Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

October 30, 1844 (a Wednesday)

Robert Chambers

On this date, George Combe wrote a congratulatory letter that he sent to the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation through the publisher of the book. Combe was a phrenologist, who claimed to be able to read a person’s character from the shape of his skull, and he was delighted that the unknown author shared his belief in the “truth” of phrenology.

Only two weeks earlier, while they were on a Saturday walk, Combe had told his friend, the English journalist Robert Chambers, that he should read the newly published book. Combe already had received one of the first free copies, which he had skimmed and partially read with care. Ironically, Combe had not known on that Saturday walk that he was speaking to the author of Vestiges in person, namely, Robert Chambers! Evidently, Chambers did not reveal his identity to Combe. In fact, Chambers revealed his identity to only seven people during his lifetime.

In his letter, Combe said that on turning the pages of the book, he experienced a sense of “pleasure and instruction” – that it combined “all the sublimity of a grand poem, and the sober earnestness & perspicuity of a rigidly philosophical induction.” His letter compared Vestiges to “a new sun” in the scientific firmament, which “will probably collect around it innumberable facts, until at length it shall develop itself into a Theory as perfect as a planetary system.”

This was the book that brought the notion of transmutation out into the public arena. It attempted to describe the entire evolution of the universe, from planets to people, as being driven by some kind of self developing force which acted according to natural laws.

Readers of Vestiges included Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Benjamin Disraeli, and John Stuart Mill, although not all shared the same opinion of it. The politically liberal medical journal, the Lancet, said it was “like a breath of fresh air to workmen in a crowded factory.” The freethinker Abraham Lincoln read the book straight through (something he rarely did) when he got a copy and “became a warm advocate of the doctrine.” On the other hand, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote one of the most vicious book reviews of all time, describing Vestiges as a “once attractive and still notorious work of fiction” and its author as one of “those who…indulge in science at second-hand and dispense totally with logic.” Scottish journalist and geologist Hugh Miller even published an entire book, Foot-Prints of the Creator, to discredit Vestiges. Yet Vestiges sold remarkably well, one of the best-sellers of its time.

In his introduction to On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin assumed that his readers were aware of Vestiges, and wrote identifying what he felt was one of its gravest deficiencies with regards to its theory of biological evolution:

The author of the ‘Vestiges of Creation’ would, I presume, say that, after a certain unknown number of generations, some bird had given birth to a woodpecker, and some plant to the mistletoe, and that these had been produced perfect as we now see them; but this assumption seems to me to be no explanation, for it leaves the case of the coadaptations of organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life, untouched and unexplained.

Chambers wrote that “My sincere desire in the composition of the book was to give the true view of the history of nature, with as little disturbance as possible to existing beliefs, whether philosophical or religious.” He wanted to open up the question of evolution by natural law to serious scientific discussion. In a supplement to the Vestiges first published in 1845 and entitled Explanations, he wrote, “I said to myself: Let [Vestiges] go forth to be received as truth, or to provoke others to a controversy which may result in establishing or overthrowing it.”

References:

  • James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2003) pp. 38, 264.
  • William Henry Herndon and Jesse William Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (Belford, Clarke & Company, 1889).
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September 22, 1862 (a Monday)

Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, page 1. Record Group 11, General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives and Records Administration.

Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, page 1. Record Group 11, General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives and Records Administration.

On this date, motivated by his growing concern for the inhumanity of slavery as well as practical political concerns, President Abraham Lincoln changed the course of the war and American history by issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Announced a week after the nominal Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, this measure did not technically free any slaves, but it expanded the Union’s war aim from reunification to include the abolition of slavery.

The proclamation announced that all slaves in territory that was still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863, would be free. Since it freed slaves only in Rebel areas that were beyond Union occupation, the Emancipation Proclamation really freed no one. But the measure was still one of the most important acts in American history, as it meant slavery would end when those areas were recaptured.

“President Lincoln, writing the Proclamation of Freedom,” by David Gilmour Blythe.

“President Lincoln, writing the Proclamation of Freedom,” by David Gilmour Blythe.

In addition, the proclamation effectively sabotaged Confederate attempts to secure recognition by foreign governments, especially Great Britain. When reunification was the goal of the North, foreigners could view the Confederates as freedom fighters being held against their will by the Union. But after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Southern cause was now viewed as the defense of slavery. The proclamation was a shrewd maneuver by Lincoln to brand the Confederate States as a slave nation and render foreign aid impossible.

