Michael Corrigan

Michael Corrigan

There have been incidents of vandalism against statues and monuments recently, and one can understand why an angry crowd would pull down or deface a statue of a person who — with the passage of time — is perceived as a racist or traitor, i.e., Robert E. Lee. In Portland, recently, a statue of Abraham Lincoln was torn down. Protesters condemned Lincoln for his ordered execution of 38 native warriors in 1862, a moment in Lincoln’s history not often discussed. Lincoln’s action can be scrutinized, and there was certainly much bloodshed on both sides during the Dakota War.

Here is the basic story condensed from Wikipedia:

The Dakota War of 1862, also known as the Sioux Uprising, was an armed conflict in Minnesota between the United States and several bands of Dakota warriors. Times had been difficult for the Dakota tribe. On Aug. 17, 1862, an unsuccessful Dakota hunting party of four killed five white settlers. A Dakota council decided to attack settlements throughout the Minnesota River valley and drive whites from the area. The Dakota tribe launched extensive attacks on hundreds of immigrants, which resulted in 500 to 800 settler deaths. The conflict ended with soldiers capturing hundreds of Dakota men and interning their families. A military tribunal quickly tried the men, sentencing 303 to death for their crimes. President Lincoln became involved, and later commuted the sentence of 264 of them.

Here is a partial statement by Lincoln: “Anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other, I ordered a careful examination of the records of the trials to be made.”

Ultimately, a sentence of death was declared. The subsequent mass hanging of 38 Dakota men (one had been given a reprieve at the last minute), occurred on Dec. 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota; it was the largest mass execution in United States history. It was also a dramatic spectacle with over 4,000 people watching. According to the report, “As the men took their assigned places on the scaffold, they sang a Dakota song as white muslin coverings were pulled over their faces. Drumbeats signalled the start of the execution. The men grasped each others’ hands. With a single blow from an ax, the rope that held the platform was cut. Capt. William Duley, who had lost several members of his family in the attack, cut the rope” (Isaac V. D. Heard, History of the Sioux War and Massacres of 1862 and 1863, NY: Harper & Bros., 1863).

It was later revealed that two men, including a white man raised by the tribe, were mistakenly hanged.

This tragic incident raises a question. Is President Abraham Lincoln at fault for this mass execution, or was he simply meting out justice for those slaughtered settlers? His sparing of 264 warriors may have been considered too lenient by the whites. We know that Abraham Lincoln considered slavery the ultimate evil, but regarding social equality between whites and blacks, some might consider Lincoln a racist by today’s standards. That could include Native Americans who were considered, at best, a nuisance from the time of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act (1830).

The protesters who condemned Lincoln for the execution of 38 Native warriors in 1862 certainly have a just grievance, but does this justify tearing down a statue dedicated to America’s most celebrated president revered by the nation?

I don’t have a quick answer to that question.

Michael Corrigan graduated from San Francisco State with an Master of Arts degree in English and creative writing. He was active in theater and attended the American Film Institute. He retired from Idaho State University as an instructor of English and speech communications. He has written several books, including “Confessions of a Shanty Irishman,” “Mulligan” and “These Precious Hours.” NPR broadcast his play for two readers: “Letters from Rebecca.”