Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, a Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors

Written by Gustav Niebuhr
Review by Susan Higginbotham

As the Civil War raged in the United States in 1862, another war raged in Minnesota – an uprising by the Dakota Sioux that killed hundreds of settlers. In the face of cries for vengeance, Henry Whipple, Minnesota’s first Episcopal bishop, journeyed to Washington to make a desperate appeal to President Lincoln to spare the lives of the 303 Dakotas condemned to hang. As it happened, 38 would hang – but Lincoln would allow 265 to live.

Harrowingly detailed, Lincoln’s Bishop is a concise, disturbing, and impassioned account of an ugly episode in American history that has been overshadowed by the carnage of the Civil War (Whipple’s visit to the president coincided with the battle of Antietam). It is also, however, the inspirational story of Whipple, a principled man who dared to take on an unpopular cause, and of Lincoln, who was willing to listen to his pleas. It also raises questions of what might have been, for as Niebuhr tells us, Lincoln promised at the end of his meeting with Whipple that if the country made it through the war, he would reform “this Indian system.” Sadly, he never got the chance.