 15 Sibley appointed Colonel Stephen Miller to take command of “Camp Lincoln.” A resident of St. Cloud and cousin of editor Jane Grey Swisshelm, the Pennsylvania native came to his commission as lieutenant colonel without military experience; but his sixteen months of service were filled with much distinction. In two years he would be the fourth governor of Minnesota. He had demonstrated courage at Bull Run and at other battles when he was summoned back to help put down the Indian uprising. Miller arrived to take charge of the Seventh Regiment, but only after the Dakota’s surrender at Camp Release. When Sibley turned over the command at South Bend to Miller, his primary orders were to protect the Indian prisoners while President Lincoln weighed the fate of the 303 Dakota who had been sentenced to hang.
Shortly after Sibley left Mankato, Miller received a visit from Colonel Milton Montgomery (not related to the corporal), who commanded Wisconsin troops barracked in Mankato. Montgomery reported his “serious apprehension” regarding the safety of the Dakota. Miller reported to Sibley that he learned of “extensive secret organizations including men of character in all this upper country, and many soldiers” who will only relent provided they are assured that the Dakota will hang. “Should such a calamity occur, [we] will of course sell our lives as dearly as possible, in obedience to the laws, and our superior officers. . . . If an attempt is made at all it will no doubt be of the most formidable character. I was informed on yesterday that the Sheriff was very busy exciting the citizens upon this subject.” An attack was imminent and the camp was undermanned, a perceptive missionary Thomas Williamson shared. As of November 21, he wrote, he had only 102 men on duty, hardly a sufficient number to resist the pending threat.
The next day Williamson wrote, “I have constant advice of secret meetings here and throughout the country, and a firm and almost universal determination on the part of the citizens to execute the Indians by violence, should the government much longer postpone it.” Any attempt, he wrote, to remove the convicted Indians from the region would surely spark attacks by white mobs who would view removal as an official act of leniency. “There is a deep determination, and extensive as it is deep, to never let the Indians be removed alive, and should any official intimation of Presidential leniency or postponement reach this place—to execute prisoners by a mob. And it is daily hinted to me that too many of the soldiers participate in this feeling and determination.” Nonetheless, he recommitted himself to what he knew he had to do. “I know my duty in the premises and shall fearlessly perform it; but the consequences with the small force at my disposal, must be dreaded. I shall certainly use all peaceable means to prevent any such riots, and—that failing—will resort to the only measures left to me.”
The next day Miller met with a group of civic leaders who feared the Indians would be “sent below”—to Fort Snelling—but knowing nothing of what the president had been considering, the colonel could only listen and appeal to their civic pride and willingness to uphold the law. Before they left, he warned them that he would not hesitate to execute his orders to defend the Indians “to the letter.” The meeting ended cordially, but Miller knew the potential of violence remained. “I suppose that the next wagon train will be a new source of threats and excitement.”
Considering the vulnerable ground on which they were encamped, Miller called for the prisoners to be moved into the heart of Mankato, both for the added security of the Indians and for the comfort of his troops. Given the shoddy blankets supplied by swindling public contractors, inadequate tents, and tick-infested beds the men had to sleep on, Minnesota cold and snow loomed as an adversary almost as serious as the lynch mob. He complained that his men were without stoves in their tents and had “only one thin blanket each,” and that the condition of both the Indians and his troops was rapidly worsening. Miller wrote, “A few more like the last one will kill many of [the prisoners], and sicken most of my command.” On the night of November 29, five to six inches of snow fell. “The prisoners and soldiers are suffering intensely.”
Miller indeed had reason to worry whether his soldiers—especially those men, like Thomas Montgomery, who came from the area—would do their duty at the moment of truth. As soon as Company I joined his ranks, Miller sought to have the Wisconsin troops reassigned from Mankato, not only to gain space to house his troops, but more importantly, because he did not fully trust them to defend the prisoners since they had lived in close proximity with the irate townsfolk. “Indeed,” he reported, “if attacked I should hesitate about calling upon them at all.”
The time had arrived on December 4. At 7:00 p.m. Colonel Miller received two messages: one came from St. Peter attesting that an attack by whites on the Dakota was under way; the second was from New Ulm reporting that “a body of men” planned to “attack and murder the Indian prisoners” at eleven that night. Even before the letters arrived, Miller’s “scouts and spies” had already reported that “large numbers” of men from St. Peter and Traverse des Sioux were arriving in Mankato, “[drunk] with beer to gain courage.” Lieutenant Theodore Carter later recalled that the lynch mob expected little opposition from the troops, “as it was generally supposed that the soldiers would not fire upon them.” And “there was some ground for this belief,” for many soldiers had friends who had been massacred. “But,” Carter added, “they didn’t know old Col. Miller.”
