Abraham Lincoln Order. That claim is largely accurate, but it’s also misleading; it omits to mention that although Abraham Lincoln did approve 39 death sentences, he also prevented the hangings of 264 other Native Americans by commuting their death sentences.
It also fails to make it clear that the executions were ordered by a military commission and sent to the president, who had the legal authority to approve or decline to approve any or all of the sentences.
The Dakota War of 1862 involved a violent uprising by Dakota Sioux tribal members in Minnesota in response to hunger and privation as well as treaty violations on the part of the United States federal government, which had a long history of displacing and exploiting Native American peoples since the birth of the American colonies.
The conflict began in August 1862, lasted for six weeks, and involved killings, atrocities, and hostage-takings on both sides. On 26 September 1862, the Dakota surrendered at what became known as Camp Release in Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, the U.S. forces then commenced military trials for hundreds of captured Dakota fighters.
In July 1862, the United States Congress had passed a law relating to court martials and military commissions which made it clear that death sentences emerging from such trials could not be carried out without the approval of the President of the United States.
On 9 November 1862, the list of the 303 condemned Dakota fighters was sent to Lincoln for his approval of their executions. Two days later, he requested a review of their cases and trials.
In December 1862, Lincoln announced his decision about the issue to the United States Senate, suggesting that the priority of executions should be directed at captives who had committed acts of rape.
However, the president discovered that only two of the 303 men had been convicted of rape, and so he widened the criteria for execution to those who had committed “massacres” (as opposed to just taking part in “battles”).
In the end, one of the 39 condemned men had his death sentence commuted, and the executions of the remaining 38 Dakota fighters took place on 26 December 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota.
It is accurate to say that Lincoln approved the executions of 39 Dakota fighters, and that despite their convictions for participating in war-time massacres, the condemned men were not afforded the conventional rights of due process (such as trial by jury) and did not have attorneys present to plead on their behalf. It is also true that Lincoln, as President of the United States, did have the legal authority to commute all 303 death sentences presented to him for his approval.
However, in the very act of approving 39 executions, Lincoln was at the same time ordering the commutation of 264 death sentences. Despite intense political and popular pressure, Lincoln spared the lives of many more Dakota fighters than he condemned, albeit not as many as he could have. The popular meme displayed above leaves out this very important context, and it therefore gives an incomplete and misleading account of Lincoln’s December 1862 decision.