The measure was met by a good deal of opposition, because many Northerners were unwilling to fight for the freedom of blacks. But it spelled the death knell for slavery, and it had the effect on British opinion that Lincoln had desired. Antislavery Britain could no longer recognize the Confederacy, and Union sentiment swelled in Britain. With this measure, Lincoln effectively isolated the Confederacy and killed the institution that was the root of sectional differences.

Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

September 22, 1862

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy thereof, do hereby proclaim and declare that hereafter, as heretofore, the war will be prosecuted for the object of practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States, and each of the States, and the people thereof, in which States that relation is, or may be, suspended or disturbed.

That it is my purpose, upon the next meeting of Congress to again recommend the adoption of a practical measure tendering pecuniary aid to the free acceptance or rejection of all slave States, so called, the people whereof may not then be in rebellion against the United States and which States may then have voluntarily adopted, or thereafter may voluntarily adopt, immediate or gradual abolishment of slavery within their respective limits; and that the effort to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere, with the previously obtained consent of the Governments existing there, will be continued.

That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

That the executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States, and part of States, if any, in which the people thereof respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof shall, on that day be, in good faith represented in the Congress of the United States, by members chosen thereto, at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.

That attention is hereby called to an Act of Congress entitled “An Act to make an additional Article of War” approved March 13, 1862, and which act is in the words and figure following:

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That hereafter the following shall be promulgated as an additional article of war for the government of the army of the United States, and shall be obeyed and observed as such:

“Article-All officers or persons in the military or naval service of the United States are prohibited from employing any of the forces under their respective commands for the purpose of returning fugitives from service or labor, who may have escaped from any persons to whom such service or labor is claimed to be due, and any officer who shall be found guilty by a court martial of violating this article shall be dismissed from the service.

“Sec.2. And be it further enacted, That this act shall take effect from and after its passage.”

Also to the ninth and tenth sections of an act entitled “An Act to suppress Insurrection, to punish Treason and Rebellion, to seize and confiscate property of rebels, and for other purposes,” approved July 17, 1862, and which sections are in the words and figures following:

“Sec.9. And be it further enacted, That all slaves of persons who shall hereafter be engaged in rebellion against the government of the United States, or who shall in any way give aid or comfort thereto, escaping from such persons and taking refuge within the lines of the army; and all slaves captured from such persons or deserted by them and coming under the control of the government of the United States; and all slaves of such persons found on (or) being within any place occupied by rebel forces and afterwards occupied by the forces of the United States, shall be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude and not again held as slaves.

“Sec.10. And be it further enacted, That no slave escaping into any State, Territory, or the District of Columbia, from any other State, shall be delivered up, or in any way impeded or hindered of his liberty, except for crime, or some offence against the laws, unless the person claiming said fugitive shall first make oath that the person to whom the labor or service of such fugitive is alleged to be due is his lawful owner, and has not borne arms against the United States in the present rebellion, nor in any way given aid and comfort thereto; and no person engaged in the military or naval service of the United States shall, under any pretence whatever, assume to decide on the validity of the claim of any person to the service or labor of any other person, or surrender up any such person to the claimant, on pain of being dismissed from the service.”

And I do hereby enjoin upon and order all persons engaged in the military and naval service of the United States to observe, obey, and enforce, within their respective spheres of service, the act, and sections above recited.

And the executive will in due time recommend that all citizens of the United States who shall have remained loyal thereto throughout the rebellion, shall (upon the restoration of the constitutional relation between the United States, and their respective States, and people, if that relation shall have been suspended or disturbed) be compensated for all losses by acts of the United States, including the loss of slaves.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington this twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord, one thousand, eight hundred and sixty-two, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty seventh.

[Signed:] Abraham Lincoln
By the President

[Signed:] William H. Seward
Secretary of State

September 3, 1838 (a Monday)

Frederick Douglass in 1845.

On this date, Frederick Douglass successfully escaped slavery by boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. He was dressed in a sailor’s uniform and carried identification papers provided by a free black seaman. He crossed the Susquehanna River by ferry at Havre de Grace, then continued by train to Wilmington, Delaware. From there he went by steamboat to “Quaker City” — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — and eventually reached New York; the whole journey took less than 24 hours.