Miller called for reinforcements from St. Peter and the Winnebago Agency who arrived within two hours, increasing his command from 196 men to 500; but he did not assume that the camp was secure. Indeed, one soldier wrote to his wife that “nine-tenths” would “never fire on the citizens.” Greeted with derision when he instructed his troops to prepare to defend the prisoners, Miller declared “he would shoot the first man that refused to shoot [any] citizen that dared to attack us.” To prevent sabotaging the weapons to render them unusable, he ordered his officers to watch as each man properly loaded his gun. Not all soldiers felt in sympathy with the mob. For some, like Corporal Montgomery, it was simply the work at hand: “We received word at camp that a multitude of civilians were coming to camp that night for the purpose of killing the Indians or taking them from us which we took as an insult.”
At the designated time, Miller ordered his men to conceal themselves near the Blue Earth River Bridge. On horseback at the head of his men, the colonel was the first to confront the mob, who “were largely unarmed except with clubs, axes, knives, hatchets, and forks.” Miller called out, “Who comes here?” Someone from the mob replied, “We have come to take the Indians and kill them.” Miller responded, “Well you will do nothing of the kind.” At that point his cavalry appeared out of the dark to the rear of the mob, and this was enough to unnerve the vigilantes. “The colonel went up to them and talked a while and told them to go home as it was rather cold to be out.” It was below zero. Before they dispersed he arrested a group of ringleaders, placing them under the management of Lieutenant Carter, but releasing them upon receiving promises of good behavior.
In the end, the soldiers had acted rapidly and in good order to put down the attack, and with good results. In acknowledging this, Miller issued a proclamation commending them for helping to defeat the attackers. Further, he recognized the soldiers’ own desire for “the prompt and universal execution of the guilty savages,” but cautioned agitators that the soldiers would do their duty “so long as the avenues of government point to the final and certain vindication of right and justice.”
Although Miller kept the guard up, there were no more attacks from civilians. Governor Ramsey issued a proclamation urging the people of Minnesota to act with restraint and to obey the law. The proclamation was a double-edged sword, however—it suggested that Lincoln ultimately would agree to execute the prisoners, and warned that the state courts and legislature would take action if the federal government did not. It was a statement that reflected frustration that the president was taking so long to decide on such an obvious matter. Ramsey did not know that the president had made his decision—nor, as of yet, did the senator who had first brought the uprising to the president’s attention.
The day before, on December 5, 1862, Wilkinson, in an effort to force the president’s hand, introduced a resolution demanding that the president account to the Senate concerning the Minnesota war and projected executions. He began by criticizing the charity and advocacy that easterners showed toward the Indians:
Committees have visited the president of the United States, requested him to extend to these convicted Indians his executive clemency, and I fear that they have so wrought upon the President as to shake his purposes and to render him doubtful as to what he ought to do. Those who sympathize with these Indians seem to place their sympathy upon the ground that they occupy the relation of prisoners of war, and that being savages they should be treated with greater mercy even than white prisoners. This is an entire mistake.
The Indians rose up to murder whites for no reason. “Suddenly, without any pretext, without any cause, without any apparent motive, they rose up almost simultaneously along our whole frontier line, for one hundred and fifty miles in extent.” Then he listed in graphic detail the atrocities done to white settlers and criticized those who counseled the president against the executions. “In one case . . . they killed the father and the two sons at the wheat stack; they went into the house, murdered two little children, and took the mother who was very feeble with the consumption, and a little daughter into captivity . . . and the next morning took the little girl, out of the lodge where her mother lay, took her clothes from her person, pinioned her arms, laid her upon the ground, and ten or twelve of them violated her person, until she died within ten feet of her sick mother! I understand the Quakers of Pennsylvania wish to have these men pardoned!”
He talked about the military trial that was held under the direction of former governor Henry Sibley, “who is known to many senators as a very moderate, conservative man.” Yet, Wilkinson was not satisfied with his work. “I think Governor Sibley did not go far enough. He ought to have killed every one of the Indians as he came to them, but he did not; he established a court, and they were tried.” Then he threatened the president, as Governor Ramsey and General Pope had done earlier, that unless something was done, there would be mob violence. “The result will be that either the Indians must be punished according to the law, or they will be murdered without the law. The people of Minnesota will never consent that they shall be turned loose in their midst.” The resolution was adopted. The senator’s remarks, reproduced in newspapers around the state, “fueled a growing execution fever.”
