Lincoln and the Sioux Uprising of 1862 (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Abraham Lincoln, Book Reviews

Reviewed by Chrys Ankeny
By Hank H. Cox
Cumberland House, Nashville, Tenn., 2005

Civil War buffs rarely pay it any mind, even though it occurred in 1862 and had more than a marginal body count, and President Abraham Lincoln intervened in it. Western history buffs usually ignore it as well, even though Sioux Indians were involved and plenty of homesteaders were massacred and hangings took place in the aftermath. Part of the problem is that it occurred in Minnesota, a bit west for the blue-and-gray crowd and a bit east for most fans of the Old West. Known as the Minnesota Uprising or the Sioux Uprising, it cost the lives of perhaps 800 settlers, government agents and soldiers and led to 303 Sioux warriors receiving a hanging sentence. Only 39 of the condemned actually hanged at Mankato, Minn., on December 26, 1862, thanks to Lincoln’s intervention, but that was still the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

The two best-known books covering the shocking outbreak in southern Minnesota are C.M. Oehler’s The Great Sioux Uprising (first published in 1959) and Kenneth Carley’s The Sioux Uprising of 1862 (which came out in 1976). Neither of them played up Lincoln’s involvement, and few of the many works about Lincoln have had much to say about an event that was triggered in part by hunger among the Sioux (or Dakotas) at the agencies on the Minnesota River. Although author Hank H. Cox doesn’t say so in his 213-page Lincoln and the Sioux Uprising of 1862, these were Santee Sioux (comprising the Sissetons, Mdewankantons, Wahpekutes and Wahpetons), who had been forced to cede most of their lands to pushy white settlers. "The Sioux warriors," writes Cox, "split the skulls of men; clubbed children to death; raped daughters; chopped off heads, breasts, and genitals from the corpses; and then looted whatever goods could be taken, setting fire to what remained."

Little Crow was the most prominent Indian leader during the summer bloodbath, which naturally soon also involved soldiers. Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley’s September 23 victory in the Battle of Wood Lake (actually Lone Tree Lake; a guide had misinformed Sibley) caused many Sioux — but not Little Crow — to surrender.
Cox devotes the last 35 or so pages to Lincoln’s political situation and explains why the great wartime president became involved in the Minnesota mess when there were so many bigger messes so much closer to home. Lincoln reviewed the cases of the 303 Sioux waiting to be hanged, even though virtually everyone in Minnesota was crying out for Indian blood and he had previously invested little time in Indian affairs. Cox notes that "the worst offenders [such as Little Crow and Red Middle Voice] were not among the convicted awaiting executions." The 39 men that Lincoln ordered hanged, however, "were proven to have participated in massacres, as distinguished from participation in battles." That Lincoln decided to show mercy to the generally despised Indians "was politically reckless," according to the author.

Still, Lincoln carried Minnesota by a slim margin in the presidential election of 1864. "I could not hang men for votes," he later told a U.S. senator. Too bad Lincoln didn’t say more about his motives, but today it’s hard not to admire his display of mercy.

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