Q&A: What happened on December 26, 1862?

Q&A: What happened on December 26, 1862?

“Everything went off quietly, and the other prisoners are well secured.”  Henry H. Sibley to President Abraham Lincoln, Dec. 27, 1862

Following the Dakota trials, 303 Dakota men were sentenced to be executed by hanging.  However, President Lincoln approved just thirty-nine sentences, arguing that he did “not want to act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other.”  Lincoln therefore condemned only those who had been found guilty of participating in the massacre of civilians rather than just battles.  Shortly before the hangings, one more was pardoned, bringing the number to 38.

Hanging of the Dakota 38, in Mankato, Minnesota, December 26, 1862, MNHS Collections

The executions took place in Mankato, Minnesota, at 10 a.m. on December 26, 1862, in what remains the largest mass execution in United States History.  About 4,000 spectators overflowed the streets to witness the executions.  In addition, there were 1,500 soldiers who, under martial law, had been instructed to maintain order.  The 38 men were tied together with a white muslin cap covering their heads.  The gallows were especially designed for this occasion and were all connected to one single rope.  As the nooses were placed around each man’s neck they grasped hands and began singing, in unison, a traditional Dakota song.  A drumbeat signaled the beginning of the execution causing the crowd and the men to become silent.  With a single blow from an ax, Captain William Duley, who had lost several family members during the war, cut the rope and ended the lives of the Dakota 38.

Two of those executed had been mistakenly hanged.  This included Chaska, who had done much to protect Sarah Wakefield during the war, and Wasicun who had been previously acquitted.  The bodies were left to hang for thirty minutes and then buried in a shallow mass grave in a sandbar near the Minnesota River.  By morning, most of the bodies had been exhumed and taken by physicians for use as medical cadavers.

Three years later, Dakota leaders Shakopee and Medicine Bottle were hanged at Fort Snelling.  The two had evaded capture in Canada where, in 1864, they were kidnapped and smuggled over the border.  After a brief trial with sketchy evidence, the two were found guilty of committing atrocities during the war.  They were hanged on November 11, 1865.

The hanging of Shakopee and Medicine Bottle, Nov. 11, 1865, MNHS Collections

Read a description of the hangings by Isaac V.D. Heard – page 290-295

See this blog post on YouTube


“The Trials and Hangings,” The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, http://usdakotawar.org/history/war-aftermath/trials-hanging

Curt Brown, “In 1865, two Dakota leaders meet a gruesome end,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 8, 2015, http://www.startribune.com/in-1865-two-dakota-leaders-meet-a-gruesome-end/342632632/.

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