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Posted on Jul 15, 2014 in Books and Movies

Lincoln’s Bishop – Book Review

Lincoln’s Bishop – Book Review

By Gerald D. Swick

lincoln's-bishop-coverLincoln’s Bishop: A President, a Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors. Gustav Niebuhr.  Harper One, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014. Hardback, 187 pages plus endnotes and introduction; four photographs, no maps. $26.99 USD

Worldwide, Abraham Lincoln is at or very near the top of the most-admired Americans, but he has his detractors. Primarily these are from two groups: Confederate partisans who believe he should have let the seceding states leave the Union without taking military action against them, and social liberals who believe he didn’t act quickly enough or do enough to end slavery and failed to hold 21st-century ideas on racial equality in the mid-19th century.


There is a third group, smaller than the other two but fairly significant in numbers, who decry the actions of the 16th president. This group brands him a racist and murderer because he authorized the hanging of 38 Indians in the wake of the what is widely known as the Sioux Uprising of 1862 in Minnesota. What this group generally fails to mention is that a military court had sentenced 303 Sioux to hang, and a great many Minnesotans were calling for the removal, if not the extermination, of all native tribes within the state. Lincoln personally reviewed all the cases, and he upheld the execution of just 38, or less than 13 percent of those sentenced.

In Lincoln’s Bishop, Gustav Niebuhr presents an important but little-known part of the story of the Sioux Uprising: the story of Henry B. Whipple, Minnesota’s first Episcopal bishop, who traveled to Washington to appeal to the president for reform in the Office of Indian Affairs. Whipple’s own life was rather remarkable, and it is surprising he has been largely overlooked.

Whipple was born in Adams, New York, in 1822. Niebuhr, using Whipple’s autobiography as his source, writes that the boy’s mother, Elizabeth, “instilled in her son the belief that he should take the side of the injured and oppressed. He would find God there.” The young Whipple was also deeply impressed by Peter Doxtater, an octogenarian in the village, who had been taken captive by Indians at age seven, lived for many years among them, and, in Niebuhr’s words, “He became an Indian.”

Whipple became an Episcopalian priest and by 1857 was rector of the Free Church of the Holy Communion in Chicago (“Free Church,” in this case, meant parishioners didn’t have to pay for pews, as was common at the time.). In that city he formed friendships that included Senator Stephen Douglas and future Union general George B. McClellan. During the 1860 election he did not favor Abraham Lincoln.

Recognized as a man of energy and ambition, he was elected Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota in early summer 1859, the first person to hold that post. He had not sought the position and likely wasn’t overjoyed to leave Chicago and take his wife to live in a frontier state where white settlements were few and sparsely populated —not to mention the 25-percent salary cut.

One of the first people he met in St. Paul was Enmegahbowh (He Who Prays for His People While Standing). Known to whites as John Johnson, he was the 55-year-old son of an Ottawa chief and had been ordained an Episcopal deacon, the first member of the native tribes to hold that position, according to Niebuhr. Enmegahbowh invited Whipple to visit Ojibwe (Ojibwa) villages with him. The bishop returned from that trip pleased with what he’d seen of Indian Christian missions but distressed by the effect white culture had had on the native peoples.

“The first visit was a fearful revelation of the cup of degradation and sorrow which we had pressed to the lips of the Red Man,” Whipple wrote.

Tribes, including the Ojibwe and the Dakotas had given up vast tracts of land and attempted to become farmers in exchange for a promise that the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) would provide them with a yearly stipend in gold. (Niebuhr explains that whites called the Dakotas Sioux, based on an English corruption of a French translation of an Ojibwe word for the Dakotas—the Ojibwes’ rivals—that meant “little snakes.”) However, due to corruption among the Indian Agents sent by the OIA and predatory contracts with traders that would make a coal baron blush, the Indians were starving. The government annuity payment due in 1862 was late, exacerbating conditions, and in August four Dakotas killed four white men and one woman. It seems to have been a spur-of-the-moment act, but it immediately exploded into a war to drive the whites from Minnesota.

Niebuhr relates the stories of that war in a manner that allows readers to understand both the terror felt by the whites in their isolated farms and towns—especially since many able-bodied men were off fighting the Confederates—and the prior events that prompted the Dakotas to go to war to reclaim their lands. More than 50 whites were killed at New Milford alone. In the largest battle of the war, the town of New Ulm was besieged for two days; 190 of its buildings were burned, many torched by the inhabitants to deny cover to the attackers. Horrendous tales of murder, torture and gang rape spread quickly among the whites; some were true, others were not. During the five weeks of war, many Dakotas showed no mercy while others intervened to save whites’ lives.

