Book review: ‘38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End,’ by Scott W. Berg

"38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End," by Scott W. Berg 
Abraham Lincoln liked to joke about his three-month service as an Illinois militiaman in the Black Hawk War in 1832. “I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes,” he said. But his next Indian conflict, 30 years later, was no laughing matter.
Lincoln’s role in the Dakota War in Minnesota, a conflict shrouded to invisibility by the cannon smoke and tumult of the Civil War, is central to Scott Berg’s superb reconstruction of a six-week struggle that began with a broken treaty and ended with the greatest mass execution in American annals. The “little war,” not little to the 200 combatants killed in the fighting, marked the unfolding of a momentous series of Indian-white hostilities to come.
Of this, Berg makes a substantial case that Custer’s downfall at the Little Bighorn in 1876, the killing of Crazy Horse in Nebraska in 1877, and the murders at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota in 1890, can all be traced back to Aug. 17, 1862, to the tent of Little Crow, chief of the Mdewakanton Dakota people of Minnesota.
This man, incisively portrayed by the author, was about 52 at the time of the war, an educated, articulate and astute leader who had survived smallpox epidemics as well as the virulent xenophobia of the whites with whom he had “treatied, traded, hunted, and politicked.” After the thinning out of the fur trade in their homelands, Little Crow agreed to move his Dakota band to a reservation near the Minnesota River in exchange for a government dole that promised food and cash annuities to the tribe.
The brutal winter of 1861, a failed crop and delayed federal payments resulted in a predictable response. After a turbulent meeting involving Little Crow and his tribal council in mid-August 1862, young Dakota warriors ran amok through the white settlements, killing a farmer and his family, attacking a trading post and committing other depredations.
Native Minnesotan Berg has created graphic descriptions of the war’s three armed engagements, all occurring in late August. Two of the fights took place at New Ulm, a town of 900 settlers in the southern border area of the then 4-year-old state. The third was fought at Fort Ridgley, the single military post close to the Dakota reservation. By the end of September, the Indians had surrendered, Little Crow had escaped into Canada, and 303 of the Dakotas, quickly tried and found guilty of the murder of civilians (and in a few cases, of rape), were sentenced to death.
The drama of Berg’s narrative, and the clarity of the writing, is exemplified by his account of the last act of this affair in which President Lincoln was obliged to turn away momentarily from the grinding problems of the great war to resolve an issue of the small war just ended.
In that fall of 1862, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had crossed the Potomac to invade Maryland and the appalling carnage of Antietam was fought on Sept. 17. On the 22nd, with Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, and other fiery abolitionists relentlessly badgering him, the president issued the preliminary version of his Emancipation Proclamation.
And, in the midst of such epochal events, the president had to attend to the problem of the 303 condemned men huddled in a wooden shed in the town of Mankato while a drumbeat of revenge boomed throughout Minnesota.
38 Nooses is an imposing work, a moving story of an event enveloped within the most calamitous four years in American annals, and a book proving that obscure does not translate to unimportant when applied to events in history.
Dale L. Walker of El Paso is author of many historical books and biographies.
38 Nooses
Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End
Scott W. Berg
(Pantheon, $27.95)