Liberty and Empire.

My review of Bob Drury and Tom Clavin’s The Heart of Everything That Is came out in this week’s TLS. If you’d like to see the full text of the review, it’s below the fold.

Lies and steals


Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
RED CLOUD The greatest warrior chief of the American West
414pp. Robson. £20.
978 1 84954 632 4

Published: 11 February 2015

On December 25, 1866, soldiers and their companions danced the night away at Fort Laramie, a walled garrison located on the high plains of what is today southeastern Wyoming. Decked out in full dress uniforms and billowing gowns, the revellers enjoyed the fort’s annual Christmas ball, a brief respite from their daily grind: guarding the Oregon Trail, the overland route that waves of settlers and traders had, since the 1830s, travelled on their way to the distant reaches of the West. At approximately 11 pm, an oddly misshapen figure burst into the hall. The dancing stopped short. John Phillips, wearing a massive buffalo robe caked with ice and snow from the blizzard raging outside, announced that four days earlier Native Americans had murdered more than eighty troops stationed at Fort Phil Kearny, a far-flung outpost roughly 250 miles to the north-west of Fort Laramie. Among the dead lay William Fetterman, a gallant officer who had served honourably during the Civil War and since. Phillips had ridden hard and far to deliver news of what would soon become known as the Fetterman Massacre.

After he rested, the courier continued with his story, firing off one of the first salvos in what eventually would evolve into a pitched battle over how the slaughter of Fetterman and his men would be remembered by future generations. It seemed that on December 21, a wagon train had left Fort Phil Kearny, heading for the pinewoods of the Bighorn Mountains some 5 miles away. Around 10 am, a group of Native Americans began menacing the expedition, much as they had done several times over the preceding weeks. The fort commander, Colonel Henry Carrington, dispatched a relief party, eighty soldiers with William Fetterman leading them, to drive off the belligerent Indians. Carrington, observers later recalled, insisted several times that Fetterman should not pursue the Indians beyond a nearby ridge, which, he warned, might hide an ambush. But Fetterman, overconfident and eager for glory, ignored his commanding officer. He followed the Native people over the rise and found himself facing off with perhaps 2,000 warriors, some of them Arapahos and Cheyennes, but the majority from various Sioux tribes.

As a second decoy party, led by the renowned Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, drew artillery fire from the fort, the main body of Indians sprang their trap. Rising as one from the high grass, they unleashed a storm of arrows which darkened the midday sky. Their volley cut the onrushing soldiers off from reinforcements riding out of Fort Phil Kearny. And so, as the fighting wore on, Fetterman and his men ran out of ammunition. Their opponents began attacking from close quarters, finishing off cavalrymen and infantrymen alike with war clubs. Fetterman and one of his subordinates apparently tried to avoid that fate by blowing each other’s brains out with their sidearms. Their bodies were later recovered, lying next to each other, powder burns marking their temples. But other witnesses told a different story of Fetterman’s demise, suggesting that a fearsome warrior named American Horse had ridden the officer down before slitting his throat. Whatever the truth of this, the entire engagement lasted less than an hour. It was the United States Army’s worst defeat in its wars with the Plains Indians – at least until the Battle of Little Bighorn a decade later.

Bob Drury and Tom Clavin begin Red Cloud: The greatest warrior chief of the American West with William Fetterman’s end. A study of Red Cloud’s War, a conflict which raged on the high plains between 1865 and 1868, Drury and Clavin’s book fits with a recent trend of journalists writing popular histories of Native peoples in the nineteenth-century United States: Scott Berg’s 38 Nooses (2012), S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon (2010), and Hampton Sides’s Blood and Thunder (2006), among others. These books, dripping with gore and peopled with vivid characters, all struggle to balance fast-paced narrative with the sort of nuanced treatments of Native Americans that now characterize the best scholarly studies. Drury and Clavin’s work is no exception. Red Cloud is by turns satisfying then frustrating, muted then hyperbolic, sympathetic then gratuitous. In the end, the book entertains but fails to debunk the many myths – of the frontier, of the noble savage, and of American innocence – on which it rests.

