When news of the outbreak of Dakota violence on the frontier reached Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, he decided to ask a former governor, Henry H. Sibley, to assume command of troops for the purpose of suppressing the uprising. Historian William Folwell writes:
There was no one who was as eminently qualified for the position as he was incapable of seeking it, Ramsey's old political foe and personal friend, Henry H. Sibley; and it was to him that Governor Ramsey instantly turned. Sibley, still in middle life, was robust and athletic and accustomed to outdoor life; he was widely experienced in great affairs and greatly trusted and respected; he spoke the French and understood the Dakota language; he was familiar with Sioux country and acquainted with many of the leading men of the four tribes; and above all,he possessed a profound knowledge of the Indian character and habits. Ramsey at once drove over to Mendota, where Sibley was still living in his stone house, and laid the duty upon him.
Sibley was no Indian-hater. He had, in fact, made eloquent appeals to Congress for better treatment of Native Americans. As he learned details of uprising, however, he had no sympathy for those participating in the massacres and attacks on civilians.
The history of Sibley's military campaign against the Dakota is a story told elsewhere. It ended, successfully from his point of view, with the Battle of Wood Lake in late September, 1862. With the surrender of many warriors and the capture of others, it fell to Sibley to determine what should be done with participants in the conflict.
General John Pope was urging an all-out effort to exterminate the Sioux, but Sibley was "too wise or too humane" to adopt that course. Instead he appointed a five-member military commission which was to "try summarily" those Indians and mixed-bloods accused of participating in murders, robberies, or other "outrages." Sibley told the commission not to be concerned with degrees of guilt, so long as the accused voluntarily participated in murder or massacre. Nonetheless, he reminded the commission to be fair and to extend every reasonable doubt to the accused.
As the trials progressed, and the death sentences against the accused began to mount, Sibley indicated a willingness to approve of them: "I shall probably approve them, and hang the villains" he said on October 7, 1862. General Pope, meanwhile, was unhappy with what he considered the 'too deliberate" procedures of his subordinate, and demanded that the prisoners be sent to him at Fort Snelling and placed under his control. The plan to move the prisoners was abandoned, however, because of the difficulty in bringing evidence and witnesses to St. Paul from the frontier. When the commission ended its proceedings on November 5, 1862, Sibley quickly approved the sentences, with one exception (the sentence of John Other Day's brother was commuted at Other Day's request).
On November 9, Sibley marched his troops and the convicted prisoners down the Minnesota River Valley to a camp near Mankato. As the procession passed through New Ulm, an angry mob of citizens attacked the prisoners, resulting in numerous casualties.
As the final decision on whether to carry out the 303 death sentences of the commission rested in Abraham Lincoln's hands, General Pope, Governor Ramsey, and many other whites sent telegrams to the President urging that all the convicted prisoners be hanged. Sibley, however, offered the President no advice: "I shall do full justice, but no more. I do not propose to murder any man, even a savage, who is shown to be innocent." As the President's decision was awaited, whites concerned that the soft-hearted Lincoln might not accept the commission's recommendations, planned attacks against the imprisoned Dakota and mixed-bloods. Sibley worried, "Any hour may witness a sad conflict." Soldiers were, however, successful in preventing vigilante action.
On December 27, 1862, Sibley telegraphed the President that "the 38 Indians and half-breeds ordered by you for execution were hung yesterday at 10 A.M. Everything went off quietly." [DOL]