An exploration of the violent downfall of Little Crow’s Dakota nation at the hands of American soldiers.
Washington Post contributor Berg (Writing and Literature/George Mason Univ.; Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C., 2007) focuses on the rising escalation between the Dakota people and white settlers, a conflict that came to a head in the summer of 1862, when four inebriated Native Americans carelessly murdered a few white settlers. While Dakota chief Little Crow did not condone the reckless behavior, he recognized that “the day of reckoning was bound to arrive no matter how accommodating and pliable he might be.” As expected, U.S. soldiers soon retaliated, though the battle had long been brewing, especially for the Dakotas, who were frustrated by the federal government’s continued failures to make good on its promised annuities to the Natives. With their credit lines running thin, the Dakota people fought for their survival, though insult was added to their injurious defeat when a military trial sentenced 300 Dakota warriors to death for their role in the battle. While President Lincoln intervened to lessen the number to 38, the mass hanging still earned the dubious honor of becoming the largest public execution in American history. Throughout the sweeping narrative, Berg skillfully weaves in various perspectives, including that of Sarah Wakefield, a woman held captive by the Dakotas, and Bishop Henry Whipple, a paternalistic advocate for the Native people. Yet Berg’s greater accomplishment is his ability to overlap the little-known Dakota War with its far better known counterpart, the American Civil War. The author’s juxtaposition offers readers a contextual framework that provides unique insight into the era. For instance, just days after the mass execution, Lincoln issued the text for the Emancipation Proclamation, prompting curious readers to wonder: How does a country see fit to condemn one group of people to death and then, less than a week later, set another group free?
A captivating tale of an oft-overlooked, morally ambiguous moment in American history.