As part my so-far futile efforts to leave Ferguson in the rear view mirror, let’s revisit one of the Abraham Lincoln’s great ethical dilemmas during the Civil War, in which today’s date, December 1, was pivotal.
Minnesota’s Great Sioux Uprising, now usually called the Dakota-U.S. Conflict, was among the bloodiest Indian wars in the West, with hundreds of Native Americans, settlers and military casualties. The Sioux were defeated soundly, and the U.S. Army tried 303 Native Americans by military commission, finding them guilty of war crimes and sentencing them to death by hanging. Federal law required Presidential approval of the death sentences, and this was a problem Abraham Lincoln, the President at the time, did not need.
For it was 1862, and the Civil War was raging. This was a year full of Union defeats, indeed, disasters, like Fredericksburg, and both the war and Lincoln’s ability to lead it were in peril. Lincoln was also calculating all the political angles before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. On top of the burdens of war and politics, he was coping with personal tragedy: his young son Willy had died nine months earlier, and Mary Todd Lincoln was teetering on emotional collapse from grief.
Now he had to decide whether to allow the execution of more than 300 Indians convicted in trials that were no better than kangaroo courts. Few Americans were concerned about the fate of the Native Americans, but Lincoln, with all of his other worries, took on the task of reviewing the trial records. What he found was manifest injustice. The commission had held hearings on the Sioux reservation and tried sixteen men the first day alone. After five weeks, the commission had conducted 392 trials, including one day that saw forty defendants tried. The accused were stood before the commission, often manacled together in groups, and were arraigned through an interpreter on charges ranging from rape and murder to theft. Many were only accused of the “war crime” of participating in battles. The commission did not permit the Dakota to have counsel for their defense.
He was being lobbied hard to sign the death orders. He could see that the convictions were flawed, but realized that the war, the Union, his leadership, the fate of slavery and his Presidency could not be sacrificed to the Indian wars. On December 1, 1862, he told Congress, “The State of Minnesota has suffered great injury from this Indian war,” signaling that he would not subject his leadership to a perhaps fatal dose of additional unpopularity by completely over-ruling the army. But it was a difficult choice for him.
Lincoln already had a well-established record of applying mercy to the cases of condemned men. In his review of death sentences for desertion, Lincoln over-ruled the trial courts at a rate of approximately 75 percent that steadily increased to 95 percent by the end of 1862. He was also forced to consider how a mass execution would play in France and especially Great Britain, which was then considering whether to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation, and perhaps whether to provide it assistance.
Lincoln issued his decision in the Dakota cases on December 6, 1862. allowing the execution of only 38 of the 303 condemned combatants, and offered clemency to 265 of them— 87 per cent. On December 27, 1862 the thirty-eight Indians were hanged by Lincoln’s order. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history, and you will see anti-American scholars, activists and others citing this fact as proof that America’s heroes, like Lincoln, were no more that conspirators in a the nation’s racist ways .It was just such an article that led my to investigate this little-known episode in Lincoln’s presidency, which focused on the fact that Lincoln presided over a mass execution of Native Americans.
It is a perfect example of how pure ethical conduct can become ambiguous, complicated and indeed impossible in the context of national leadership, and especially war. Those examining such difficult decisions long after they occurred are prone to do so using hindsight bias, and handicapped by various degrees of ignorance regarding the challenges of high-stakes leadership generally. It is certainly true that Lincoln was no lover of the Indians: he had fought against them in his only military experience, and like most men of his era, Lincoln was a believer in white superiority. Still, he deserves ethics praise and respect for taking the path of sparing as many as he thought would be politically palatable, recognizing the importance of his primary duty, winning the war, and his greater ethical mission of ending slavery. It was a great utilitarian challenge, and no President was better at navigating these than Abraham Lincoln.