And so began the remarkable career of an American abolitionist, women’s suffragist, editor, orator, author, statesman, and reformer. Called “The Sage of Anacostia” and “The Lion of Anacostia”, Douglass is one of the most prominent figures in African-American and United States history. He was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant. Douglass was fond of saying, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

One of my personal favorites is an excerpt from a speech Douglass delivered at Corinthian Hall in his adopted hometown, Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”:

But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done!

The historian David W. Blight has said of this speech, “If Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the fictional masterpiece of American abolitionism, a book Abraham Lincoln would later acknowledge as powerful enough to ’cause this big war,’ then Douglass’s Fourth of July address is abolition’s rhetorical masterpiece.”

The bust of Ludwig Feuerbach owned by Frederick Douglas that he displayed at his home in Washington, D.C. in later life.

One might wonder, based on the excerpt above: was Douglas an atheist?   Apparently not in 1852, but a letter dated May 15, 1871 by his friend Ottilie Assing, written to the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, reveals that Douglas did in fact years later make the leap:

Personal sympathy and concordance in many central issues brought us together; but there was one obstacle to a loving and lasting friendship—namely, the personal Christian God. Early impressions, environments, and the beliefs still dominating this entire nation held sway over Douglass. The ray of light of German atheism had never reached him, while I, thanks to natural inclination, training, and the whole influence of German education and literature, had overcome the belief in God at an early age. I experienced this dualism as an unbearable dissonance, and since I not only saw in Douglass the ability to recognize intellectual shackles but also credited him with the courage and integrity to discard at once the old errors and, in this one respect, his entire past, his lifelong beliefs, I sought refuge with you. In the English translation by Mary Anne Evans we read the Essence of Christianity together, which I, too, encountered for the first time on that occasion. This book—for me one of the greatest manifestations of the human spirit—resulted in a total reversal of his attitudes. Douglass has become your enthusiastic admirer, and the result is a remarkable progress, an expansion of his horizon, of all his attitudes as expressed especially in his lectures and essays, which are intellectually much more rich, deep, and logical than before. While most of his former companions in the struggle against slavery have disappeared from the public stage since the abolition, and, in a way, have become anachronisms because they lack fertile ideas, Douglass now has reached the zenith of his development. For the satisfaction of seeing a superior man won over for atheism, and through that to have gained a faithful, valuable friend for myself, I feel obliged to you, and I cannot deny myself the pleasure of expressing my gratitude as well as my heartfelt veneration.

Frederick Douglas had first met Ottilie Assing when she traveled to Rochester in 1856 as a German journalist for the prestigious German newspaper Morgenblatt für gebildete Leserto to interview him. She then spent the next 22 summers with the Douglass family, working on articles, the translation project, and tutoring his children.

At the same time, Anna Douglass, Frederick’s wife, was somewhat older than Frederick, illiterate, and ill much of the time. She shared little of her husband’s intellect or interests, and seemed unable to cope with the large household.

Assing, on the other hand, was a passionate abolitionist, was politically astute, and contributed a great deal to Douglass’ work.  The affair was never confined to the domestic sphere, and it was never a secret. For most of their 26 year friendship, when apart, Frederick and Ottilie weekly wrote each other.  Assing was confident that, upon Anna’s death, Douglass would marry her.  However, when Anna died in 1882, Douglass wed another woman – white, bright and 20 years his junior.  Heartbroken and ill with breast cancer, Assing walked into a park, opened a tiny vial and swallowed the potassium cyanide within.  Still, Ottilie left Frederick Douglass as the sole beneficiary in her will.

References:

  • Diedrich, Maria. Love across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999), pp. 259-260. Original German letter published in Ausgewälte Briefe von und an Ludwig Feuerbach, ed. Hans-Martin Sass (Stuttgart: Friedrich Frommann, 1964), vols. 12/13, pp. 365-366.
  • Assing, Ottilie. Radical Passion: Ottilie Assing’s Reports from America and Letters to Frederick Douglass, edited, translated, and introduced by Christoph Lohmann. (New York: Peter Lang, 1999). (New Directions in German American Studies; v. 1)

July 10, 1802 (a Saturday)

Robert Chambers

On this date, the Scottish author and publisher Robert Chambers was born. He was the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which was released in 1844. Literary anonymity was not uncommon at the time, especially in periodical journalism. However, in the science genre, anonymity was especially rare, due to the fact that science writers typically wanted to take credit for their work in order to claim priority for their findings. Chamber’s identity as the author of Vestiges was not officially revealed to the public until 1884, several years after his death.

