Standing there on November 19, 1863, in front of those who had come to sanctify yet another bloody battlefield, President Abraham Lincoln should have spoken the truth. He should have ended his dedication, the Gettysburg Address, by declaring “that government of a few people, by a few people, and at the expense of certain people, shall not perish from the earth.” But like many others who carried out the policies of Manifest Destiny, mythical ideologies are easier to believe than the harsh realities of conquest and genocide. They also help justify glaring social inequalities and economic disparities for those already governing through powerful political, economic, and military institutions.
Just before traveling to Gettysburg by railroad to deliver his well-planned words, Lincoln had randomly selected thirty-eight Dakota Sioux leaders to die in the largest mass public hanging in US history. Lincoln, always the politician, had promised their lands to constituents that raised him to the presidency, wealthy monopolists and free-soil settlers. At Lincoln’s request, Congress passed the 1862 Homestead Act, transferring two hundred million acres of Indigenous lands to states, settlers, and railroad and mining and cattle industrialists. Before long, they were slaughtering Indigenous peoples while also ravaging their resources and food supplies.
In one new state, Minnesota, which had become a free-state, the Dakota Sioux were on the verge of starvation. With their crops destroyed, their buffalo annihilated, their villages attacked and burned to the ground, and with a $500 Indigenous bounty, many had already succumbed to death. Chief Little Crow, who abandoned his native religion and converted to Episcopalian, reluctantly led the insurgency. Within a few months, Union Army troops crushed the revolt, ruthlessly massacring Dakota women and children and rounding up several hundred men. A military tribunal sentenced 300 men to death. Again, Lincoln arbitrarily chose 38 men to be executed. Meanwhile, Little Chief fled to Canada.
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The sanctification of ground at Gettysburg, where 50,000 men were ruthlessly killed by a war machine, was a farce. Rotting corpses laid there for days as thirty-four competitors bid the lowest price for burial. The winning bid was $1.59. Some swelling and bloated bodies had already been stripped of their belongings. Others had been pawed over by foraging animals. Those hastily buried were rooted up and devoured by hogs. Republican Andrew Curtain was facing a difficult reelection campaign. He placated local feelings while raising funds to deal with corpses. A national dedication would do just that, attracting enormous crowds. Lincoln, on the other hand, traveled to Gettysburg to pursue political fence-mending.
Neither could the soil at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania ever be consecrated until a genocidal past was confronted, including absolution and reparations offered. Pennsylvania had collectively belonged to several Indigenous societies, like the Susquehannock and Conestogas. Upon the arrival of Quakers in 1701, a pacifist sect fleeing England and New England colonies, William Penn established a treaty with them. It stated: Pennsylvania’s Christians and Indigenous peoples would “forever hereafter be as one head & one heart, & live in true Friendship and Amity as one People.” The Seven Years War, American Revolution, and Pennsylvania militias gradually exterminated Indigenous peoples.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln should have acknowledged genocide against Indigenous peoples. After all, he participated in their annihilation in the Black Hawk War, the last major Indigenous-Settler conflict east of the Mississippi River and north of Florida. He never did speak of the more ancient mothers and fathers on this continent and their new nations, conceived in liberty. Instead, he sanitized and glorified war, euphemizing the killing and carnage, by stating ambiguously that anyone who dies in wars-even if some are unjust-never dies in vain. It would be a lethal precedent with far reaching ramifications.
The mythical victory of Gettysburg was important to Lincoln’s war-time propaganda. But the imperial record of history is “a thin thread that holds past, present, and future together.” It sometimes snaps. The “expense of certain people,” the Indigenous, black slaves, the poor who were drafted by the wealthy to fight in their place, every so often rise up and rebel against the government of the few. The real unfinished work, then, is impartial memory versus myth, historical consciousness instead of flattering speeches and flowery dedications. It is to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people can still be realized someday.
As for the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended on July 3, 1963, Little Crow and his son were picking raspberries on the same day when they were spotted by two bounty hunters, who opened fire. Little Crow fell, mortally wounded with a bullet in his heart. The townspeople scalped and mutilated the body and buried it in a pile of offal in town. In time, the Minnesota Historical Society obtained Little Crow’s skeleton and scalp and put them on exhibit. In this “empire of liberty” for only the few, and at the expense of the many, hallowed ground is still elusive.
1. Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History Of The United States. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2014., p. 136.
2. Ibid., p. 140-141.
3. Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992., p. 20-22.
4. Kenny, Kevin. Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009., p. 11.
5. Leeming, David Adams. Storytelling Encyclopedia. Phoenix, Arizona: Orynx Press, 1997., p. 325.
6. Kessel, William B., and Robert Wooster. Encyclopedia Of Native American Wars And Warfare. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005., p. 191.