* * * * *
On December 6 Lincoln finally issued his decision. In his message to the Senate, he explained that he had been “anxious to not act with so much leniency as to encourage another outbreak, on the other hand, not with so much severity as to be real cruelty.” He had, accordingly, called for a review of the transcripts with the intention of ordering the execution of only those who had been “proved guilty of violating females.” Lincoln indicated that, contrary to his expectations, only two men had been convicted of rape, so he determined to draw the line by executing those who had participated in “massacres,” as distinguished from those who had participated in “battles.” The distinction between massacres and battles was suggested to Lincoln earlier in communications from the Reverend Riggs and Bishop Henry Whipple, who wrote, “There is a broad distinction between the guilt of men who went through the country committing fiendish violence, massacre-ing women and babes with the spirit of demons, and the guilt of timid men who received a share of the plunder or who under threat of death engaged in some one battle where hundreds were engaged.” Of the forty men fitting this description, Lincoln wrote, one had been recommended by the commission for leniency, leaving thirty-nine to be executed on December 19. The man to whom he referred was Joseph Godfrey, the only slave to be born in Minnesota, who had escaped his master, Oliver Faribault, and found sanctuary among the Dakota. As for the remaining prisoners, Sibley ordered that they be held “subject to further orders, taking care that they neither escape, nor are subject to any unlawful violence.”
An exasperated Wilkinson sponsored a resolution demanding that the president “furnish the senate” with any documents “touching the late Indian barbarities.” Lincoln responded on December 11 by forwarding the transcripts, his staff’s recommendations, and other trial-related materials to the Senate. In his cover letter Lincoln referred to the list of forty Dakota men and offered a simple explanation (the only one he ever gave) for Godfrey’s reprieve: “One of the number was strongly recommended by the commission which tried them, for commutation to ten years of imprisonment.” Lincoln mentioned neither the name nor the race of “one of the number.” “But Lincoln,” Walt Bachman observes, “could not resist aiming a subtle zinger at Wilkinson.” Returning the letter that he had received from the Minnesota delegation that luridly described the Indian assaults, the president wryly noted that it “contains some statements of fact not found in the records of the trials.” The extravagance of their reporting had undercut their credibility, especially Wilkinson, the chief author of the missive.
In Minnesota events were now moving quickly. Three hundred Dakota warriors were chained together in an encampment that could at any time be overrun by mobs. The longer they remained, the more precarious their fate. Anticipating this, Whipple wrote a letter to Senator Rice that he hoped would be delivered to the president. “We cannot hang men by the hundreds. Upon our own premises we have no right to do so,” he wrote. “We claim that 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 the anger of God.”
Soon Whipple was not alone. Quakers, clergy, and even the commissioner of Indian affairs, William Dole, cried out against execution. Stephen Riggs, who generally supported the convictions, also felt private misgivings throughout the trials that had condemned the three hundred men. To his son he wrote, “I told the members of this commission several times that I should be sorry to have to have my life placed in their hands.” He later felt compelled to be public with his doubts when he wrote to the St. Paul Pioneer, “I have a very high regard for all the gentlemen who composed the military commission. I count them individually among my personal friends. But they were trying Indians; and my sense of right would lead me to give Indians as fair and full trial as a white man. This was the difference between us.”
Still the outcry for blood only intensified as the citizens of St. Paul sent a resolution to the president demanding that all of the Dakota prisoners be executed and that every “Dakota Sioux Indian” be banished from the state. This was not good enough for some Minnesotans. “Exterminate the wild beasts,” Swisshelm wrote, “and make peace with the devil and all his hosts sooner than these red-jawed tigers whose fangs are dripping with the blood of the innocents.” As Senator Rice reported from his conversation with Lincoln, the Minnesota congressmen were causing trouble. In fact, they were only part of a coordinated effort to pressure the president into approving the executions or at least handing the responsibility over to the state. Ramsey again had warned Lincoln that mob violence would be unavoidable if the executions were not immediately carried out, echoing Pope’s wire four days earlier: “If you prefer it turn them over to me and I will order their execution.” Lincoln sought legal counsel on just this question and learned that only he had that authority. On the same day of Ramsey’s offer, Wilkinson and Aldrich met with Lincoln to make similar arguments, securing assurance that Lincoln would issue “a final determination upon it after completing his [annual] message.” The president was holding them at bay.
