Better Angels Of Our Nature: Lincoln Pardons 264

By Ryan Hilligoss

Abraham Lincoln in lifelike color

“Common looking people are the best in the world. That is the reason the lord makes so many of them.” A.Lincoln

This past week marked the 205th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, born on Knob Creek Farm near Hardin County(present day Larue County), Kentucky to parents Thomas and Nancy. The occasion reminded me of one of the biggest shocks of my life which came as I stood in a souvenir shop in Gettysburg, Pa where we had made a trip to see the battlefield and historic sites. The store owner who stood behind the dusty counter in period dress was talking to a customer and stated, “It’s too bad Lincoln wasn’t killed sooner in the war.” I’m sorry, I thought, what was that?? A thousand thoughts ran through my mind including, “It’s too bad someone else doesn’t get shot right now!!!Anyone have any theater tickets we can lend to this lady?” Having grown up in Illinois, The Land of Lincoln, as our license plates proclaim, Lincoln is part of our natural DNA through history, geography and osmosis. (As part of the process to obtain a driver’s license in Illinois, you also have to pass an additional quiz on Abraham Lincoln. If you don’t know Abe, you ain’t driving.)

Every 5th grade class in the state makes a yearly field trip to see all sights Lincoln including New Salem where he owned a store, ran the post office and made his first adult friends and began his political career. Springfield holds the home he lived in before moving to Washington, his old law office, the Lincoln Presidential Museum, and the Lincoln tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery (a necessary part of touring Lincoln’s tomb is rubbing Abe’s nose on the bronze bust which stands near the entryway and has been worn to a shiny finish after being pawed by generations of tiny hands). Right or wrong, to many, Lincoln is seen as a demigod that descended to the earth from on high during dark times long ago, and his black and white visage is burned into our minds from an early age. Along with his craggy face, we also have absorbed the standard narrative of slavery, the Civil War, the South and his martyrdom. Not much room in there for wishing he had been killed sooner. Being born so long ago and being dead now for almost 150 years, it is easy for some to think of Lincoln standing on a pedestal, or sitting encased in marble as a national saint or deity, watching over a nation from his seat at Delphi. But, he needs to be remembered and though of as a mortal, someone who arose from abject poverty from the woods of Kentucky and Illinois to lead the nation through some of its darkest hours. He was an earthly man with a family who felt heartbreak with the deaths of two young sons, suffered from clinical depression and worried and paced the floor of the War Department, waiting for the news that would bring an end to the rebellion and the bloodshed. He also had a direct impact on saving the lives of 268 Dakota natives in Minnesota, saving them from the hanging gallows. But first a little background info on The Rail Splitter.


“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” A.Lincoln

Little known facts about A.Lincoln:

– Lincoln is related to actor Tom Hanks through his mother Nancy Hanks.

– Only U.S. President to hold a patent. On May 22, 1849, Abraham Lincoln received Patent No. 6469 for a device to lift boats over shoals, an invention which was never manufactured.

– A king of self-deprecation. Lincoln was always making fun of himself, his physical appearance and his background. In 1856, the newly founded Republican Party nominated Lincoln as vice presidential candidate alongside John Fremont as President. Lincoln received 110 votes at the national convention which dropped him from the race. He was secretly pleased with this as he had his eye on an 1860 Presidential run and joked to his friends, “There is a great man named Lincoln in Massachusetts, and he must be the one for whom the votes were cast.”

– Almost dead at the age of ten. A typical chore for the youthful Abraham Lincoln was to take corn over to Gordon’s gristmill about two miles from the Lincolns’ cabin near Little Pigeon Creek in southern Indiana. When he arrived one day in 1818 there were others waiting in front of him. Watching the horses slowly go round and round, young Lincoln commented that “his dog could eat the meal as fast as the mill could grind it.” Eventually it was Abraham’s turn, and he hitched his old mare to the gristmill’s arm. To keep the horse moving, he hit it with a whiplash, clucked in the normal manner, and shouted, “Git up, you old hussy; git up, you old hussy.” Just as he yelled the words “Git up” again, the horse kicked backwards with a hind foot hitting the boy in the head. Lincoln was knocked down and out. Noah Gordon ran to his aid and picked up the bleeding, unconscious lad. Dave Turnham, who had come to the mill with Abraham, ran to get Abraham’s father. Thomas Lincoln hauled his injured son home in a wagon and put him to bed. He lay unconscious all night.