Settlers and soldiers named Red Cloud’s War after a Lakota warrior they identified as the head of a vast confederation of tribal peoples – though Red Cloud’s leadership, the alliance he ostensibly oversaw, and the bloody conflict that bore his name were never quite so certain as onlookers claimed. Only the fighting’s point of origin remained distinct amid the fog of war. Red Cloud’s War began on November 29, 1864, in Colorado Territory, along the banks of Sand Creek. That morning, some 700 soldiers, commanded by Colonel John Chivington, attacked a camp of peaceful Arapahos and Cheyennes, who believed they were under the protection of the American flag. By nightfall, more than 150 Native people, the vast majority of whom were women, children and the elderly, lay dead, and Chivington’s men had disgraced themselves by combing the killing field for grim trophies: scalps, fingers and, some onlookers later recalled, the genitalia of their victims. The soldiers then marched to Denver, where they were greeted as heroes. In the weeks after, some of them exhibited their plunder at a downtown theatre, while more than 1,500 miles to the east, the federal apparatus ground into motion. Congress and the Army investigated the violence at Sand Creek, eventually labelling it a massacre.

For their part, the Arapahos and Cheyennes who lived through Chivington’s onslaught fled on the freezing night of November 29. They carried with them wounded kin, battered possessions and bitter memories of the treachery of white settlers and soldiers. These scattered bands eventually gathered with thousands of other Native people in a vast winter camp, where they plotted revenge. George Bent, a Cheyenne survivor of Sand Creek who later became a tribal historian, was among them. In the decades that followed, Bent gathered stories of the massacre and its consequences, finally sharing his research with white scholars around the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, anthropologists and historians raced to chronicle the West’s indigenous past before the region’s Native Americans, a “vanishing race” in the parlance of the day, were swept away by the floodtide of civilization. Bent, though, noted that his people had survived countless episodes of violence. They would, he insisted, remain part of the nation’s future as well. Writing of Sand Creek particularly, he suggested that only in the massacre’s wake had the Cheyennes and the Arapahos found common ground with the Sioux tribes. Later, they would try to stop further white settlement in the region by fighting Red Cloud’s War.

Drury and Clavin get important details about Sand Creek wrong. They mistake one officer, who was relatively sympathetic to the slaughtered Arapahos and Cheyennes, for another, who was one of the most enthusiastic perpetrators at the massacre. They ascribe poorly sourced quotes to John Chivington. (This is actually a deeper problem with the book, as Drury and Clavin rarely interrogate their sources, a surprising sin for such seasoned journalists.) And they present several misconceptions about the demographics of the troops who fought at Sand Creek as fact – including claiming that they were drunks and ne’er-do-wells drawn from Denver’s skid row, when in fact the solders appear to have been a representative sample of settlers in Colorado Territory. But the authors do understand that the massacre was the spark that led to Red Cloud’s War. Throughout that conflict, tribal warriors invoked the terrible cruelties visited on the Sand Creek dead as they exacted their recompense from settlers.

Drury and Clavin also deserve praise for placing Red Cloud’s War in its proper context: the era of the American Civil War. Historians have typically segregated studies of the Civil War and the Indian wars. Red Cloud, by contrast, makes it clear that the latter conflict emerged directly from the former. And so, although Drury and Clavin gesture at the early years of the Oregon Trail and a series of broken treaties as important mile markers on the road to Red Cloud’s War, they linger by the grisly spectacle of the Civil War, focusing especially on how the cost of smashing the Confederate rebellion left the United States cash-strapped and desperate to find a way to dispatch its debts. A gold strike in Montana in 1863 seemed to hold out some promise as a solution to that problem. As a result, when settlers blazed the Bozeman Trail that year – the same year that President Lincoln handed down the Emancipation Proclamation – federal authorities looked the other way, even though the new road ran through the Powder River Country, territory long held sacred by the Sioux tribes. Visions of empire and liberty marched in lockstep at the time, Americans believed, ignoring the obvious ironies.

