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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On 38 Nooses and the invisible past

The Los Angeles Times this weekend carries my review of Scott W. Berg's fine new work, 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End, about the U.S. Army's legally sanctioned mass execution of men from the Dakota tribe in what is now Minnesota, and in the midst of the Civil War.

Readers of my books will recognize a certain sympathy for such overlooked moments of history. When I was telling my wife about Berg's book, she said it sounded like something I'd write. And it is -- this is a subject I would have loved to tackle. In fact, it overlaps slightly one of the chapters in my current project, Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero, which touches on the U.S. government's treatment of Native Americans in Alabama, Georgia and Florida some 40 years earlier (trust me, it all connects up).

The hanged men were participants in a flash war, an uprising, really, by the Dakota against racism and the white settlers encroaching on their land, and against the U.S. government failure to observe the treaties it had insisted on, including skipping a contractual payment. The uprising was quickly suppressed, and to the victors go the definition of what is a crime. From my review:
A hastily convened military tribunal lasting only six weeks found 303 warriors guilty of murder and sentenced them all to hang, based on sketchy evidence and a broad definition of culpability (warriors firing weapons in a military encounter were condemned as murderers with no evidence they hit a target, military or civilian), plus a firm belief by the whites that the region should be cleansed of its native inhabitants.

Because the sentences were from a military tribunal and not a civilian court, the president had to sign off on them. Lincoln appointed two men to review the verdicts and whittled the execution list to 39 warriors whom he believed had massacred whites. One was later reprieved, bringing the final list to 38.

And on the morning after Christmas 1862, in a public display of revenge, all 38 men were hanged in one single drop from a massive four-sided gallows erected in Mankato, about 85 miles southwest of St. Paul.

It was, Berg reports, the largest legally sanctioned execution in American history, a staggering event whose significance has been overshadowed by the Civil War even as it stands as a telling moment in America's westward expansion.Pick it up. You won't be disappointed.
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