Apparently some (including Noah Gordon) thought he was dead or near death. Neighbors flocked to the Lincolns’ cabin. The next morning one onlooker cried, “He’s coming straight back from the dead!” Abraham jerked all over. Suddenly he blurted out the words “You old hussy,” thus finishing what he was about to say before the horse knocked him out. In discussing the affair, Lincoln himself used the words “apparantly (sic) killed for a time.”

– Lincoln only had one year of formal education from several itinerant teachers in rough county school houses. He was mostly self-educated and was an avid reader and often sought access to any new books in the village. He read and reread the King James Bible, Aesop‘s Fables, Bunyan‘s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe, and Franklin‘s Autobiography

– In 1828, Abraham helped a local Indiana store owner James Gentry sail his goods on a flatboat down to New Orleans for trade. While the boat was tied up at a plantation near Baton Rogue, their raft was attacked at night by a group of seven slaves armed with knives and clubs. Lincoln and Gentry drove the slaves away with clubs.

– Abraham helped his father clear land and build cabins in four different locations in Kentucky, Indiana, near Decatur, Illinois and lastly, south of Charleston, Illinois.

"I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father's child has." A.Lincoln

“I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has.” A.Lincoln

Overcoming Adversity: “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.” Lincoln

– Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine from milk sickness and his sister Sarah took over his care. Father Thomas Lincoln left Abraham and Sarah alone in the wilderness of Indiana while he traveled to Kentucky to court and marry a new wife, Sarah Johnston Lincoln. After being left to fend for themselves during a harsh winter with little food and shelter, Thomas returned the next spring to find the two children babbling and near starvation. This is but one example of Thomas’s rough treatment of his son which led later in life to Abraham not visiting his father as an adult, especially during the last two years of his father’s life which was spent suffering from heart ailments. Abraham did not attend his father’s funeral nor did he raise a stone on his grave.

– Throughout his life, Lincoln suffered from what his doctors referred to as “The Hypo” which was a crushing, clinical depression.

– His early romantic flame Anne Rutledge died leaving him suicidal for a time, to the point where his friends took away all sharp objects and would not leave him alone for any length of time.

– Fell into bankruptcy after his general store in New Salem fell on hard times. One of his New Salem friends described him as “rough a specimen of humanity as could be found.”

– Lost several local, state and federal elections including the 1858 US Senate election to Stephen Douglas which generated the famous Lincoln Douglas debates and led to his presidential candidacy in 1860.

– He and wife Mary Todd had four sons, two of whom died during Abraham’s life. According to Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon, Lincoln often times brought young Tad and Willie to the law office where the boys would run amok to the amusement of their father. In his biography of Lincoln, Herndon writes, “The boys would tear up the office, scatter the books, smash up pens, spill the ink and piss all over the floor. I have felt many, many times that I wanted to wring their little necks. Had they shit in Lincoln’s hat and rubbed it on his boots, he would have laughed and thought it smart.” Eddie died at the age of four from tuberculosis while the couple still lived in Springfield, Il. William “Willie” died at the age of twelve in 1862 from typhoid fever.Tad died in 1871 at the age of eighteen from heart failure. Robert Todd was the only son to survive to adulthood and the last remaining direct descendant of Abraham died in 1985.

– General George McClellan was the first general of the Potomac appointed by Lincoln during the Civil War. McMclellan abhorred Lincoln as a prairie hick with no class or intellectual abilities and described Lincoln as “a rare bird”, “a giraffe” and “…not a man of strong character and he was destitute of refinement-certainly in no sense a gentleman-he was easily wrought upon by the coarse associates whose style of conversation agreed so well with his own.” (Old George sounds like a world-class ahole doesn’t he?)

