MANKATO — The Dakota-U.S. War of 1862 holds a number of grim firsts.
It concluded with the largest mass execution in U.S. history when 38 Dakota were hanged in Mankato.
Other than the 9/11 terrorist attack, the war likely accounted for the intentional killing of more noncombatants than any other on U.S. soil. Estimates are that 300 to 400 settlers were killed away from fields of battle, including women and children. (While as many as 50,000 civilians died in the Civil War, the deaths were tied to battles and disease, rather than civilians intentionally being targeted.)
And it may have been the only time in history that the U.S. military threatened to turn its cannons on its own citizens.
That last event, says historian Walt Bachman, occurred as soldiers were protecting 303 condemned Dakota prisoners from lynching attempts by area residents and officials.
“There was a surreptitious lynch mob mentality that went on after the trials but before the hanging. People were afraid Lincoln would release some or all of the prisoners,” said Bachman, who practiced law in Minnesota before moving to New York, where he writes books and articles about Minnesota history.
He wrote about the lynching attempt for the book “Trail of Tears, Minnesota’s Dakota Indian Exile Begins” (Prairie Echoes, 2008).
Cloak and dagger
The Dakota prisoners, who had been tried and sentenced at military trials at the Lower Sioux Agency near Morton in October, were marched to Camp Lincoln in early November.
The camp was long thought to be located at what is now South Bend, but historian William Lass recently determined the camp was actually in Sibley Park, which was some distance out of town.
Col. Stephen Miller was commanding the camp, as Gen. Henry Sibley had left Mankato and returned to St. Paul.
Another colonel stationed in Mankato lamented the fact the prisoners hadn’t been taken to Fort Snelling or somewhere else than Mankato, noting the military had insufficient forces of 102 to put down an organized mob attack by what could be 1,000 men or more.
Meanwhile, the prisoners were suffering in terrible cold and snow, burning their bedding straw and boards from the prison walls to stay warm. The soldiers, too, complained of being without stoves and having too few blankets in their cold tents.
Col. Miller had scouts or spies in New Ulm, Mankato and St. Peter feeding him increasingly dire warnings of an organized attack on the prisoners.
The planned lynching was apparently known about and even encouraged by local civilian leaders, particularly in New Ulm — the town that had suffered the greatest losses in sieges by the Dakota. State militia leader Maj. Frederick Brandt was accused of helping instigate the plan from New Ulm and was later stripped of his office.
Reports continued to come in the Miller that large groups of men from New Ulm and St. Peter had arrived in Mankato and were “filling up with beer to gain courage.”
With four hours to go before the planned 11 p.m. Dec. 4, lynching attempt, Col. Miller sent for reinforcements from St. Peter and the Winnebago Agency south of Mankato. Riders reportedly made the 26-mile round trip to St. Peter in less than two hours, with three horses dying from exertion.
Miller had built his forces from 196 to 500.
A group of about 200 men left Mankato to lynch the prisoners. A larger group from New Ulm turned back before arriving at Camp Lincoln, perhaps tipped off that the military was on to them.
But Miller’s men were not eager to confront civilians to protect the condemned Dakota.
According to Bachman’s research, gleaned from dozens of letters and journals now held at the National Archives, Miller told his men: “He would shoot the first man that refused to shoot (any) citizen that dared to attack us.”
Miller’s forces concealed themselves in ravines and confronted the mob on the sub-zero night. Another group of the calvary emerged to the rear of the mob and the mob’s courage quickly left.
Miller arrested several of the ringleaders and ordered the rest to return home.
Mob danger not over
Miller’s troops moved the Dakota prisoners to a large prison that had been prepared in Mankato, leaving the Dakota and soldiers with better conditions.
But the threat of a second lynching scheme was soon passed on to Miller by a German-speaking soldier who said New Ulm residents, led by Brandt, were planning an attack.
The suspicious New Ulm residents posted guards in town to prevent dispatches from being sent out that might give Miller more information. Miller in return paid for more German-speaking spies to gain information.
And Miller, said Bachman, made it known to local officials and residents that he would turn his cannons and weapons on any civilians who attempted to break into the prison. Passion for a lynching died.
Bachman said everyone in the river valley “knew that Miller planned to protect the Indians’ lives or die trying. ... If tested by insurrection, (he) was willing to fire his cannons into downtown Mankato, shoot Major Brandt on the spot, kill his own men if they refused to obey his orders, and open fire on any attackers.
“His courageous words and actions offered the strongest — and most tangible — defense against mob rule.”