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.