During the American Civil War, both North and South fought against Native Americans. In the Confederate States Armed Forces vs Native Americans chess game Abraham Lincoln is not een participant, although he prevented  a large-scale execution of native tribes.

It is the year 1862. Tribes of the original inhabitants of present-day Dakota had voluntarily established themselves in a reserve by the Minnesota River ten years earlier. In exchange for an annual payment of $72,000 to purchase commodities, the tribes had handed over most of their original land to the newcomers. The Dakotas, or Sioux Indians, were considered friendly and many of them adapted to the new circumstances. They switched from hunting to agriculture, dressed like the American settlers and spoke English.

Dakotas in the Confederate States Armed Forces vs the Native Americans chess game, Rademaker Collection

However, the Americans did not honour their agreements: the managers of the reserve were corrupt, government money disappeared and never reached the tribes, and more and more white colonists were allowed to settle on the remaining Dakota territory and hunt their game. This area had become too small to travel around in order to hunt or be self-sufficient in any other way: the government’s payments were desperately needed. The payments did not come through, partly due to the American Civil War. When the harvest failed because of the harsh winter, hunger broke out.


On 4 August 1862, chief Little Crow and about five hundred Dakotas broke into the food warehouses of the reserve´s managers. Little Crow demanded they deliver the agreed goods and money. He warned them that he would not be able to stop his hungry men from getting food in other ways. Legend has it that trader Andrew Myrick answered that the Dakotas would have to eat grass then, and once they finished that, they would have to move on to the dung heap.

Two weeks later, on 17 August, a number of Dakotas assaulted five colonists in search of food, and assassinated them. This marked the start of the great Dakota uprising. That night, the tribal chiefs held a meeting and because they were expecting retaliations, they decided the best defence was to attack. Under the leadership of Little Crow, the Dakotas plundered the warehouses and Andrew Myrick was the first to die. To the great amusement of the Dakotas he fell into a dung heap, or so the story goes. Days later he would be found right there, with grass in his mouth…

Settlers on the run for Dakotas, 1862 Minnesota

This was not all: the Dakotas also attacked settlements of the colonists and killed their residents. The people who lived next to the reserve, in the town of New Ulm, had not taken the rumours of the approaching belligerent Dakotas seriously. They had been living in harmony with these people for years, there were mixed marriages, and on that same morning they had shaken hands with some Dakotas after the communal church service.

Yet the rumours turned out to be true. Dakotas on horseback rode up and down the main street and then attacked their neighbours. They went on a rampage in the settlement, raping women, burning down houses and even murdering children. A total of nearly 500 settlers lost their lives during these weeks of rebellion. It would be too simple to put the Americans opposite the Dakotas though, like they are on the chessboard.

No death penalties

President Abraham Lincoln helped Minnesota by sending troops that had been fighting the South in the civil war. The Dakotas remained elusive for a few months, but they could not compete with the army. More and more Dakotas surrendered and 392 of them ended up in prison, awaiting their verdict in the military court. Their relatives that had been detained were put in camps by the army. The military court tried the 392 prisoners between 25 October and 5 November and wanted to have all of them executed.

Lincoln, who had to give the order for execution, thought the prisoners’ files were too incomplete for this horrible punishment. He replied that a distinction had to be made between those who had fought and those who had committed crimes such as murder and rape. General Sibley in Minnesota was dismayed: he was convinced that the president would sentence all the prisoners to death. He strongly advised Lincoln to reconsider his decision, because otherwise he could not guarantee that citizens would not take matters into their own hands.

The 38 convicted Dakotas at the scaffold, 26 December 1862

This warning was not entirely unjustified. A group of female settlers of Dutch origin, for example, was waiting for the prisoners with stones in their aprons. They bombarded the prisoners who were passing through New Ulm with stones, and fifteen of them were injured. Sibley wrote the following about this event to his wife: “The Dutch she-devils were as fierce as tigers.” Sibley was not the only one who tried to convince Lincoln to have all the prisoners executed, but the president did not relent. The records show that of the 392 men, only 38 had committed capital crimes and only these men would be punished.

Lincoln´s letter with this redeeming answer and the list of names of those sentenced to death reached the prison on Tuesday 23 December. There was a deadly silence when Reverend Stephen Riggs read the letter to the prisoners, while the gallows were being constructed outside. He finished the list of names with the words “May God have mercy on your souls…” The sentence was executed the day after Christmas on Friday 26 December. Despite the fact that “only” 38 Dakotas were hanged, it is the largest mass execution in America to this day.

Name mix-up

Abraham Lincoln (1860) by Mathew Brady.

As fair as Lincoln’s reasoning may sound, the execution of the death penalties was less than perfect. For example, in the case of several Dakotas with similar names, there was confusion about who was actually a convicted criminal and who was not. A certain Mrs Wakefield would later complain that her neighbour Chaska had been hanged when he had only been convicted for being present during the rampage. He had even protected Mrs Wakefield and her children during the attack. It had actually been Dakota member Chaskadon who had been sentenced to the gallows by the president, for murdering a pregnant woman.

Apart from this, many of the original attackers had managed to avoid trial because they fled instead of surrender. Chief Little Crow was one of the men at large, along with some other chiefs. He did not come to a good end. In 1863, he fell into the hands of revenge-seeking settlers and was killed.

All in all it was a black page in the history of America, with only a small bright light: a president who remained just and did not allow himself to be seduced by public opinion or upcoming elections to reach the desired verdict. In a northern version of this chess game, Lincoln would have been the rightful King.

By Marjolein Overmeer