This book review was actually posted by me in December of 2012. For some reason, it is the subject of multiple spam comment attacks on a daily basis. So I am re-posting it now and deleting the former.

150 Years Ago Today (12/26/1862): The Largest Mass Execution in American History

Some of my colleagues who compose Civil War blogs will occasionally include book reviews. This is a worthy task – one that I need to begin to incorporate here with Enfilading Lines. So this is a first review (actually my first in over 40 years – since in high school, I had a combined History/English honors class that made us do this over and over, and I hated it … but, I have at long last recovered!).

At first glance, 38 Nooses by Scott Berg may appear a strange book to highlight in a Civil War blog, but it is not that odd whatsoever. The setting is 1862, the Lincoln Administration policy in the midst of the War is a major theme, and our 2nd Bull Run friend General John Pope is a major character.

1berg1202There is a tendency to imagine Abraham Lincoln investing his time 24/7 dealing with Civil War demands. Though certainly no president likely had to concentrate so specifically upon one consuming event as did Lincoln, there were other issues around the country drawing some measure of attention. Among these was the Dakota War that broke out in Minnesota in the late summer of 1862.

When reading about the complexities of issues both causing the eruption of hostilities and the subsequent responses on all sides, it is difficult to find a truly innocent party anywhere. Stating the relationships of whites and natives in the terms of a Facebook status would be like saying, “it’s complicated.”  The clash of cultures from westward expansion fueled by Manifest Destiny insured that the destiny that became manifest for the native population was their certain and gradual elimination.

A series of treaties engulfing Indian lands involved government annuity payments – introducing a system upon which the tribes became dependent for their existence. Like so many programs of government then and now, the system was inefficient and involved a series of mediating agents who took cuts all along the way. Rumors spoke of a late 1862 payment possibly not going to be met, speculating that the Civil War in the east and south were draining all resources.

In the white settlement of Acton, a group of four Indians – foolishly liquored up and hungry from an unsuccessful hunt – through a series of circumstances killed five whites. It was a spark that ignited the accumulated fuel of desperate Indian frustrations resulting in additional depredations and killings along the frontier settlements, igniting also a white panic – replete with ethno-cultural condescension, prejudices, exaggerations, and opportunism.

For the Dakota leader Little Crow, it was a fork in the road. He had been even to Washington, seen the industrial world that other Indians could never even imagine, met with President Buchanan, and signed the last treaty in 1858. Though he understood the near impossible odds of fighting white expansion, his sense of justice pushed him to the reluctant decision that a time had come for a unified Indian front to draw a line against further encroachments. To this end, his efforts and leadership would prove unsuccessful; yet the vision would find fulfillment with the coming together of other tribes further west in another decade – there being the story of Custer and Little Big Horn in 1876.

The Dakota War of 1862 did not involve much in the way of actual battles or sizeable conflicts. Ultimately, one group of Indians would surrender to U.S. authorities, while another band under Little Crow would escape to the west.

Being sent west to deal with these problems was General John Pope, the arrogant and bombastic failure for the Union Army at the Second Battle of Bull Run.  The newly created Department of the Northwest presented a perfect opportunity to send this brash fellow away from the army, and away from the press in the east. Pope saw this for what it was – a demotion. Angry and bitter that he had been so disrespected and unsupported by McClellan and the Administration in Washington, Pope followed orders that soon landed him in the relatively new state of Minnesota.

Travelling with Pope was his mouth. Not learning terribly much from his Army of Virginia verbiage that had even earned him the title of a “miscreant” by Robert E. Lee, Pope was returning to geography he had visited some 12 years earlier. As a surveyor in the Corps of Topographical Engineers exploring the Territory of Minnesota, he was struck by the natural beauty and abundant resources of this vast region. As much as he was awestruck by the natural landscape, his view of the indigenous people was much the opposite. He wrote, “I can only attribute to ignorance of its great value the apathy and indifference manifested by the government in failing as yet to extinguish the title of the Indian, and to throw open to the industry of the American people a country so well adapted to their genius and their enterprise.” Pope’s view had not moderated over the recent dozen years, therefore as trials of the captured Indians commenced, he was much in favor of the soon execution of the 303 found guilty.

Since death sentences from a court-martial could only proceed with executive authentication, the fate of the condemned Dakotas was in the hands of President Lincoln. Though justice demanded some measure of severity in punishment, Lincoln’s sense was more than accurate that the number of 303 was very expansive. He would subsequently say that he was “anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on the one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other.”

In the end, through a set of criteria established by Lincoln and an Administration team, 38 would be condemned for execution – an event happening by simultaneous hanging on a gallows on this date of December 26 – 150 years ago.

That is but the most basic outline of this compelling story brought to life by Scott Berg. The account is narrated alternatively through the eyes and perspectives of a handful of interesting characters – including (along with Lincoln, Pope, and Little Crow) a white woman hostage named Sarah Wakefield, and the first Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota – Henry Whipple.

Telling a story is what Berg does best; his style is easy and flowing – filled with color, emotion, and analysis. As a professor of nonfiction writing and literature at George Mason University, Berg has a special academic interest in narrative history. He says of this genre, “it rests on an often-contested belief that not only do we use story to organize and make sense of our own lives, we also use story to make sense of our past.”

It is at this point that I board the train with Berg, as narrative history has become my primary interest in recent years. Narrative history brought me back to books and scholarship, having been previously burnt-out by such at the end of my doctoral studies. Fiction is great, and I don’t condemn any who enjoy it. But I am of the opinion that there are so many nonfiction topics and writings about which I know nothing, that I have no time for the created story. But neither do I want to be continuously lost in geeky tomes of facts, dates, and events of a dry history. It has been narrative history that has rescued me from literary oblivion. And were I to contribute in any way by my writing, I would desire it to be within this genre.

Beyond history and the writing thereof, the use of “story” and its interpretation is what the major component of my life is about. As a pastor who speaks weekly on the themes of Scripture, I am essentially dealing with the idea of story – relating the story of stories, the meta-story from which all others are derived, and from which we make sense of our lives and even our future.

I’d better end or I will soon segue into another book review – on the Bible … and I have a different blog for that!

Read 38 Nooses! Spend some of your Amazon gift card Christmas present money on it. You’ll enjoy it.


About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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