December 26 is the anniversary of the largest mass execution in American history. On that date in 1862, the U.S. government hanged 38 Santee Sioux for their participation in Minnesota’s Dakota War.
The war began in August 1862, when Santee Sioux warriors rose up against settlers in Minnesota. The Santee were driven to war after the U.S. government, financially strapped by the Civil War, stopped providing the food promised to the Indians by treaty. Starving and unable to provide for themselves on the small reservation on which they had been corralled in 1851, young men attacked the settlers who had built homes on the land the Santee had ceded. By September, both Minnesota militia and U.S. Army regiments were engaged in a war with the Santee that would leave 600 settlers, between 100 and 300 Indians, and more than a hundred soldiers dead before the last of the Santee warriors surrendered to the military at the end of the month.
Over the course of five weeks in the fall of 1862, a military commission tried 393 Indians for their part in the conflict. Because these were military trials, the Indians did not have lawyers. Many of the prisoners did not speak English. Those who did understand the questions put to them did not understand the legal process that permitted them to avoid self-incrimination; they told the truth about their part in the fighting and thus cemented their convictions. Many of the trials took fewer than ten minutes before the judges reached a guilty verdict: in two days of trials, 82 men were tried. In early November, the commission convicted 303 Indians of murder or rape and sentenced them to death. Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey wrote to President Lincoln expressing his hope that “the execution of every Sioux Indian condemned by the military court will be at once ordered.”
But while harsh sentences pleased the furious Minnesota settlers, they presented a delicate problem for President Lincoln. Personally, he was reluctant to use the government to execute men, and frequently commuted death sentences for soldiers convicted of anything other than rape or murder. He recoiled from the idea of executing several hundred men at once.
But there was a national, as well as a personal, issue at stake. If the United States executed captured Indian soldiers for killing in battle, why shouldn’t it do the same to captured Confederate soldiers, who were also attacking the government? While there were plenty of people who were willing to follow that logic, it presented a problem: if the Union government could do whatever it wanted to enemy combatants, what was to stop the Confederacy from doing whatever it wanted to captured Union soldiers? Ultimately, Lincoln’s decision about what to do with the Santee prisoners could determine the fate of the Union men who fell into enemy hands.
Lincoln negotiated the crisis by distinguishing between soldiers in battle and war criminals. First he demanded the Santee trial records and ordered the military judges to separate Indians who had fought in battles from those who had committed murder or rape against civilians. Then he reviewed the records and concluded that 265 of the Santee had been convicted only of going to war against the United States. Although these men had not been party to a formal declaration of war, the Lincoln administration decided they were nonetheless covered by the traditional rules of war that prohibited the execution of prisoners. President Lincoln commuted their sentences. The 38 Indians who had been convicted of murder or of rape against civilians, though, fell outside the traditional protections accorded to enemy combatants. Their sentences stood.
And on December 26, 1862, the U.S. Army hanged these 38 men in a group from a scaffold in Mankato, Minnesota in the largest mass execution in American history. It is worth noting, though, that even this extraordinary carnage was much smaller than many Americans wished. Two hundred and sixty-five men escaped the gallows when the Santee crisis forced President Lincoln to argue that prisoners of war must be treated according to law, and to establish a precedent for that principle.