The US-Dakota Wars

European immigration to North America, starting with Plymouth and Jamestown had been pushing Natives off their lands in a continual westward direction for hundreds of years via treaties, which were routinely violated,broken or amended, war from various state, local and national governments and local settlers and militia, germ warfare such as passing out blankets purposefully contaminated with small pox virus, general aggression, and sheer brutality. As a man of his time, Lincoln’s thoughts on the native population was no better than many at the time. Some of his thoughts may have been impacted by the fact that his paternal grandfather had been killed and mutilated by natives as his father Thomas watched. During Lincoln’s presidency, regarding the constant troubles and skirmishes with Natives on the Western front, Lincoln wrote of “extinguishing the possessory rights of the Indians to large and valuable tracts of land” and for pushing them onto reservations on less valuable ground. Minnesota had been admitted into the Union in 1858 as our 32nd state. The area had long been the home of the Dakota Natives whose homes and hunting grounds had stretched from the Mississippi westward through present day Minnesota, North and South Dakota and parts of Montana.

As the War of Rebellion raged in the east, in the northwestern territories, events that had been occurring for hundreds of years came to a boil in September 1862 when a small group of Dakota men, angered by further white encroachment, killed 5 European settlers near Acton, Mn. Out of a population of 8,000 Dakotas, a few hundred had fought a series of battles against townspeople and soldiers, and a much smaller group of strident Dakotas had committed deadly attacks on white settlements. In a brief span of three months, fatalities included 40 Dakota, more than 100 US soldiers, and more than 600 settlers, many of whom were women and children whose bodies were sometimes impaled or dismembered. On September 26, 1862, a militia headed by former Minnesota territorial governor Henry Sibling rode into the Dakota refugee along the banks of the Minnesota River camp to quell the uprising and to arrest those deemed responsible for the dead European settlers. According to Scott Berg in his article, “Lincoln’s Choice”, which appears in the Winter 2014 edition of Military History Quarterly, “While decision makers in Saint Paul absorbed the anger of an entire populace and pondered the economic prospects of a state soon to be emptied of Dakota Indians, the war’s toll sat heavily on Sibley’s shoulders as he rode into camp the camp of white survivors and Dakota refugees. Foremost among the many decisions he would make that today, was to determine what, in this situation, would constitute the proper dispensation of justice. Those decisions rendered during some of the most crucial moments of the Civil War for the Union,would eventually bring the personal involvement of Abraham Lincoln and result in the largest mass execution in American history. Sibley’s decisions shaped a moment in history of American war, law, and race relations that has generated unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions for 150 years.”

On that day in September 1862, Sibley and his forces arrested over 400 Dakota men and took them back as suspects to stand trial. Sibley setup a military commission, the first ever to try Indian combatants en masse, made up of himself and five of his officers. Court martial proceedings began with standard protocols in place including arraignments, specification of charges, and pleas. However, within a short time, Sibley’s commanding General John Pope, he who lost a battle to Robert E Lee at the second battle of Bull Run in Virginia, was pushing for quicker trials and a speedier resolution. By the end, as many as 40 trials were completed in a single day and evidentiary standards were thrown aside to the point where a 5-year-old boy saying he had seen a particular Dakota warrior in a certain place was admissible. Eventually, 303 Dakota were convicted of crimes including murder, rape, inciting others to violence and firing a gun on a battlefield. The entire process reads as a clear travesty of justice and an expedient way to clear “troublesome pests” from the prairie to better allow for “modern development”.

For many of the European settlers of Minnesota and it’s state legislators, 303 was not enough and the populace and newspapers began to use the term extermination as a general way to dispose of the Dakota. In Washington, Lincoln and his cabinet kept a close eye on the proceedings and pored over the transcripts and wire reports. After one hysterical message from General Pope to Secretary of War Stanton which was read at a cabinet meeting, all agreed that this was the message “was not the production of a good man or a great one.” Stanton quickly messaged Pope that all capital sentences were required for executive review. Lincoln and his team of advisors and cabinet members began to review the transcripts in detail while in Minnesota, the Dakota suspects were moved to an enclosure near Mankato. Lincoln himself began reviewing each case individually, bent on withholding legal principles of justice, learned from his years riding the legal circuit back in Illinois, remembering his words from his first inaugural speech when he spoke of the “better angels of our nature.”

