- - Wednesday, December 10, 2014



By Gustav Niebuhr

Harper One, $26.99, 210 pages

There is no shortage of reading material about Abraham Lincoln’s life and political career.

Great historians such as Gabor Boritt, David Herbert Donald, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Allen Carl Guelzo, Harry V. Jaffa, Harold Holzer and James McPherson have written masterful books about the 16th president. Personal observations about Honest Abe from historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe and even Karl Marx are widely available. There are multiple volumes of Lincoln’s writings, speeches and personal correspondence.

Yet, in spite of all this, there are still a few stories about Lincoln that aren’t widely known, discussed or written about.

Gustav Niebuhr, an associate professor at Syracuse University and founding director of the Carnegie Religion and Media Program, wrote about one of them. His new book, “Lincolns Bishop: A President, a Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors,” explores the president’s rarely discussed meetings with Episcopalian Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple — and his role in pardoning many Sioux Indians.

In the midst of the American Civil War, a lesser-known conflict took place in southwest Minnesota. Known as the Dakota War of 1862 (or the Sioux Uprising), it involved settlers and the U.S. Army fighting against native bands of the eastern Sioux.

Tensions were quite high, due to treaty violations and issues with Indian agents. The Dakota War’s starting point, according to Mr. Niebuhr, “occurred after four young Native American men gunned down five white settlers, one of them an adolescent girl they shot as she stood in a doorway.” The battle would rage on for several months in a “war that shattered the state.”

Whipple, the first Episcopalian bishop of Minnesota, was an unlikely champion for Indian rights. He had worked with the Ojibwes and was “delighted in hearing the words of the Anglican liturgy in a Native American tongue.” When he saw examples of poverty and living conditions, “[t]he degradation indicated that the Indians were being dealt with very poorly by the state’s whites — people who looked like him.” Hence, he felt that “God had laid a special responsibility on him,” and he wouldn’t turn his back on this community, ever. In Mr. Niebuhr’s view, “Whipple went about as far as a clergyman in a nationally influential church could go at the time, in finding positive attributes in a religious culture outside his own.”

Whereas Whipple described his overall experience with the Ojibwes as “exhilarating,” it was the reverse for the Dakotas. Mr. Niebuhr, for his part, depicted the “trouble he had experienced among the Dakotas” and the eventual “collapse of an unhappy status quo” that occurred with the white settlers. Whipple felt empathy for this tribe, as he did for the Ojibwes, but his direct relationship with them was very different.

The bishop would strongly defended the Dakotas when he met with Lincoln, however.

Whipple, a Democrat, had gradually switched from having “his doubts about Lincoln’s personal depth and abilities” to becoming an “admirer.” According to Mr. Niebuhr, he had confidence in the president for two reasons. First, “Whipple understood Lincoln as essentially sympathetic, and thus willing to listen to him on behalf of a people who had suffered historic abuse.” Second, “he knew the president had experience with white-Indian warfare” with his paternal grandfather, “after whom he was named, had died unarmed, taken by surprise by an Indian rifleman hidden near where he was planting crops.”

Their meeting at the White House appears to have been an intriguing affair. While “Lincolns Bishop” acknowledges “[h]ow far Lincoln and Whipple discussed the Dakota War itself is impossible to know,” it seems “Whipple had no problem — as he made clear in many public statements — linking the mistreatment of Indians with the coming of violence.” In turn, Lincoln promised that he would “address America’s other racial sin after first dealing with slavery and secession.”

Did Whipple’s encounter with Lincoln change the course of history? It’s hard to say. Certainly, the president examined all 303 cases of Dakotas found guilty of murder and rape. Although Minnesota’s leaders desired revenge, Lincoln “would spare 87 percent of the convicted Dakotas” and declared “only thirty-nine cases … would warrant capital punishment.” While “Lincoln never said so,” the author’s position is clear: “it is difficult to imagine that Whipple’s visit did not count in the president’s decision.”

Whipple and Lincoln “shared an appreciation of God’s sovereignty,” according to Mr. Niebuhr, and that “God stood beyond human reckoning.” When it came to showing mercy to the beaten Sioux warriors, those may have been the deciding factors.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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