Racially Infused Justice: The Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History

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A long and solitary line of manacled Dakota Sioux marched to the scaffolding that awaited them on a cold Minnesota morning. It was the day after Christmas, 1862. Over 4,000 people came out in Mankato, Minnesota to watch the largest mass execution in United States history. The condemned were donned with white muslin sacks over their heads as they chanted their death song, and the execution drum beat. With one swing of an ax, the rope supporting the gallows was severed and 38 bodies shuddered to their death. The crowd applauded. The bodies were left to hang thirty minutes and then hastily buried in a trench outside town.

This wintry scene was the culmination of the Dakota Sioux Rising of 1862. Bloody raids all along the Minnesota River Valley in the months leading up to the mass execution had left somewhere between 500 and 800 Minnesotans dead. For their hostility, 393 Siouan belligerents were tried for murder and rebellion, with 323 convictions and 303 death sentences to follow. The accused were tried by a military commission of five officers of the state militia. Though the Dakota Sioux viewed themselves as a sovereign people and the Supreme Court had declared native tribes to be “domestic dependent nations” in 1831, the trials of the surrendered Sioux were carried out in an ambiguous crossover of civil and military law rather than dealt with in a context of war. The ambiguous nature of the relationship between the government and Indian nations allowed the United States to treat native peoples as domestic parties in some instances and sovereign peoples in others, depending on which of these distinctions served to benefit U.S. interests most in each case.

 U.S. law faced a similar conundrum of rebellion several years later when another rebel group, the Confederate army, surrendered at Appomattox. The punitive response against these two groups of belligerents, however, was markedly different in its scope and severity. Hundreds of thousands of Confederates had warred against the Union in a violent and rebellious conflict, but only a single man, the commander of the infamous Andersonville Prison, was tried and hanged. In 1862, when several thousand warriors of the Sioux nation rose in opposition to the United States, they were identified as murderers rather than legitimate combatants and punished with execution. The only difference between the Confederate rebels of Appomattox in 1865 and the Siouan rebels of Minnesota three years earlier was their race; one group was treated with martial respect as worthy combatants, the other was dealt with as subhuman marauders in need of punishment.

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Chief Little Crow

The Dakota Sioux collectively determined to rise on August 17th, 1862 after several warriors robbed and killed members of the Baker family near Acton, Minnesota. The tribal leaders called a council that evening to discuss the consequences of the violence and the necessity of a major rising. Big Eagle, present at the council, recalled years later “War was now declared. Blood had been shed and the whites would take a dreadful vengeance because women had been killed.” Though reluctant in the council, Chief Little Crow agreed to lead the war effort and commenced formal hostilities on August 18th by attacking federal troops and Indian agents at the Redwood Indian Agency, on the Lower Sioux Reservation. In the following weeks, Little Crow and his forces carried out raids on the adjacent settlements and orchestrated several brief sieges against Fort Ridgely and New Ulm.

Though a minor conflict for a nation in the midst of civil war, the Sioux rising was dealt with sharply. General John Pope of Second Bull Run fame was sent west with a declared wish to “exterminate the Sioux if I [Pope] have the power to do so.” In communicating with his subordinates, Pope advised that the belligerents were “to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.” This militant racism defined both the state’s strategy during the conflict and the legal dealings with the combatants after hostilities ceased.

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Harper’s Weekly depiction of the trials

The feelings of vengeance and racism completely permeated the commission’s trial process. During the hearings, more than a dozen cases were tried per day, with 40 cases being tried during the busiest day of proceedings. The commission’s own recorder, Isaac Heard, related that “each case need only occupy a few moments” and that in most instances “five minutes would dispose of a case.” The commission parroted public opinion as it determined to try the 393 Sioux as murderers rather than as legitimate combatants. Minnesota Senator Morton Wilkinson reflected the common sentiment of the public and the commission in a letter to President Lincoln when he argued that “these Indians are called by some prisoners of war.  There was no war about it.  It was wholesale robbery, rape, murder.” Those on trial were not to be considered warriors of the Sioux nation, but rather, pillagers, sexual predators, and common criminals.

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President Lincoln’s list of those to be pardoned

At the end of the Civil War, when radical republicans under Thaddeus Stevens began to clamor for punitive actions against prominent southerners and Confederate belligerents, Lincoln and his moderates successfully quelled such calls for vengeance. Lincoln attempted a similar course of moderation in regards to the Siouan trials three years earlier with limited success; his efforts were blunted by the sheer force of racially fueled public opinion. In October, Lincoln began examining the commission’s proceedings personally. The president went through notes from each case and found grounds to pardon all but 39 of those sentenced to death. Enraging the governor of Minnesota and the public, on December 6th the president sent a hand-scribed list of all those who were to receive his presidential pardon. Just days before the execution, one more warrior’s sentence was commuted due to a lack of evidence.

Despite Lincoln’s efforts, 38 Sioux warriors dropped to their deaths on December 26th. The double standard of punishment and rebellion, contingent on race and not deed, stands out as starkly as those swinging corpses against the winter sun. They were afforded no honors of war. The crowds taunted them as common criminals and applauded their deaths. Unlike their white counterparts who would surrender with honor at Appomattox three years later, these 38 were buried without glory in a frosty ditch. Where it benefited U.S. goals and sensibilities to reconcile white rebels, it undercut Minnesotan ambitions and racial sensibilities to rehabilitate Siouan belligerents. Within two years of the executions, all Sioux and Winnebago Indians would be expelled from the state of Minnesota, pushed farther west by settlers’ ambitions. Race, not  justice, determined the fate of these people. The rebellion of the Sioux and its legal responses, juxtaposed with the rebellion of the white south and its rehabilitation, highlight the different ways the U.S. dealt with insurrection in the context of race and benefit.

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3 thoughts on “Racially Infused Justice: The Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History

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