Lincoln and the Sioux Uprising of 1862

By Hank H. Cox

Map, appendices, bibliographical note, bibliography, index, softcover, 213 pp., 2005. Cumberland House Publishing Inc, 431 Harding Industrial Dr., Nashville, TN 37211, $14.95 plus shipping.

Reviewer: Ted Alexander

Ted Alexander is a historian and author of more than 100 articles for various publications and several books. He is Park Historian at Antietam National Battlefield.


Most people are familiar with the Indian wars via movies and TV westerns. As a result, the public has been led to believe that events in the far West, such as the Battle of Little Bighorn, were among the bloodiest encounters in the century of warfare between the U.S. government and the various Indian nations of North America.

The tragic reality is that from the 1790s on the real bloodbaths between red and white took place further east.

One of the worst was the so-called Sioux Uprising in Minnesota during the late summer and early fall of 1862. Spurred on by years of rampant fraud in the Office of Indian Affairs, causing near starvation in the tribes, the Sioux went on a six-week rampage exacting a toll on any whites who got in their way.

After the smoke cleared, more than 800 whites, mostly civilian men, women and children, were dead and entire portions of the state were depopulated as thousands of refugees fled to safer locales. The author also points out the high incidence of gang rapes initiated by the Indians against white women of all ages.

More than 300 Indians were rounded up and sentenced to hang. In a controversial move, President Abraham Lincoln pardoned all but 39.

Author Hank H. Cox is an engaging writer and with this book attempts to show the multiple challenges facing Lincoln at the time: the carnage of Second Manassas and Antietam, the Emancipation Proclamation and incompetent commanders, with the Sioux War as an added burden. He is only partially successful.

The strength of this work as a whole is its crisp narrative of events of the Sioux Uprising. The old adage “what goes around, comes around” was never so appropriate as when a corrupt Indian agent, when told that starvation loomed for the Sioux, replied “Let them eat grass or their own shit.”

After the uprising got under way his dead body was found with his mouth stuffed with grass! Most of the farmers in the region were German immigrants, largely unarmed and unskilled in Indian warfare.

These hapless citizens and their families were cut down like sitting ducks by the frenzied Sioux, as entire communities such as Milford Township, where more than 50 people were killed, fell before the angry red tide.

Cox points out that many of the Sioux were repelled by the atrocities committed by their brethren. One of them, John Otherday, a Christian convert, was recognized by Congress for his efforts at rescuing scores of whites and taking them to safety.

In the end, Lincoln’s clemency in saving hundreds of Indians from hanging exhibits, in Cox’s words, that the 16th president had “an abiding passion for mercy.”

The weakest parts of this study are the alternating chapters that attempt to show the other challenges Lincoln faced in the East. Here the author gets bogged down with too much detail at the operational and tactical level in events such as the Maryland Campaign. His lengthy descriptions of the siege and surrender of Harpers Ferry, for example, could have been left on the cutting room floor.

Nonetheless, this is a useful primer on an all too often overlooked event of the Civil War. It also provides us additional insight into the character of Lincoln.