MANKATO — In late November 1862, about 300 Dakota men condemned to death huddled against brutal cold and snow in a makeshift prison in Sibley Park.
They burned their straw bedding and boards from the walls, awaiting word from their Great Father in Washington — President Lincoln — on whether their lives would be spared.
The soldiers at Camp Lincoln were in tents lacking stoves or adequate blankets, guarding not only their prisoners but hearing disquieting reports that area residents and even militia officers were planning a mob lynching.
The prisoners had arrived in the camp after a month of speedy trials held on the western prairies.
On Sept. 28, 1862, just two days after the Dakota surrendered, Col. Sibley appointed a five-member military commission to “try summarily” Dakota and mixed-bloods for “murder and other outrages” committed against Americans.
The trials to follow were increasingly speedy, according to John Isch, a New Ulm historian who recently released the book “The Dakota Trials,” in which Isch transcribed and reprinted every trial transcript.
“What struck me was the variation in the trials themselves. The first trial transcripts went for seven or eight pages, the defendant testified, there were witnesses who testified,” Isch said.
As the trials progressed, they became much shorter. That’s because the military commission would convict any Dakota who admitted he was involved in a battle.
“The transcripts just said, the defendant said he was at New Ulm and he shot a gun. That was all that was needed,” Isch said.
While the trials would never hold up by today’s standards, Isch said he was surprised they were even held.
“As I looked back over the settlers from Europe and how they treated the Native Americans, the history had been that if you come upon Indians who did something wrong you slaughtered them,” Isch said. “What surprised me is that they held trials at all. Sibley did set up a trial, however ill-functioning, and said we’re going to try them and take them to Mankato and see what Lincoln decides.”
The trials took place first at Camp Release near modern-day Montevideo but were moved to the Lower Sioux Agency in one of the few buildings left standing after the war — trader François LaBathe’s summer kitchen cabin.
Sixteen trials were conducted the first day, convicting and sentencing to death 10 prisoners and acquitting another six. During the six weeks that followed, the military court would try 393 cases, convicting 323 and sentencing 303 to death by hanging.
Somewhat more time was spent on the cases 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. Where prosecution witnesses contradicted the testimony of the defendant, the commission almost invariably found the prisoner to be guilty.
Following the trials, soldiers moved the prisoners to the temporary Camp Lincoln at Sibley Park in Mankato. Concerned about vigilante justice by angry settlers, the soldiers planned to swing wide of New Ulm on their way to Mankato.
Unbeknownst to the soldiers and their prisoners, the route they chose went near the New Ulm Cemetery located outside of town. As fate would have it, a large group of settlers was at the cemetery on Nov. 9, burying settlers who had had been killed in the region and had been buried in temporary graves or not at all.
When settlers saw the procession in the distance, they rushed to the scene attacking the prisoners with stones, bricks and sticks.
The final decision on whether to go ahead with the planned mass execution of the 303 Dakota and mixed-bloods rested with President Lincoln.
One of the few who didn’t favor a speedy execution was Henry Whipple, the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota. Whipple traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln and discuss the causes of the war.
While moved by Whipple’s accounts, Lincoln knew that halting the executions could lead to mob justice. He also was pressured to have the prairie uprising behind him as it was diverting military resources from the Civil War.
Lincoln assigned 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. Lincoln then asked his clerks to search the records a second time and identify those convicted of participating in the massacres of settlers. This time the clerks came up with the 39 names included in Lincoln’s handwritten order of execution written on Dec. 6.
In the end, 38 of them would be hanged in Mankato the day after Christmas in 1862. One prisoner was given a last-minute reprieve.
Isch not only went through all trial transcripts but followed the fates of those involved as much as he could. He traveled to the Dakotas where many of the prisoners eventually went to reservations.
“They certainly didn’t have a good time of it, but they survived and were united with family and had kids and many of their descendants still live in Flandrau and Santee,” Isch said. “History is always with us.”
He also followed the later lives of the men on the military commission, including one who went on to become governor of the state.
“It was interesting to me that none of them ever reflected on being on the commission. Even though they were involved in this momentous thing — they had tried 393 men,” Isch said. “They were soldiers. They did their jobs and went home and moved on with their lives.”