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.”