The latter fact seemed to make little difference in the bloodlust that followed the suppression of the uprising. Jane Grey Swisshelm, publisher and editor of the Saint Cloud Democrat (although she was well connected with Minnesota’s Republican Party) normally held opinions that were well to the left of most Americans of her day. She denounced slavery and supported women’s rights (but urged women to not make unreasonable demands lest they undermine the movement). Prior to the Dakota uprising she was not anti-Indian, but during the trials that followed the war she feared some of the 303 accused might not be found guilty and wrote, “Get ready, and as soon as these convicted murderers are turned loose, shoot them and be sure they are shot dead, dead, DEAD, DEAD!” She called the Indians hyenas and said anyone who would spare their lives “is an enemy to his race.”

Many, many Minnesotans agreed, including the political leaders of the state. In this lynch-mob atmosphere, Whipple went to Washington and used his pre-war connections to arrange an audience with Lincoln. The bishop was not there to beg total clemency for the accused Indians; he had treated some of the wounded white victims and felt justice demanded retribution against those who truly were guilty of crimes. He was there for a larger purpose: to explain to Lincoln that the uprising was the result of corruption in the OIA and unfairness in whites’ dealings with the Indians. Reforming the OIA was the goal of his visit. Ten weeks later, Lincoln would tell a friend from Illinois about Whipple’s visit, saying, “He came here the other day and talked with me about the rascality of the Indian business until I felt it down to my boots.” The president even gave the bishop full access to the archives of the Department of the Interior, where Whipple researched treaties and correspondence to build his case for the need to reform the OIA.

This visit occurred during Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North, generally called the Antietam Campaign, and demonstrates that even as America was experiencing the bloodiest single day in its history, the president still had to deal with matters other than the war with the Southern Confederacy. Whipple, by the way, visited the battlefield along Antietam Creek and spent the night in the tent of his old friend from Chicago, General McClellan.

Whipple wrote letters to political leaders and to newspapers, calling for fair treatment of the Indians and urging de-escalation of the demand for their blood. While this didn’t win him many friends in Minnesota, he escaped complete estrangement because he had treated the white wounded from the Dakota War, injuring his own hand and developing a nasty infection in the process. When the decision was made to deport all Dakotas—as well as the Winnebagos, who had taken no part in the war—Whipple pleaded to no avail that those who had saved white lives or were willing to be scouts for the army be permitted to remain.

Lincoln’s Bishop is an engaging story containing a good bit of information few Americans are familiar with. To the author’s credit, he doesn’t claim Bishop Whipple’s actions led Lincoln to review the cases of the 303 Indians sentenced to hang; indeed, Niebuhr states that we will never know even to what extent Lincoln and Whipple discussed that particular situation during their meeting. David Herbert Donald, in Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 1995, pg. 394), says the president had been “greatly influenced by Bishop Whipple and (Indian Commissioner William P.) Dole.” An article about the uprising, “Lincoln’s Choice,” by Scott W. Berg, in the Winter 2014 edition of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History—one of Armchair General‘s partner publications—only mentions Whipple in passing and points out that the Articles of War required the chief executive to “review all death penalties decided in the field” by military authorities.

Niebuhr’s book tells the story of one man, a bishop in a time of crisis and tragedy, who stood by his convictions and upheld his mother’s teachings to “take the side of the injured and oppressed,” in contradiction to popular opinion.

The book is fairly short and an easy read, but Niebuhr does a commendable job of explaining the situation in Minnesota before, during and after what has usually been called the Sioux Uprising, and he does so without noticeable prejudice toward one side or the other; each side had its villains, its heroes and heroines, its acts of courage and acts of atrocity. A map showing battles and raids of the Dakota War / Sioux War, or at least one of frontier Minnesota would have been beneficial, and the paucity of photos or other images in the book is regrettable. Regardless, I recommend Lincoln’s Bishop highly for those who would like to know more about this ugly, tragic event in America’s history. For those who wish to call Lincoln a racist and murderer for approving 38 of 303 convictions, reading this book will give them a more complete picture of the atmosphere in which his decisions were made.

Gerald D. Swick, web editor for and, has spent many years studying Lincoln and his in-laws, the Todds of Lexington, Kentucky. Gerald previously reviewed Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination for He and Donna D. McCreary are the researchers who solved the 70-year mystery of why the Lincolns’ eldest son, Robert, is not buried with the rest of the family.

1 Comment

  1. Niebuhr’s name has some weight in religious history anyhow. The problem really is that the rights of natives who had no registry of deeds and no fences and funny legal system that come with it but just “lived” can never be squared with what a state based on Anglo-Saxon and Roman law means. Like in the Greek tragedies, where the laws of men and the gods are in conflict, the Sioux could not really appeal to a court that was actually erected by the wrong-doer in the first place, could they? The whole story goes to show that lawyer Abe was more circumspect than modern school-taught history needs to even paint him, as it leaves out most of the day-to-day running of his office and prefers to make people learn the Gettyburg address by heart.