To Whipple, the concept of lumping every Indian into a single category was offensive: a just people needed to be a discriminating people, especially in matters of life and death. In a letter to the editor of the St. Paul Pioneer, Whipple crafted words that would influence the president enough for the sentiment to reappear in the president’s final order on the matter: “There is a broad distinction between the guilt of men who went through the country committing fiendish violence, massacring women and babes with the spirit of demons, and the guilt of timid men who received a share of the plunder or who under threat of death engaged in some one battle where hundreds were engaged.”
In December Bishop Whipple published in the St. Paul newspapers a calm, clear statement of the train of events that led to this terrible explosion. So far as is known, he was the only public man in Minnesota who had the courage to face the whirlwind of public denunciation of all Indians, and of all Dakota in particular. To punish the guilty would avail little if the traditional Indian policy was to be left unreformed. “In some quarters,” wrote historian William Folwell, from whom there was little sympathy, “the Bishop came in for denunciation almost as spiteful and unsparing as that directed against the Sioux themselves, but he never retracted a syllable nor budged an inch.”
In public, Sibley maintained a stoic silence, swallowing his humiliation when Lincoln overruled 270 of his sentences. His attempt at legal process had, in fact, pleased no one. While Whipple maintained that the civilized world could not justify putting surrendered enemies on trial, Morton Wilkinson had declared to the United States Senate that Sibley “ought to have killed every one of the Indians as he came to them.” The general was left with little choice but to stonewall the whole question. Nevertheless, Sibley, who had made his fortune working with and developing close ties with the Dakota, was clearly disturbed over the moral issues that were raised by his contemporaries and by the ambiguities of his own position.
The role Sibley had readily assumed in commanding an army intent on quelling the Dakota and bringing them to justice—indeed, the role he readily assumed to command the forces—had appealed to a darker side that he had managed to restrain. He had spent a lifetime cultivating an ongoing private correspondence with Whipple and strained to justify his actions. When the bishop objected to hanging men who had come in under a flag of truce, Sibley insisted that he had made it perfectly clear that the guilty would be punished. He argued that those who resisted his police action had made themselves willing accessories to mass murder. “A great public crime had been committed,” he told Whipple, “not by wild Indians who did not know better, but by men who have had advantages of some religious teaching.” He himself had been forced, he said, to turn his back on long associations and even “personal attachment” to some of the condemned. Duty demanded it, for the hard fact that every one of them deserved capital punishment was a thing of which “I have no more doubt than I have of my own existence.” Most white Minnesotans would have agreed fervently, but unlike Sibley, they drew little distinction between the guilty and the innocent. All were Indians. It is not likely that this impression would fade when the president came to act upon the findings of the military commission. A disgusted Gideon Welles, likely reflecting Lincoln’s views, recorded in his diary:
When the intelligent Representatives of a State can deliberately besiege the Government to take the lives of these ignorant barbarians by wholesale, after they surrendered themselves prisoners, it would seem the sentiments of the Representatives were but slightly removed from the barbarians they would execute. The Minnesotans are greatly exasperated and threaten the Administration if it shows clemency.
On December 5 that threat became real in Congress when, during the new session that had hardly begun, Morton Wilkinson rose in the Senate to introduce a resolution that the president account to the body concerning the Minnesota war. In this speech, Nichols writes, “Lincoln faced the irony of defiance and vigilantism in a key northern state, aided and abetted by congressional representatives and elements in his own party.” But for Wilkinson, this was no longer just a matter of seeking vengeance against the Indians; this was a moment for opportunity.
On December 16 Wilkinson again took to the floor to introduce a bill to compensate Minnesotans for losses in the Indian war. He also presented bills to remove from the state the Dakota and the Winnebago. He realized that an opportunity had presented itself, as he indicated in a letter to Ramsey: “If the people will be patient we will be able, I think, to dispose of those condemned, and will also succeed in removing the Sioux and Winnebago Indians from the State.” The thirst for vengeance yielded to an appetite for Indian land, just as Secretary of the Navy Welles had said would happen.
Indeed, for years, farmers had campaigned for the removal of the Winnebago. At last, the time was right. To most Minnesotans, exterminating all of the Indians was the desired solution: removal appeared far more humane.Lincoln, on the other hand, who watched the morale of his nation flag even more as thousands of his soldiers died at Fredericksburg and in the pyrrhic victory of Antietam, was open to placating the Minnesotans, and the Winnebago act would become law on February 21, 1863, and the Dakota act on March 3. Neither encountered debate. In general, the acts specified that the Indians were to be relocated on unoccupied land “well-adapted for agricultural purposes” but beyond the limits of any state and that money derived from the sale of their old reservation lands should be invested for the tribe’s benefit.