On December 5th, 1862, Lincoln issued his official decision to commissioner Sibley as an executive order in which he wrote, “Ordered that of the Indians and half-breeds sentenced to be hanged by the Military Commission, lately sitting in Minnesota, you cause to be executed on Friday the 19th of December, the following named to wit….” Lincoln then transcribed the names of the 39 to be hanged taking pains to spell their Dakota names properly based on the trial transcripts, each placed within quotation marks and followed by a trial number. Lincoln further instructed Sibley on how to handle the pardoned suspects, “The other condemned prisoners you will hold subject to further orders, taking care that they neither escape, nor are subjected to any unlawful violence.” Lincoln had made his judgement, called his secretary John Hay into his office to copy the message and send the order to Sibley via special messenger.

Lincoln had decided that of the 303 Dakota charged with crimes, 264 had failed to be found guilty based on reasonable standards of evidence and procedure. According to Berg, over 1,600 court-martial convictions were sent to Lincoln for executive review during the civil war and Lincoln exasperated his advisors and generals by “applying his signature mix of compassion, logic and legal acumen.” Lincoln himself wrote, “If a man had more than one life, I think a little hanging might not hurt, but after he is once dead we cannot bring him back, no matter how sorry we may be.” The execution of the 38 condemned Dakota was carried out on December 26, 1862 by the US Army. Meanwhile, the roughly 2,000 Dakota refugees of the Dakota-US War, many of whom had no involvement in the clashes, were placed on boats and trains and sent to a barren reservation near Crow Creek, South Dakota. Many died along the way or shortly afterwards and this step was just one in a series of measures that sent native people all over the western states and territories, extending all the to the Pacific and Canada.

On March 5, 1865, Lincoln gave his second Inaugural Address on the steps of the recently completed Capitol(of historical note is in an image captured during the speech, you can clearly see John Wilkes Booth and other conspirators listening intently). In his message to the nation presented as the war wound down, Lincoln spoke of praying fervently to allow the war to come to a speedy end so they could start binding the nation’s wounds. His concluding paragraph was one of tremendous wisdom and power, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” If we as a nation could have operated with this in mind towards the native population over the last 250 years there might have been a small amount of compassion and dignity and justice provided for them. Going forward, if our government, society and we as individuals could find a way to demand and offer a better way to our native breathren, we might find some peace for all through the “better angels of our nature.”

Author Scott Berg whose article was mentioned above has written a new account of the period of history entitled 38 Nooses and can be located at amazon by clicking on this link.

"Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored." A. Lincoln.

“Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.” A. Lincoln.

Coda: Happy birthday Mr.President!!

My Childhood Home I See Again, written by Abraham Lincoln

My childhood home I see again, 
    And sadden with the view; 
And still, as memory crowds my brain, 
    There's pleasure in it too.

O Memory! thou midway world 
    'Twixt earth and paradise, 
Where things decayed and loved ones lost 
    In dreamy shadows rise,

And, freed from all that's earthly vile, 
    Seem hallowed, pure, and bright, 
Like scenes in some enchanted isle 
    All bathed in liquid light.

As dusky mountains please the eye 
    When twilight chases day; 
As bugle-notes that, passing by, 
    In distance die away;

As leaving some grand waterfall, 
    We, lingering, list its roar— 
So memory will hallow all 
    We've known, but know no more.

Near twenty years have passed away 
    Since here I bid farewell 
To woods and fields, and scenes of play, 
    And playmates loved so well.

Where many were, but few remain 
    Of old familiar things; 
But seeing them, to mind again 
    The lost and absent brings.

The friends I left that parting day, 
    How changed, as time has sped! 
Young childhood grown, strong manhood gray, 
    And half of all are dead.

I hear the loved survivors tell 
    How nought from death could save, 
Till every sound appears a knell, 
    And every spot a grave.

I range the fields with pensive tread, 
    And pace the hollow rooms, 
And feel (companion of the dead) 
    I'm living in the tombs.

1 thought on “Better Angels Of Our Nature: Lincoln Pardons 264

  1. “If a man had more than one life, a little hanging might do some good, but—————.”
    “I cannot afford to hang men for votes.” A. Lincoln
    The body of Stands on Clouds was given to Dr. William Mayo, the skeleton was used to teach Osteology. Abe Lincoln was driven to do what he thought was right.

What's the 411?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s