It was the day after Christmas, 1862 — 150 years ago this Wednesday — and the largest mass execution in American history was scheduled for 10 a.m. in the hamlet of Mankato.
The condemned were 38 Dakota Indians convicted in what is said to be the largest killing of whites in any Indian war in American history.
There had been a delay of a week, because the authorities couldn’t find enough strong rope.
Now the Indians had painted their faces and, chanting their death songs, were guided to the gallows. They were hooded. Nooses were placed around their necks, and after three solemn beats of a drum, the platform on which they stood dropped.
Growing up in a rambler outside St. Paul, author Scott W. Berg had always heard the story of the hanging and the savage “Dakota War” from which it grew. But he had not learned about it in school.
“We were never taught this,” he says. “But I probably heard about it when I was 7 or 10. I’m sure I heard about it by the time I was out of elementary school.”
The episode, which happened against the huge backdrop of the Civil War, is scarcely known outside Minnesota, says Berg, 46, an assistant professor of English at George Mason University.
His new book, “38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End,” published by Pantheon Books, aims to end its obscurity and put it into the mainstream of its times.
Berg is also the author of the 2007 book “Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.”
The execution’s sesquicentennial, which will be commemorated in Minnesota this week, coincides with the Civil War’s 150th anniversary. But it is part of the Indians’ tragic “parallel history,” Berg says.
He recounts the five months of killing and betrayal that raged across the prairie of southwestern Minnesota in the summer and fall of 1862, concurrent with some of the biggest battles of the sectional conflict.
Between 400 and 600 settlers — many of them women and children — were slain, along with scores of soldiers. Fewer than a hundred Indians died, Berg says, but many more would perish later of malnutrition and disease.
Coming amid the Civil War, with its lingering codes of honor and gallantry, the Dakota War was a bitter racial conflict with atrocities and talk of extermination and removal. Scalps were taken on both sides.
“They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts,” one U.S. Army general wrote of the Indians, “and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.”
A newspaper editor wrote that a Dakota “has just as much right to life as a hyena, and he who would spare them is an enemy to his race.”
Far removed from the theater of the Civil War, Berg’s story still features many of its figures: Abraham Lincoln, who stayed the executions of more than 200 of the Indians, has a major role, as does disgraced Union Gen. John Pope.