38 Sioux Executed, the Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History, While the Civil War Rages
December 26, 1862. Perhaps this powerful and important story is not better known because the incident is referred to by many names: the Dakota War of 1862, the Sioux Uprising, the Dakota Uprising, the Sioux Outbreak of 1862, the Dakota Conflict, the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, and Little Crow’s War.
In the summer of 1862 the Sioux people of south-central Minnesota reached the breaking point. They were surrounded by growing numbers of white settlers who didn’t want them anywhere nearby, restricted to a small piece of land, deprived of their traditional hunting privileges, and therefore, reliant on food and supplies provided by white traders. The traders refused to sell the Sioux goods on credit, insisting that the federal Indian agents pay the annuity due the Indians to them, rather than to the Indians themselves.
From mid-August to mid-September, while the Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Antietam were being fought in the East, the Sioux staged a six-week-long uprising, attacking both civilian settlers and soldiers and killing several hundred. Thousands of homesteaders abandoned their properties and fled.
By the end of September, the U.S. Army had put down the insurrection and taken more than 1,000 Sioux prisoner. A hasty and procedurally sloppy military tribunal sentenced 303 of them to be hanged. The military authorities were surprised when President Lincoln asked two lawyers to review the records of the trials and determine which of the condemned men had been the leaders of the uprising. Thirty-eight were identified, and on the day after Christmas, they were executed. It remains the largest mass execution in American history; had it not been for Lincoln’s intervention, it would have been eight and a half times larger.
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director