Jane Grey Swisshelm, who would hold firm on executing more Dakota, felt that the bills were misguided in their leniency to “undeserving savages,” and that the author was treading on dangerous ground: “Unless the [bills are] different than what was implied . . . Senator Wilkinson is getting himself into the position that will soon be ‘too hot to hold him!’ ” Wilkinson obviously disagreed, feeling the speedy enactment presaged a new day for Indian affairs: “I believe there has been a great revolution in the conduct of our Indian Affairs since this Administration came into power.” But, as Nichols notes, “abundant evidence existed that very little of importance had changed.”
Nichols was not questioning the senator’s judgment, as Swisshelm had done: his critique, understandably within the context of the immediate issue, was of Wilkinson’s veracity. Evidence that the dreadful state of Indian policy did not change during the remaining years of Lincoln’s term in office was indeed overwhelming. And the defender of the system, a role Wilkinson seemed to embrace, had become a formidable foe to reform, as he equally wielded a singular bias against Indians and willful distortion of their welfare, for when his blood was up, he tended to speak in broad and sometimes overheated terms, sometimes undercutting the message he sought to convey. One senator reportedly scolded him during a debate for “not knowing what he says when he gets excited.” After hearing that soldiers from Minnesota had been detained by their commander in Missouri, admittedly “after they may have committed some little act of insubordination in not obeying the command of General Brown,” an incensed Wilkinson took to the senate floor on January 13, 1864, to condemn the general and demand a full report from the secretary of war. “One thing is very certain,” Wilkinson asserted. “If we want these men to fight they must be treated a little differently.”
By the end of 1864, reports circulated around Washington of the horrific treatment of Union soldiers at the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Especially angered at Lincoln’s disinclination to seek vengeance, Congress wanted reprisal, and Wilkinson led the initiative. On December 20, reports historian Mark Neely, “[Wilkinson], a sharp tongued and unforgiving Radical Republican,” offered the following resolution that would limit “rations, clothing and supplies” that the Union prison camp gives to rebel captives to the same meager amount that rebel authorities give Union prisoners. “The resolution,” Neely observes, “was in fact a directive to starve and freeze Confederate prisoners of war to death as a deliberate government policy.” Senators Benjamin Wade and James Lane joined Wilkinson in arguing that it would force the Confederacy into providing Union prisoners with better food and shelter and appropriate clothing. S.R.85, or the Retaliation Act, as this resolution came to be called, was referred to the Committee on Military Affairs.
Lincoln was not persuaded after being advised earlier by one of his own generals, Dan Sickles, that the act was pointless: “The enemy are reported to be without the means to supply clothing, medicine, and other medical supplies even to their own troops.” Senators Thomas Hendricks of Indiana and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts challenged the implicit cruelty of the act, which they said was based on “vague rumors” and “uncertain reports” and violated the laws of nations governing prisoners. Nonetheless, whether the reports and rumors were accurate, Union prisoners were dying at Andersonville. The resolution passed Congress on January 1, 1865, by a vote of 24 to 16.
Meanwhile, ten days after Wilkinson presented his bills, on December 26, in the largest mass executions in American history, thirty-eight Dakota were hanged in Mankato as if in macabre tribute to the city’s most prominent resident, Senator Wilkinson. Corporal Thomas Montgomery’s unit was assigned to stand guard over the condemned and to secure the gallows:
Dear Parents and Brothers,
I wanted to come home about Christmas but I see no chance now of getting home till after New Year. This is owing to unforeseen events that have transpired since, and which require the presence of all soldiers here. By an order received by the Colonel—night before last—39 of the convicted Indian prisoners in our possession will be executed by hanging on next Friday, the 26th, and for that reason he will allow no furlough to be granted till the tragedy went transpired.
Several of the Indians are recognized by some in our company as the murderers of their parents or brothers or sisters, and it is hard for them to stand in the prison as guard over them with guns in their hands and not revenge their death.
The trains that brought Mr. Manning’s family up here are about to start. . . . I would like to see some of you up here next Friday. It will be a great day. There will be thousands in attendance from the whole country, soldiers as well as citizens. They will be hung in the public street, 20 at a time. It is a sure thing.
I remain your son, T. Montgomery. My love to all.
