One hundred fifty-nine years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln issued his decision that 39 members of the Santee Sioux Nation were to be hanged for murders committed during a war with the United States in Minnesota.
Initially, a military tribunal found 303 guilty but Lincoln was concerned about the possible reaction of some European nations who might enter a war on behalf of the South, which had commenced in April 1861. That same week in December, Union forces suffered a significant defeat at the battle of Fredericksburg. At the last moment, one prisoner was granted a reprieve and on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota, the largest mass hanging of 38 individuals in the nation’s history occurred.
Treaties between the Sioux and the United States included relocation to reservation lands along with attempts to condition them to become farmers and forgo their hunting culture. However, late annuity payments for land and corrupt traders and government officials further exacerbated relations between the two nations.
Conflicts intensified, including attacks upon white settlers and the intervention of the US Cavalry. Lincoln historians report that the President personally reviewed the military trial records of the 303 guilty verdicts, finding a lack of evidence in 265 cases for which he commuted the death penalty recommendations, a politically unpopular decision among Minnesotans and other Republicans. Lincoln is recorded as saying, “I could not afford to hang men for votes.”
From a military standpoint, the commander-in-chief was painfully aware of the multiple battles in October 1862 with significant troop casualties. Conducting a war on two fronts strained the military and intensified fear of foreign nation intervention in the Civil War.
The Minnesota legislature banished the Sioux from the state following the hangings and Congress abrogated all treaties with them. Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator, could not, during the Civil War, escape brutal political choices.