Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"38 Nooses" by Scott W. Berg (2012)

Abraham Lincoln was one of the busiest Presidents this country has ever known. Not only did he preside over a fractured nation at war with itself, the result of which abolished slavery, he also was present at several battles during that war; most notably the Battle of Hampton Roads; which re-captured the city of Norfolk in 1862. His Gettysburg Address still stands as one of the greatest speeches ever made by any leader in history. These are some of his key accomplishments, for which he is rightfully remembered. But in the area of Indian Affairs he remains very much overlooked.

Author Scott W. Berg has changed that with this highly charged account of one the lesser known accomplishments of the Lincoln Administration; his handling of the war along the Minnesota border in August of 1862, as the Dakota Indian nation battled with settlers and federal troops over the non-payment of gold which had been promised them in payment for giving up tribal lands east of the Mississippi River. When those payments stopped, largely due to the war back east; and the Indians were issued paper money in lieu of that gold; a spark was lit which ignited the powder keg that had long been festering.

Already bogged down with the Civil War; and a recalcitrant General McClellan, who seemed unwilling to press the military advantages as directed by the President; the last thing which Lincoln needed was an Indian uprising in the West. That uprising, when it occurred in August of 1862, took on every nuance of the greatest dramas ever written.
Led by Little Crow, the Dakota were a group of tribes which existed first on the east side of the Mississippi, until they were herded to the western side for “re-settlement”, an politically correct term for stealing land. Through many broken treaties and promises they waited patiently for the “great white father” in Washington to bring them justice. When that justice did not appear, the Dakota began to strike back, and the results would be anything but pretty.

Little Crow himself is worthy of an entire book on his own. A contradiction in all manners; including his manner of dress; he seemed to straddle both the white world as well as the world of his ancestors and tribesman. But no man can stand with two legs apart and not take sides for long, and that is exactly the fate which befell Little Crow.
From the opening chapters of this book, which take place in Minnesota and Washington, D.C., and on through the Dakotas flight toward Canada; where they hoped to gain the recognition of the British Government, the book reads like the finest western ever written.

Relying upon the rift between the North and South as they engaged in their “civil” war, Little Crow and the Dakota never really had a chance. In one of the most poignant moments of the book, when Little Crow is confronted by his fellow tribesmen, who are eager to go to war with the “whiteman”, Little Crow delivers one of the finest speeches ever made as he warns them of the path they are about to embark upon. He tries to tell them that a war would mean a complete loss of their way of life, and after blackening his face in mourning he retires to his teepee. When he is called a coward by his one of his own braves, he re-emerges from the teepee, reluctantly agreeing to lead them to war, while still arguing against the wisdom of his braves.
And so begins a 6 week odyssey of Indian raids, US Cavalry reprisals, hostage taking, and even a bit of international intrigue as Little Crow attempts to find a new home for his tribe. When all of those plans fail; as he predicted they would; he is forced to surrender. Almost 300 of the Indians were charged with various crimes and all set to hang for them when the President; still busy with his prosecution of the war, and General McClellan; stepped in, pardoning 265 of the condemned men. That still left 38 Dakota to hang, and hung they were, in the largest single government execution ever held.

A fascinating book, which leaves no stone unturned, the author has carefully examined every resource available in order to present the story as accurately as possible. The result is history come to life as you follow the Dakota tribe from their first dealings with the white settlers in the late 18th century, until the last of their battles with the cavalry and the executions of the 38 braves who were not pardoned.
There is a brief section at the end of the book in which the author follows up on the fate of some of the principal characters in this sweeping, and true, drama. And, winding up the book is a very thorough, chapter by chapter listing of the sources which the author referenced in order to write the history of one of the lesser known tragedies that spelled the end of the Dakotas, and their way of life.

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