During the 1830s, Chambers had become particularly interested in the then rapidly expanding field of geology — he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1840 and elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1844. He had taught himself the basics of geology and botany, and was strongly influenced by Lamarck and Buffon. Chambers’ motivation for writing Vestiges was in part to open up the question of evolution (at that time referred to as “development”) by natural law to serious scientific discussion. In a supplement to the Vestiges first published in 1845, entitled Explanations, he wrote of the Vestiges:

I said to myself: Let this book go forth to be received as truth, or to provoke others to a controversy which may result in establishing or overthrowing it…

Chambers had chosen anonymity in writing Vestges for a very pragmatic reason: he feared, and with reason, that the controversy over the book would hurt his publishing business. Vestiges began with an explanation of the nebular hypothesis of the formation of the Solar System, and went on from there to present a grand picture of the progressive evolution of life on Earth. By implying that God might not actively sustain the natural and social hierarchies, the book threatened the social order and could provide ammunition to Chartists and revolutionaries.

Anglican clergymen/naturalists attacked the book, with the geologist Adam Sedgwick predicting “ruin and confusion in such a creed” which if taken up by the working classes “will undermine the whole moral and social fabric” bringing “discord and deadly mischief in its train.” Physicist Sir David Brewster warned that Vestiges stood a “fair chance of poisoning the fountains of science, and sapping the foundations of religion.” Scottish journalist and geologist Hugh Miller, never a man to avoid an argument, published an entire book, Foot-Prints of the Creator, as a rebuttal to Vestiges. Thomas Henry Huxley penned one of the most venomous book reviews of all time: the book was a “once attractive and still notorious work of fiction” and its author one of “those who…indulge in science at second-hand and dispense totally with logic.”

In contrast, Vestiges was liked by many Quakers and Unitarians. The Unitarian physiologist William Carpenter called it “a very beautiful and a very interesting book”, and helped Chambers with correcting later editions.

Vestiges was undoubtedly a sensation. It sold remarkably well — over 20,000 copies in a decade — making it one of the best-sellers of its time. Not only many naturalists, like Charles Darwin, but also Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria read it; so did poets like Alfred Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, statesmen like William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, and philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and John Stuart Mill. Chambers’s book contained little that proved of lasting scientific value. However, Vestiges brought widespread discussion of evolution out of the streets and gutter presses and into the drawing rooms of respectable men and women.

April 24, 1863 (a Friday)

Abraham Lincoln

On this date, the Union Army of the United States issued General Order No. 100, signed and authorized by President Abraham Lincoln, which provided a code of conduct for federal soldiers and officers when dealing with Confederate prisoners and civilians during the American Civil War.  There was no document like it in the world at the time, and other countries soon adopted the code. In fact, its influence can be seen on the Geneva Convention.

The German-American jurist and political philosopher Francis Lieber was the principle civilian proponent and principle author of the order, and so it has come to be known as the Lieber Code of 1863.  It is also known as Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, or Lieber Instructions.  Its main sections were concerned with, among other things, how prisoners of war should be treated.  More specifically, it forbade the use of torture to extract confessions and described the rights and duties of prisoners of war and of capturing forces, to wit, Article 16:

Military necessity does not admit of cruelty–that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions.

Lieber consistently opposed the abuse of prisoners, and he quickly dispensed with the notion that captured Southern soldiers should be treated as criminals, traitors, or bandits. Instead, they were to be housed humanely and fed “plain and wholesome food.” Torture and public humiliation were forbidden, and chivalry was very much alive: To reward exemplary bravery and honor, captors could even return sidearms to enemy officers.

The irony of a Republican predecessor opposing torture of enemy combatants nearly 150 years before Bush the Second condoned the practice has not been lost on critics of Bush II. Of course, apologists for the more recent Republican president are fond of pointing out that in other areas, such as habeas corpus, Lincoln was hardly a paragon protector of rights and legal ethics. I fail to see how that exonerates Bush II for his deplorable behavior.

As David Bosco, an assistant professor at the American University School of International Service and a contributing writer to Foreign Policy magazine, has written in an article in The American Scholar entitled “Moral Principle vs. Military Necessity“:

Lieber and Lincoln proudly published their code, flawed and ambiguous though it was. The nation’s current leadership has preferred secret memoranda and strained interpretations. Too often now, the noble effort to expand and codify the international law that Lieber gloried in no longer appeals to the world’s most powerful state. For the good of international law and of the United States, that must change.

