Lincoln’s Bishop, A President, a Priest, and the fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors
By Gustav Niebuhr. (Harper, 212 pages, $26.99.)
In the latest book on the U.S.-Dakota War, Gustav Niebuhr takes us back to an extraordinary and pivotal meeting in September 1862 with Henry Benjamin Whipple, Minnesota’s first Episcopal bishop. Lincoln’s 12-year-old son, Willie, had died of typhoid fever that year. The Civil War wasn’t going well and the president was busy crafting his Emancipation Proclamation.
Back in Minnesota, more than 600 white immigrant settlers had been killed and more than a dozen counties emptied out after starving Dakota Indians staged surprise attacks in hopes of winning back land snatched through a series of shady treaties.
While Gov. Alexander Ramsey was telling the Legislature that September that the Dakota “must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state,” Whipple gave Lincoln quite a different message. He explained how a crooked federal Indian policy was to blame for the war.
“The bishop managed to set the war within the context of federal government corruption and ineptitude,” Niebuhr writes. “He created for Lincoln a lens through which to view the war.”
In the process, Niebuhr makes Whipple a handy lens for readers to understand the complex and bloody five-week clash that would define a four-year-old state. And when Lincoln reduced from 303 to 38 the number of Dakota hanged in Mankato the day after Christmas 1862, Niebuhr makes a compelling case for Whipple’s role in saving 265 Dakota men from the gallows.