Rewriting History In Minnesota

The Dakota uprising of 1862 is one of the major events in Minnesota’s history. It began with a series of spree killings by young Dakotas and grew into a slaughter that extended up and down the Minnesota River. Hundreds of white men, women and children were massacred by the Dakota, who descended on their homes without warning and slaughtered the whites without mercy. Minnesotans organized a militia to resist the Indian attacks, and President Lincoln sent a detachment of Union soldiers who finally assisted in putting down the rebellion.

At the end of the war, Union soldiers held over 1,000 Dakota prisoners. The military held a series of trials which resulted in the convictions of 303 Dakota warriors, who were sentenced to hang. All of this occurred during the worst days of the Civil War, when it appeared that the Union likely would be dissolved. Nonetheless, Lincoln was concerned about whether justice had been done to the Dakotas. He obtained copies of the trial transcripts and, in the middle of the night–his days being fully occupied with the war–he studied them. Lincoln’s standard was that he would only allow the hanging of men against whom there was convincing evidence of either murder or rape. Killing in battle didn’t count.

Based on his review, Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38 of the Indians. He directed that the rest be set free. General John Pope, commander of the Union troops in Minnesota, protested that if he released the remaining Indians, settlers would kill them. Lincoln replied that Pope must do his duty and protect the Indians.

On December 26, 1862, the 38 convicted murderers and rapists were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, the largest such execution in American history. Every year at around this time, the war of 1862 and the hangings at Mankato are revisited in our local media. Rarely is the story told honestly. Today, the Indians who were convicted of rape or murder, and whose convictions were upheld on review by Abraham Lincoln, are generally regarded as heroes, while their execution is portrayed as a moment of infamy.

Scott and I wrote an article about this episode in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1998, and I wrote about it on Power Line four years later. I think we have revisited the topic once or twice since. Despite our efforts to bring balance to the historical record, the revisionist narrative marches on. Every year, there is a commemorative ride from Crow Creek, South Dakota to Mankato to honor those who were hanged. The Star Tribune covered the ride yesterday:

On December 26, 1862, on orders signed by President Lincoln, 38 Dakota fighters were hanged in Mankato following the bloody, six-week U.S.-Dakota War.

They weren’t hanged for being “fighters,” they were hanged for being murderers and/or rapists. Left unmentioned is that the Dakotas had already been condemned to hang. The effect of Lincoln’s order was to exonerate more than 250 Dakotas who, but for his review, would have been executed. This is a picture of the commemorative ride:


Currently, another skirmish over the 1862 war is playing out in the realm of art. A committee has been set up to evaluate the art displayed in Minnesota’s Capitol. As part of that process, objections have been lodged to a painting by Anton Gag called “Attack on New Ulm.” The attack occurred during the 1862 war:


What’s wrong with the painting?

One member of the subcommittee, Gwen Westerman, a professor at Minnesota State University Mankato, has criticized the New Ulm painting as historically incorrect because it shows Indians shirtless, and because their faces are indistinguishable.

That’s a less than powerful critique. Happily, some are standing up for both historical truth and art:

But “Attack on New Ulm” has stirred people to action, including the Gag group, a couple of prominent historians and a group called Family and Friends of Dakota Uprising Victims. They maintain that Gag interviewed and painted Dakota Indians and had a better perspective than anyone living now.

On a blog about the Dakota War, John LaBatte, an expert on the war who has both white and Dakota ancestors, said the depictions are accurate according to eyewitness accounts, and he wrote: “The Dakota War of 1862 was one of the most important events in Minnesota history. This event needs to be represented in the State Capitol artwork.”

Don Heinrich Tolzmann, who served for many years on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati and remains a frequent speaker on the topic of the Dakota War, has written to the subcommittee and says the painting is indeed accurate. He stresses that each art work is an interpretation and someone could take issue with Michelangelo’s “David” or DaVinci’s “Last Supper,” too.

I think the forces of revisionism are likely to lose this particular battle. Nonetheless, the Left’s dogged effort to portray the 1862 hanging of murderers and rapists as a shameful, racist episode continues. Probably that is how most casually-informed Minnesotans view the event today.

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