The University of Wisconsin-Madison certainly shows up quite a bit in the news lately. The most recent incident is yet another call for going after historical American figures, but this time it’s not Columbus. The students at UW would like some modifications to an offensive statue on their campus, this one of Abraham Lincoln. Rather than asking for Honest Abe’s visage to be torn down and removed, they would like a plaque placed nearby noting Lincoln’s culpability in the massacre of Native Americans. However, the school’s chancellor has denied the request for the time being. (Free Beacon)

The University of Wisconsin-Madison chancellor has shot down a student government request that a plaque be placed near an on-campus statue of Abraham Lincoln describing what they see as the president’s culpability in massacres of Native Americans.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank said she was not open to making the Associated Students of Madison’s desired change to the statute that has sat at the heart of the campus for over a century, student paper the Daily Cardinal reported.

Students have maintained that they want to see acknowledgement of Lincoln’s role in the December 1862 execution of Sioux prisoners who had been convicted of murder and rape by military tribunals. More than 260 men had been charged, but Lincoln commuted the death sentence of all but 38.

The school’s indigenous student organization actually has a legitimate point in highlighting the period in question, though perhaps not so much in attempting to lay it at Lincoln’s feet. What they’re talking about is an uprising of the Sioux people of the Dakota Nation which began late in 1861. They refer to it as the US – Dakota War of 1862.

The tribe on the reservation there was starving after a poor growing season and a lack of wild game on the reservation lands. Unrest eventually turned to violence and a band of Sioux warriors attacked the white settlers in a series of raids. More than 600 white people were killed during this period. Of that number, the records indicate that 70 were white soldiers and 50 more were armed male adult civilians. The rest were unarmed young men, women and children. As many as a third were children under the age of ten. Some of the surviving women were reportedly raped.

The military was called in and the Sioux were rounded up and marched to a different location where military tribunals (of dubious authority) were held and 303 of the Sioux were sentenced to death. Here’s where Lincoln comes into the story. He ordered a review of the massacre as well as the tribunals, eventually commuting the sentences of all but 38 of the warriors. He is recorded as making the following statement.

“Anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other, I ordered a careful examination of the records of the trials to be made, in view of first ordering the execution of such as had been proved guilty of violating females.”

Since there were only two convictions for rape, Lincoln expanded the list to include those participating in the massacre of the unarmed white settlers, excluding any killing done in battle against armed troops and defenders. All but 38 received commutations and the rest were executed by hanging.

So actually, while there are certainly questions as to how legal or fair the trials were and definite, valid complaints about the conditions the Sioux were facing on the reservation, Lincoln was a moderating agent who cut down the executions to barely more than one tenth of the number which might have taken place. I’m not sure you want to denigrate him all that much for that particular period of history.