by Britt Aamodt
Abraham Lincoln is one of the most studied figures in American history. He, along with George Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt comprise the top tier of presidents on many historians’ lists.
The republic Washington built, Lincoln preserved through the long, bloody struggle of the Civil War. He also tested Thomas Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” by emancipating the slaves.
Interest in the Great Emancipator has never faltered and has recently enjoyed an uptick with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated film, “Lincoln.”
Minnesotans are no less curious about the gangling, story-telling, tragedy-prone president than Illinoisans or Virginians. But unlike their fellow citizens to the east, Minnesotans can’t boast of having hosted Lincoln on home soil. However…
“He was invited here during the presidential campaign of 1860 by the Republican chairman of the state,” says Dean Urdahl. “But he couldn’t come because the court session was beginning in Illinois and he said his family needed their provider to remain.”
Like many politicians, Lincoln started out in law before setting his sights on elected office.
Since 2002, Urdahl has been a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and presently co-chairs the Minnesota Civil War Task Force. For 35 years, he taught history in New London-Spicer High School, where he shared his interest in the people and movements that have shaped our nation.
Feb. 4 and 18, Urdahl will present a two-part lecture “Lincoln, Minnesota and Conspiracy” at Rogers Middle School. The program is part of Community Education’s ongoing Active Mind series.
In tracing links between Minnesota and Lincoln, Urdahl will concentrate his first lecture on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
In 1862, a group of young Dakota men rose up against white settlers in southwest Minnesota. The Dakota people had been stripped of hunting grounds, compelled to take up the plow and forced into a treaty that promised federal reimbursement for stolen lands.
That summer was a bad year for crops. Then the federal government reneged on the treaty payment, promising it at some unspecified date. But in the meantime the Dakota had no money to pay for food and provisions.
Starvation ignited a powder keg of discontent, which erupted in a conflict that would end with the death of nearly 1,000 men, women and children on both sides. The war, started by a small group of men, was wanted by no one and yet seemed inevitable to almost everyone.
“When it was over, 400 Dakota were put on trial. And to call it a trial is a loose description,” says Urdahl. “It took just minutes to try them.”
President Lincoln received a list of 303 names. He was pressured to pass a sentence of death.
“Lincoln asked the judge adjutant general if this was a decision he had to make. He was told it was. So he assigned two lawyers to go over the names and determine which ones were guilty of egregious crimes, killing women and children,” says Urdahl.
In the end, Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38. On Dec. 26, 1862, the accused were hanged in Mankato.
The memory of those hangings lives on. When Urdahl spoke on the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, descendants of the Dakota people shouted “Murderer” and “Executioner” every time Urdahl mentioned Lincoln’s name.
Afterwards, Urdahl went over to talk to them. “‘Why are you saying this?’ I asked them. ‘Thirty-eight were hanged, but Lincoln saved the lives of 265.’ ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘but then he took our land.’”
Lincoln signed an order that removed the Dakota Indians from Minnesota. Years later some would return, but many never would.
In his talks, Urdahl doesn’t excuse Lincoln, but he also seeks answers in the context of the times and its prejudices.
The second part of Urdahl’s lecture will address the conspiracy around Lincoln’s assassination.
Still, why study Lincoln today?
Whether we agree with Lincoln or not, says Urdahl, we can gain perspective in our own lives by “examining how Lincoln faced adversity and how he made decisions in times of trial.”
“Lincoln, Minnesota and Conspiracy”
Part of ISD 728’s Active Mind series of workshops
Mondays, Feb. 4 and 18, 7–9 p.m.
Rogers Middle School
To register or learn more about Active Minds, contact Community Ed: www.728communityed.com, [email protected], (763) 241-3520