April 22, 1927 (a Friday): The Political Flood

Flood refugees on the levee in Greenville, Miss. in 1927. (Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History, accession no.: PI/CI/G74.4, no. 46).

Flood refugees on the levee in Greenville, Miss. in 1927. (Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History, accession no.: PI/CI/G74.4, no. 46).

And the rains came. They came in amounts never seen by any white man, before or since. They fell throughout the entire Mississippi River Valley, from the Appalachians to the Rockies. They caused widespread flooding that made 1927 the worst year ever in the valley. The Great Flood of 1927 at one point covered 26,000 square miles in water ten feet deep. More water, more damage, more fear, more panic, more misery, more death by drowning than any American had seen before, or would again.

On this date, President Calvin Coolidge issued a proclamation to the nation. He declared, “The Government is giving such aid as lies within its powers …. But the burden of caring for the homeless rests upon the agency designated by Government charter to provide relief in disaster — the American National Red Cross.” He made no mention of emergency appropriations. Rather, Coolidge, as President of the United States and the Red Cross, asked for the public to donate $5 million [$55.9 million in 2005 dollars] to the Red Cross. Additionally, the President created a quasi governmental commission to assist the Red Cross in the relief effort. Coolidge appointed Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce, as chairman.

The flood propelled Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was in charge of flood relief operations, into the national spotlight and set the stage for his election to the Presidency.

The flood had the unlikely effect of contributing to both the election of Herbert Hoover as President, and his defeat four years later. He was much lauded for his masterful handling of the refugee camps, but later concerns over the treatment of blacks in those camps caused him to make promises to the African-American community which he later broke, losing the black vote in his re-election campaign.

Flood refugees near Greenville, Miss. in 1927. (Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District)

Flood refugees near Greenville, Miss. in 1927. (Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District)

Several reports on the terrible situation in the refugee camps, including one by the Colored Advisory Commission led by Robert Russa Moton, were kept out of the media at the request of Herbert Hoover, with the promise of further reforms for blacks after the presidential election.

However, once elected President in 1928, Hoover ignored Robert Moton and the promises he had made to his black constituency. In the following election of 1932, Moton withdrew his support for Hoover and switched to the Democratic Party. In an historic shift, African Americans began to abandon the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, and turned to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democratic Party instead.

The flood of 1927 changed America. It put Herbert Hoover in the White House, even while his duplicity in dealing with blacks helped begin the shift of black voters from the Republicans to the Democrats. It inspired Congress to pass a law putting responsibility for the Mississippi in Federal hands, making it easier for both Congress and the public to accept an even larger Federal presence during the New Deal years. And the pressures the flood brought to bear on the delicate racial fabric of the Deep South caused ruptures that could never be mended.

December 6, 1862 (a Saturday)

Ordered that of the Indians and Half-breeds sentenced to be hanged by the military commission, composed of Colonel Crooks, Lt. Colonel Marshall, Captain Grant, Captain Bailey, and Lieutenant Olin, and lately sitting in Minnesota, you cause to be executed on Friday the nineteenth day of December, instant, the following names, to wit [39 names listed by case number of record: cases 2, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 19, 22, 24, 35, 67, 68, 69, 70, 96, 115, 121, 138, 155, 170, 175, 178, 210, 225, 254, 264, 279, 318, 327, 333, 342, 359, 373, 377, 382, 383].

The other condemned prisoners you will hold subject to further orders, taking care that they neither escape, nor are subjected to any unlawful violence.

Abraham Lincoln,
President of the United States

Zen stones

Mass hanging of 38 Dakota Sioux on 26 December 1862

Mass hanging of 38 Dakota Sioux on 26 December 1862

The above quote is the full text of Lincoln’s Order to General Henry Sibley, St. Paul Minnesota on this date authorizing the execution of thirty-eight Dakota Sioux (the sentence of one of the individuals named in the Order was commuted to imprisonment on 23 December). The hanging, following trials which condemned to death over three hundred participants in the 1862 Dakota Conflict (or Dakota War or Sioux Uprising), stands as the largest mass execution in American history. There wasn’t enough rope to make all the nooses, so the hangings were actually delayed until the day after Christmas, occurring on Friday the 26th at about 10:00 AM.

