The largest mass execution in American history occurred under Abraham Lincoln’s watch.
On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota warriors were publicly hanged after being convicted of war crimes, including needlessly killing civilians, murdering prisoners, defiling dead bodies and raping captured women and girls. The charges, originally brought against 393 Dakotas, stemmed from their attack of farmers and villagers in Minnesota earlier that year.
Known as the Dakota Uprising or the Sioux War, the one-month skirmish came after the Santee Sioux of Minnesota ceded their land to the U.S. and agreed to live on reservations. Then, as the federal government turned its attention to the Civil War, corrupt Indian agents failed to provide food and white settlers stole horses and timber. “The Dakota were literally starving,” said Paul Finkelman, a historian and professor of human rights law at the University of Saskatchewan. “They had no food and people who traded with them refused to give them money.”
Under Gov. Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota held military trials, convicting 323 Dakotas of war crimes and sentencing 303 to death. But the trials—even those for legitimate crimes—were corrupt and “completely absurd,” Finkelman said. “The Dakota didn’t speak English and they didn’t have lawyers,” he said. “The trials were totally unfair.”
Under U.S law, however, death sentences could not be carried out unless the President signed the orders. In an unprecedented move, Lincoln ordered a complete review of every charge, and ultimately confirmed only 39 of the sentences (one prisoner was granted a reprieve).
“Anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on the one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other, I caused a careful examination of the records of trials to be made,” Lincoln wrote in a message to the Senate in December 1862. The Army executed 38 prisoners by public hanging on the day after Christmas.
The centerpiece of Lincoln’s presidency was the Civil War, but he also contended with Indian conflicts and genocide in the Midwest and Western frontiers, including the Sioux Uprising, the Sand Creek Massacre and wars with the Indians of the Southwest. Focused primarily on winning the war, Lincoln allowed army generals to dictate Indian policy.
In 1862, Gen. James Carleton began a war against Apaches and Navajos in New Mexico, where gold had been discovered on Indian land. Carleton told Col. Kit Carson that “All Indian men … are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them.”
In his third annual message to Congress, in December 1863, Lincoln urged Indians to reject tribal culture and embrace civilization, which included principles of Christianity.
“Sound policy and our imperative duty to these wards of the government demand our anxious and constant attention to their material well-being, to their progress in the arts of civilization, and, above all, to that moral training which under the blessing of Divine Providence will confer upon them the elevated and sanctifying influences, the hopes and consolations, of the Christian faith,” he said.