As the time of their deaths approached, the Dakota asked the missionary Riggs to record some thoughts to be sent to their friends, “and also,” as he reported, “to the white people.” He acceded to their request and spent a whole day with them, writing down such things as they wished to say. Most of them claimed they were innocent of the charges laid against them of killing individuals, “but they admitted, and said of their own accord, that so many white people had been killed by the Dakotas, that public and general justice required the death of some in return. This admission was in the line of their education. Perhaps it is not too much to call it an instinct of humanity.”
The executions took place. Arrangements were made by which thirty-eight Dakota men were suspended in mid-air by the cutting of one rope. The other prisoners, through crevices in the walls of their log prison-house, saw them hung. And they were deeply affected by it; albeit they did not show their feelings as white men would have done, under like circumstances.
* * * * *
Though Lincoln, by the end of the year, had said nothing about his plan for the 260 Dakota who had not been hanged, it was Sibley, even more than the president, who now became the lightning rod both for critics who favored more executions and for those who opposed more hangings. The most vocal crusaders in the former camp attacked Sibley for having started down the path of military justice, choosing it over the more expeditious lynch law. As the Faribault Central Republican opined, “Gen. Sibley didn’t half execute his duty. He ought to have shot every Indian who approached his command, for in point of fact the guilt of the recent massacres is about equally shared by the entire Sioux nation.” This was the same message that Jane Grey Swisshelm held when she took it upon herself to go to Washington to lobby the president, whom she had once called an “imbecile,” to finish the work he had constrained Sibley from doing.
In Washington, the Minnesota delegation secured the use of Dr. Sutherland’s church, where Swisshelm could address large crowds regarding the urgent need for more executions. In one lecture she intoned, “If justice is not done . . . our people will hunt them, shoot them, set traps for them, put out poison bait for them—kill them by every means we would use to exterminate panthers. We cannot breathe the same air with those demon violators of women, crucifiers of infants. Every Minnesota man, who has a soul and could get a rifle, will got to shooting Indians; and he who hesitates will be black-balled by every Minnesota woman and posted as a coward in every Minnesota home.” She would later write that her lecture was “enthusiastically applauded.” Swisshelm biographer Sylvia Hoffert gives a more accurate assessment: “Despite her provocative and inflammatory rhetoric, she found that her audiences were more curious than concerned about either the Dakotas or their victims. Distracted by the Civil War, they did not seem interested in the West and appeared to be bored by the subject of Native American depredations.” Proper Washington, aside from genteel curiosity, had taken its lead from the White House. “The Secretary of the Interior assured me it was not worth while to see the President, for ‘Mr. Lincoln will hang nobody!’ and our Minnesota delegation agreed with him.”
Together Senator Wilkinson and Mrs. Swisshelm, leveraging her weight as the “mother of the Republican Party”—an appellation that had adorned her effigy as it was set afire by a mob of Democrats in St. Cloud years earlier and one she wore now with great pride—went to see the president in a last-ditch effort to change his mind, but it was for naught. It is likely that Lincoln declined the meeting, knowing what the Minnesotans would say; and he had heard enough. The matter was settled. The Dakota War was over.
Besides, the Civil War had entered into a new phase, and with it the very character of the nation. In January he signed into law the Confiscation Act and the Militia Act that approved black enlistment in the army, and on the first day of the year, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. With these laws the federal government had taken its first steps to elevating the black man to the level of every white man, a goal for which Wilkinson and Swisshelm had energetically advocated but now had seemed to lose sight of in their thirst for vengeance.
A deflated Swisshelm saw no point to meeting anyone else, but reluctantly agreed to attend a presidential reception despite her bitter feelings for him. “He had proved to be an obstructionist instead of an abolitionist, and I felt no respect for him; while his wife was every where spoken of as a Southern woman with Southern sympathies—a conspirator against the Union. I wanted nothing to do with the occupants of the White House, but was told I could go and see the spectacle without being presented.” But she was transformed when she saw him from afar. “I watched the President and Mrs. Lincoln receive [their guests]. His sad, earnest, honest face was irresistible in its plea for confidence, and Mrs. Lincoln’s manner was so simple and motherly, so unlike that of all Southern women I had seen, that I doubted the tales I had heard. Her head was not that of a conspirator. She would be incapable of a successful deceit, and whatever her purposes were, they must be known to all who knew her. . . . I could not resist going to [Mr. Lincoln] with the rest of the crowd, and when he took my hand I said: ‘May the Lord have mercy on you, poor man, for the people have none.’ He laughed heartily, and the men around him, joined in his merriment.”