Only the intervention of President Lincoln saved 265 other Dakota from the fate met by the less fortunate thirty-eight. The decision was wildly unpopular among Minnesota’s white settlers. The mass hanging was the concluding scene in the opening chapter of a story of American-Sioux conflict that would not end until the Seventh Cavalry completed its massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890.

A decade before the Dakota Conflict, the Minnesota Territory, stretching from the upper Mississippi to the Missouri River, was still mostly Indian country. In 1851, the United States signed two treaties with the Dakota that resulted in the Indians’ ceding huge portions of the Minnesota Territory. In exchange, they were promised annuity payments totaling $1.4 million dollars over a fifty-year period, and directed to live on two twenty-mile wide by seventy-mile long reservations along the Minnesota River. The thoroughly corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs was responsible for overseeing the terms of the treaties. Not surprisingly, many of the trade goods were substandard and overvalued by several hundred percent, and the promised annuity payments were often not forthcoming – stolen by Washington functionaries, or simply channeled directly to the crooked traders and Indian agents.

This situation continued for years. Finally, in 1858 – the year Minnesota entered the Union – a party of Dakota led by Chief Little Crow visited Washington to see about proper enforcement of the treaties. It did not go the way they’d hoped; instead of acknowledging the Dakota grievances, the government took back half their reservation, and opened it up to white settlement – and promised increased annuity payments. The land was cleared, and the hunting and fishing that had in large measure sustained the Dakota virtually ended.

Forced to Negotiate

Forced to Negotiate

The treaties of 1851 and 1858 set the stage for the Dakota Conflict by undermining the Dakota culture and the power of chieftains and leading to a corrupt system of Indian agents and traders. Annuity payments reduced the once proud Dakota to the status of dependents. They reduced the power of chiefs because annuity payments were made directly to individuals rather than through tribal structures. They created bitterness because licensed traders cheated the Indians. No effective means of legal recourse was available to wronged Dakota. The fact that the Dakota people were squeezed into a small fraction of their former lands made it easy, according to Minnesota historian William Folwell, “for malcontents to assemble frequently to growl and fret together over grievances.”

Hunger was widespread throughout Dakota lands in Minnesota Territory. Since crops had been poor in 1861, the Dakota had little food stored for the “starving winter” of 1861-62. Their reservation supported no game and increasing settlement off the reservation meant growing competition with white settlers hunting for meat. “These poor creatures subsisted on a tall grass which they find in the marshes, chewing the roots and eating the wild turnip,” wrote Sarah Wakefield, wife of the Upper Sioux Agency’s doctor. “Many died from starvation or disease caused by eating improper food. It made my heart ache. I remember distinctly of the agent giving them dry corn, and these poor creatures were so near starvation that they ate it raw like cattle.”

Reports about government agents’ corrupt treatment of the Dakota were ignored. Factionalism continued to grow amongst the Dakota, as those who maintained traditional ways saw that only those who had acculturated were reaping government support. Though Dakota farmers shared food with their relatives throughout the summer of 1862, it wasn’t enough.

To make matters worse, annuity payments for the Dakota were late in the summer of 1862. An August 4, 1862 confrontation between soldiers and braves at the Upper Agency at Yellow Medicine led to a decision to distribute provisions on credit to avoid violence.

At the Lower Agency at Redwood, however, things were handled differently. At an August 15, 1862 meeting attended by Dakota representatives, Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith, and representatives of the traders, the traders resisted pleas to distribute provisions held in agency warehouses to starving Dakota until the annuity payments finally arrived. Trader Andrew J. Myrick summarized his position in the bluntest possible manner:  “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.” Unbeknownst to those gathered at the Lower Agency, the long delayed 1862 annuity payments were already on their way to the Minnesota frontier. On August 16, a keg with $71,000 worth of gold coins reached St. Paul. The next day the keg was sent to Fort Ridgely for distribution to the Dakota. It arrived a few hours too late to prevent an unprecedented outbreak of violence.

 “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.” -Andrew Myrick, 1862

“So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.” -Andrew Myrick, 1862

On Sunday, August 17, four Dakota from a breakaway band of young malcontents were on a hunting trip when they came across some eggs in a hen’s nest along the fence line of a settler’s homestead. When one of the four took the eggs, another of the group warned him that the eggs belonged to a white man. The first young man became angry, dashed the eggs to the ground, and accused the other of being afraid of white men, even though half-starved. Apparently to disprove the accusation of cowardice, the other Dakota said that to show he was not afraid of white men he would go the house and shoot the owner. He challenged the others to join him. Minutes later three white men, a white woman, and a fifteen-year old white girl lay dead.

