About the Time Abraham Lincoln Ordered the Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History
Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.
In 1862, in one of the uglier episodes of United States history, Abraham Lincoln ordered the mass execution of 38 men, each of whom who were piled onto a single scaffold, had ropes tied around their necks and bags put over their head before the floor of the structure fell out, killing all 38 men. It was a nasty affair, rarely discussed in history books because it took place in the midst of the bloodiest year of the Civil War, and because of the kind of men who were killed: Native Americans.
Despite ordering the executions, it was Abraham Lincoln that came out of the debacle looking as close to a hero as anyone involved, and in light of the renewed interest in the 16th President, in the Tarantino movie that SHOULD be made — as the third movie in his historical fiction revenge trilogy — only Abraham Lincoln should survive Tarantino’s gratuitously violent revisionism. Wouldn’t it seem natural to follow up movies about the holocaust and slavery with one about another of the blackest marks in world history: The genocide of Native Americans? This piece of history would serve as the perfect centerpiece.
Before we get to the details, let me back up: A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting Silas Hagerty, a filmmaker who made a documentary called Dakota 38, which was screened at the Smithsonian a couple of months ago, and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. The doc follows Jim Miller, a Native spiritual leader and Vietnam veteran, as well as a group of fellow riders (including Hagerty and his film crew) as they retrace on horseback — in the dead of winter — the 330-mile route from Lower Brule, S.D., to Mankato, Minn., the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. It’s a powerful and stirring documentary, which is less about the executions themselves as it is about the descendants and others commemorating the event, honoring the dead, and attempting to put the episode behind them through the spiritual journey. (If you’re interested in the subject, you can also read an extensive interview with Hagerty about making the film, and the profound effect it had on him and the other riders).
The documentary was the first I’d ever heard of that episode in our history, and it sent me scurrying to the Googles to find out more. For the purposes of this Storytellers piece, and the Tarantino flick that should be, I will spare you from the extensive history lesson, and offer this cursory bullet-point summary:
Here is a chilling first-hand account from The New York Times from a reporter covering the executions:
Precisely at the time announced — 10 A.M. — a company, without arms, entered the prisoners’ quarters, to escort them to their doom. Instead of any shrinking or resistance, all were ready, and even seemed eager to meet their fate. Rudely they jostled against each other, as they rushed from the doorway, ran the gauntlet of the troops, and clambered up the steps to the treacherous drop. As they came up and reached the platform, they filed right and left, and each one took his position as though they had rehearsed the programme. Standing round the platform, they formed a square, and each one was directly under the fatal noose. Their caps were now drawn over their eyes, and the halter placed about their necks. Several of them feeling uncomfortable, made severe efforts to loosen the rope, and some, after the most dreadful contortions, partially succeeded. The signal to cut the rope was three taps of the drum. All things being ready, the first tap was given, when the poor wretches made such frantic efforts to grasp each other’s hands, that it was agony to behold them. Each one shouted out his name, that his comrades might know he was there. The second tap resounded on the air. The vast multitude were breathless with the awful surroundings of this solemn occasion. Again the doleful tap breaks on the stillness of the scene. Click! goes the sharp ax, and the descending platform leaves the bodies of thirty-eight human beings dangling in the air. The greater part died instantly; some few struggled violently, and one of the ropes broke, and sent its burden with a heavy, dull crash, to the platform beneath. A new rope was procured, and the body again swung up to its place. It was an awful sight to behold. Thirty-eight human beings suspended in the air, on the bank of the beautiful Minnesota; above, the smiling, clear, blue sky; beneath and around, the silent thousands, hushed to a deathly silence by the chilling scene before them, while the bayonets bristling in the sunlight added to the importance of the occasion.
Here’s a sketch of the scene.
You can watch Dakota 38 in its entirety on YouTube.
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