Book Review: Lincoln and Native Americans

Of all aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, one of the least considered is his policy toward Native Americans. His tenure, was, of course, dominated by the Civil War – and yet an examination of the rail-splitter’s attitudes towards Indigenous Americans and how he dealt with their particular challenges can illuminate the man and his worldview.

Published as part of the Concise Lincoln Library, author Michael S. Green has made a decent contribution with his little book of just over one hundred pages. This six-chapter work covers much ground, albeit briefly. Chapters examine Lincoln’s early exposure to Native Americans, his service in the Black Hawk War, the policy-makers and reformers who influenced him, his administration’s policy on the Indian Territory during his presidency, the Dakota Uprising of 1862, and western policy and its contradictions. There are extensive notes for all the chapters and a valuable bibliography.

Green’s chapter entitled “The Problem with the Indian Territory” is particularly interesting. It opens with the suggestion that “Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis seemed mismatched: a one-term congressman and self-educated lawyer…and a West Pointer with vast government and military experience.” Green goes on to observe, “The Confederacy’s early success suggested Davis’s superiority, and Indian Territory underscored why.” While admittedly on paper the two leaders seemed quite the contrast in terms of preparation for high office, it is more than a stretch to contend that the early war demonstrated the superiority of Davis. The fact that Lincoln showed little attention to Indian policy in the war’s early days only suggests that he was focused on the immediate problems of rebellion.

Green highlights the perplexing personality clash between generals James Lane and Davis Hunter in the newly created military district encompassing Kansas and the Indian Territory. Extremely ambitious men who wished to enroll Native Americans in the Union army, the pair could not work together to accomplish Lincoln’s priority of retaking the Indian Territory. “Unfortunately,” Green observes, “Hunter and Lane concentrated more on their power struggle than on aiding refugees and defeating rebels.” As for Lincoln, “Whether Lincoln would have done better is debatable. Although he moved slowly, he did try to help the people he had done so little to assist before.”

That this work is decidedly unsympathetic to Lincoln is apparent. In the conclusion of the book, Green argues that “any examination of Lincoln and Native Americans reveals much that should disturb his fans.” “He approved a mass execution, said nothing about massacres, had no conversations with Indigenous peoples that rivaled the respect he demonstrated for African Americans…” And the list goes on. A page later, Green weakly walks it back a little. “But a litany of condemnation is unfair to Lincoln. To expect him to live outside of his time would be ahistorical.”

A concise examination of Lincoln and Native Americans is a valuable contribution to the scholarship on our 16th president. As such, Green’s volume has a place. It would be better if his language were less stilted. To be fair, though, capturing the subject concisely is a difficult task. The author does a fair job of attaining that goal.

Lincoln and Native Americans

By Michael S. Green

Southern Illinois University Press  2021  $24.95 Hardcover

Reviewed by Derek D. Maxfield

9 Responses to Book Review: Lincoln and Native Americans

  1. This is a solid review and I concur with the conclusions. As suggested, this is an extremely complex topic that almost defies a succinct overview but the author’s attempt is a good one. It’s a very worthwhile starting point for anybody with an interest in the various sub-topics.

  2. thanks Derek, great book review on a little studied Civil War topic … if there was neglect on the part of the President to engage on this issue, i believe it was an issue of wartime bandwidth … so, it would have been interesting to see what native American policies Lincoln would have adopted after the war had he not been assasinated

  3. I would love to read this. I am familiar with David Nichols’ book, “Lincoln and the Indians” , one of the few to address this subject.

  4. The review is professional and fair, and I agree that Lincoln had bigger fish on his doorstep to fry. But in Michael Green’s defense, he is not the first historian to point out that the Davis Administration managed to work diligently in 1861 to win support in the Territory, certainly not out of any altruism but rather as part of a wider view toward western expansion. In contrast, Washington really did let matters slide there. As Mary Jane Warde explains, the Muscogee leader Opothle Yahola begged Lincoln for help in 1861 but never received a response or aid. The result was the refugee crisis now known as the Trail of Blood on Ice. The Bear River Massacre, the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo, and Sand Creek all happened on Commander-in-Chief Lincoln’s watch too–personally, I think he should have been watching more.

  5. The above responses are all fair comments. I do believe, however, that the reviewer’s quote from the author’s book regarding Lincoln’s approval of a “mass execution” of Native Americans deserves some context for those not familiar with the backstory. The Dakota War of 1862 was one of the worst massacres of white settlers in American history, resulting in the death of six to seven hundred settlers and causing tens of thousands of other settlers to flee Minnesota. 303 Dakotas were sentenced to death after trials that would not pass muster today. Lincoln commuted the death sentences of all but 39. While still a “mass execution,” no one can justly accuse Lincoln of not carefully reviewing the record and simply rubber stamping the 303 death sentences. I seriously doubt either his predecessor or successor would have extended mercy to hundreds of Dakotas in this instance.

    1. The trials were a farce, even under the military standards which were purportedly and wrongly applied but in fact not followed. Lincoln also did a fair amount of “adapting” his criteria for who should be executed after his initial analysis produced only a few. You’re correct that neither Buchanan or Johnson likely would have winnowed down the numbers but that’s a low bar.

  6. To state that Lincoln had no conversations and by implication, made no demonstration of reconciliation towards Aboriginal Americans, as this work alleges is completely incorrect. While it is true that Lincoln was a man of his times and thus, a high number of the prejudices typical of to White American men of his era can be identified in him, at varying times and to varying amounts, (including Black Americans, Hispanics, French Canadians, women, etc, etc).

    While he never 100% eschewed 100% of his prejudices, (which in reality means, he never lived to embrace an attitudinal outlook like most people entertain in our living times, today), he lived to challenge, to question, to re-consider these to a heroic extent like a large number of his fellow White Americans whom lived through the same life experiences of the day. This is part of what makes him heroic and the likes of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, James Longstreet, Frederick Douglass, Stonewall Jackson, etc, etc, all heroic.

    They were raised in the era when it was 100% ‘normal’ to entertain and give vent to prejudice like racism, and they were the ones whom broke with that way of thinking and feeling, however imperfectly.

    I reject a Settler Colonialism perspective of Lincoln and the 1862 Minnesota Sioux rising; that doesn’t mean that I would fail to apply a measure of fair and balanced criticism to him or anyone else involved or then-living that was justified.

    But the ultimate evidential proof that the argument about Lincoln and Aboriginal Americans that the above work puts forth can not be made successfully is this-

    In the picture inset of David Herbert Donald’s 1995 biography, ‘Lincoln’, is a picture of Lincoln and other Union governmental figures entertaining a large party of Elders from the Sioux Nation Tribe in the White House in 1863. Once the violence had ended and enough time had lapsed for cooler heads, (possibly even provision of aid to the Sioux; I don’t definitively know one way or the other), Lincoln convened a meeting in that location for himself and the Sioux Nation Tribe. He is on record as saying words to the effect of, “We must learn to seek and live in peace with our Red brethren.”

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