The issue of whether to wage war against white citizens was debated by a multi-band council on August 17, the night following the massacre of five white settlers (murders, beyond question) at Acton. As stated by Chief Big Eagle, “A council was held and war was declared… I was still of the belief that it was not best, but I thought I must go with my band and my nation, and I said to my men that I would lead them into the war, and we would all act like brave Dakotas and do the best we could.” It appears that the decision to wage war was made over the opposition of some tribal leaders.

On 18 August 1862, after the Battle of Lower Sioux Agency, post trader Andrew Myrick was found dead, with his mouth stuffed full of grass.

All told, the Conflict lasted about five weeks. It claimed the lives of some 500 white settlers and U.S. soldiers, caused a general evacuation of settlers from the whole of southwestern Minnesota, and witnessed the wholesale destruction of settlers’ houses, barns, and property. About sixty Dakota died in the fighting.

The Dakota had every right to believe that they would be treated as enemy soldiers–many were told, in fact, that in exchange for their surrender under a flag of truce, they’d be treated as prisoners of war. They were not. White Minnesotans were in no mood for conciliation or reconciliation; retribution–vengeance–stormed through the Minnesota River valley and throughout the state.

General John Pope, Sibley’s superior, wrote to him in a letter dated 28 September 1862:

The horrible massacres of women and children and the outrageous abuse of female prisoners, still alive, call for punishment beyond human power to inflict. There will be no peace in this region by virtue of treaties and Indian faith. It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so and even if it requires a campaign lasting the whole of next year. Destroy everything belonging to them and force them out to the plains, unless, as I suggest, you can capture them. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.  [emphasis added]

"It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so..."  John Pope, 1862

“It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so…” John Pope, 1862

On 28 September 1862, Sibley appointed a five-member military commission to “try summarily” Dakota and mixed-bloods for “murder and other outrages” committed against Americans, although he had no authority to do so. The commission believed that mere participation in a battle justified a death sentence, so in the many cases, perhaps two-thirds of the total, where the prisoner admitted to firing shots, it proceeded to a guilty verdict in a matter of a few minutes. Somewhat more deliberation was required for trials in which the charge was the murder or rape of settlers, because admissions were much rarer in these cases. After the defendant gave whatever response he cared to make to the charge, prosecution witnesses were called, whose damaging statements went unchallenged. Where prosecution witnesses contradicted the testimony of the defendant, the commission almost invariably found the prisoner to be guilty.

Not only was there a lack of substantial evidence against the defendants and a lack of due process at trial, but commission members harbored prejudice (not surprisingly) against the defendants. One of the Commission’s members, William Marshall, frankly admitted his own difficulty in viewing the evidence impartially:  “[my] mind was not in a condition to give the men a fair trial.Reverend Riggs, an observer at many of the trials, wrote to a St. Paul paper of the attitudes he witnessed: “I have a very high regard for all the gentlemen who composed the military commission. I count them individually among my personal friends. But they were trying Indians; and my sense of right would lead me to give Indians as fair and full a trial as white men. This was the difference between us.”

Furthermore, the commission was wrong to treat the defendants as common criminals rather than as the legitimate belligerents of a sovereign power. The history of the United States reflects, according to Carol Chomsky, Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, “a de facto recognition that members of an Indian tribe should be treated as legitimate belligerents.” The Supreme Court in 1831 referred to Indian tribes as “domestic dependent nations”, and treaties between the United States and the Dakota recognized the sovereign status of the Dakota. The use of force by individuals in a declared war between sovereign nations is generally not subject to the same treatment as would similar acts of assault or murder committed by individuals under different circumstances. Captured enemy soldiers are treated as legitimate belligerents and held as prisoners of war until hostilities cease and they are released. (This special treatment does not, of course, cover all acts of violence committed by the enemy. Torture, rape, and the killing of unarmed civilians, for example, are considered violations of the laws of war and subject to punishment.)  If the defendants were not prisoners of war, the trials should have been conducted in state courts using normal rules of criminal procedure rather than by military commission.

As Chomsky summarizes:

The trials of the Dakota were conducted unfairly in a variety of ways. The evidence was sparse, the tribunal was biased, the defendants were unrepresented in unfamiliar proceedings conducted in a foreign language, and authority for convening the tribunal was lacking. More fundamentally, neither the Military Commission nor the reviewing authorities recognized that they were dealing with the aftermath of a war fought with a sovereign nation and that the men who surrendered were entitled to treatment in accordance with that status.

At President Lincoln’s cabinet meeting on 14 October 1862, the ongoing Dakota trials were discussed. Lincoln and several cabinet members were disturbed by General Pope’s report on the trials and planned executions, and moved to prevent precipitous action. On 17 October, General Pope informed Sibley that “the President directs that no executions be made without his sanction.”

On November 8, after completing the harried trials of Dakota prisoners, Sibley presented the list of 303 condemned Dakota men to the U.S. government. Two days later, President Lincoln wired General Pope: “Please forward, as soon as possible, the full and complete record of these convictions” and “a careful statement” indicating “the more guilty and influential of the culprits.” On 15 November, Pope forwarded records of the trials to President Lincoln, together with a letter urging Lincoln to authorize execution of all of the condemned and warning of mob violence if the executions did not go forward.

Henry Whipple, the Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota, was one of the very few Minnesota whites opposed to the executions. In late November, he met with Lincoln in Washington and discussed the causes of the Dakota Conflict. The President remarked not long after: “He [Whipple] came here the other day and talked with me about the rascality of this Indian business until I felt it down to my boots. If we get through this [civil] war, and I live, this Indian system shall be reformed!” In December, Whipple even published his views in the St. Paul newspapers. So far as is known, he was the only public man who had the courage to face the whirlwind of popular denunciation of all Indians and of the Dakota in particular.

Lincoln knew well that the lust for Dakota blood could not be ignored; to prevent any executions from going forward might well have condemned all 303 to death at mob hands. Alexander Ramsey, the governor of Minnesota – who had made a fortune cheating the Dakota — threatened that if the President didn’t hang all the condemned, the citizens of his state would. On 9 September 1862, Ramsey was furious over the killing of roughly 600 settlers and soldiers when he had addressed the State Legislature and said: “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.

"The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state...."  -Gov. Alexander Ramsey, 1862

“The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state….” -Gov. Alexander Ramsey, 1862

Lincoln believed it important to try to sort out the more guilty from the less guilty. He asked two clerks to go through the commission’s trial records and identify those prisoners convicted of raping women or children. They found only two [cases 2 and 4]. Lincoln then asked his clerks to search the records a second time and add those convicted of participating in the massacres of settlers to the list. This time the clerks came up with the thirty-nine names included in Lincoln’s handwritten order of execution written on 6 December 1862. Because of the Commission’s haste and rather sketchy records, he was unable to determine degrees of guilt as well as he might have had the Commission allowed more time for trials and prepared more complete trial records.

Two Minnesota Republicans in Congress and friends of Lincoln’s – Sen. Morton Wilkinson of Mankato and Rep. William Windom of Winona – were upset about Lincoln commuting the 264 Dakota death sentences.  They were the first to push for removal of all Dakota from Minnesota.  Windom and Wilkinson sponsored bills to remove the two tribes from Minnesota. The measures passed Congress with little opposition in early 1863, with $50,000 attached to move 3,000 Dakota beyond any states, to unoccupied land “well adapted for agricultural purposes.”  The new law dissolved the reservations in Minnesota and canceled the treaties.

On 22 March 1866 President Andrew Johnson ordered the release of the 177 surviving prisoners. They were moved to the Santee Reservation near Niobrara, Nebraska.

DAKOTA 38 from Smooth Feather on Vimeo.

References:

December 3, 1861 (a Tuesday)

Today’s Republicans, the so-called party of Lincoln, in their anti-government zealotry — conscious of their patrician backers — have strayed far from the ideals of Lincoln, whom they would like to claim as one of their own.

Over 150 years ago, in his first State of the Union address on 3 December 1861, Republican President Abraham Lincoln warned of “the approach of returning despotism” which he described as “the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.” He then stated his clear belief in the supremacy of the people:

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

He next described the state of relations between labor and capital in the entire U.S. (not just the rebellious South) ending with this summary of what was then the American reality:

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all.

Then Lincoln wrapped it all up with this warning to hard-working Americans:

No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.

Clearly this surrender of political power is already largely in place.