By the early 1860s, the Powder River Country hosted some of the nation’s last remaining herds of bison – the great, shaggy beasts on which the Plains tribes depended for survival, and which observers around the United States employed as a symbol of the West. As well, the Black Hills, which the Lakotas called Paha Sapa, or “the heart of all things” (Drury and Clavin drew on the translation for the title of the American edition of their book), formed the region’s eastern boundary. For both of those reasons, one sacred, the other profane, many of the tribe’s leaders saw white incursion into the area as an existential threat. They insisted that their people needed to prevent further losses – of both territory and sovereignty – to land-hungry settlers, and that the authorities who tolerated or abetted the theft of Indian land should instead keep their constituents on the leash. In 1865, federal officials tried to negotiate an inviolable treaty with the Lakotas, offering them the Powder River Country for ever if they would lay down their weapons and confine themselves to a new reservation in the region. Red Cloud, among others, refused. The war chief noted, “the white man lies and steals”. The fighting only escalated.

The federal government responded by beginning construction of new forts to protect the Bozeman Trail. With each installation that labourers built, Washington attempted to project its power into the trans-Mississippi West: to make settlers there feel safe by civilizing the wild frontier. The Lakotas understood this strategy, understood that each additional fort and each additional road threatened their increasingly tenuous hold on the region. So they resisted further intrusions on their land. Red Cloud explained: “The Great Father [the President of the United States] sends us presents and wants a new road. But the White Chief already goes with soldiers to steal the road before the Indian says yes or no”. Dismissing the negotiators who tried to persuade him to affix his signature to a more restrictive treaty, he said, “I will talk with you no more. I will go now, and I will fight you. As long as I live I will fight you for the last hunting grounds”. All of which led back to Fort Phil Kearny in the days before Christmas 1866, when the Lakotas and their Arapaho and Cheyenne allies fought to keep federal soldiers from solidifying their hold over an emerging American empire on the Western borderlands.

The reaction to the death of Fetterman and his men suggested that what was, at least when placed next to the great battles of the Civil War, a relatively minor engagement, nevertheless had an outsized impact on the nation’s sense of its character and destiny. Concerned observers around the country asked how a ragtag band of frontier savages could possibly have whipped the bluecoats who had just defeated Johnny Reb. Only by treachery, a chorus answered. So the slaughter at Fort Phil Kearny became “a massacre” – presaging the popular response to George Armstrong Custer’s romanticized “last stand” at the Little Bighorn a decade later. For evidence to support such a claim, people noted that the Native warriors had hacked apart soldiers’ corpses: slicing off ears, noses, fingers and scalps. These were inhuman acts, recounted by terrified survivors at Fort Phil Kearny, and amplified by journalists into lurid accounts published around the United States. To a man, these outraged critics forgot what had happened at Sand Creek just two years earlier, forgot that John Chivington’s men had desecrated their victims’ bodies, and forgot that Native people had long memories of that and countless other betrayals. Perhaps selective amnesia made sense in the moment. After all, the nation was at war with the Plains Tribes, savage brutes who needed to be chastised.

But why, then, do Drury and Clavin depict Fetterman’s death and Native martial practices in terms reminiscent of nineteenth-century dime novels? One passage notes, “Captured whites were scalped, skinned, and roasted alive over their own campfires, shrieking in agony as Indians yelped and danced about them . . . ”. It is hard to know here and elsewhere whether the authors are channelling the anxieties of Western settlers who mistook Indians for irredeemable savages, an unassimilable racial other that, if left unchecked, would rend the fabric of white civilization. In the end, though, motivation hardly matters. Drury and Clavin’s book is riddled with inconsistent portrayals of Indians. “The Plains Indians had honed their war ethic for centuries”, they write, “to every enemy death, the slower and more excruciating the better.” This is nonsense. Not only did the Plains Tribes sometimes spare their enemies, but Drury and Clavin acknowledge this. Elsewhere, they note of the Lakotas that, “warriors who had physically struck an enemy without killing him, or ‘counted coup,’ were accorded the tribe’s highest respect, more so than those who had taken scalps”.

Contradictory passages, often marked by anachronistic language, pile up. The book switches between sympathetic and damning portraits of indigenous peoples: one moment noble, the next savage. Drury and Clavin might instead have noted that the West’s settlers and Indians alike were all deeply flawed and trapped in a centuries-old cycle of violence. The mutual antagonism could be traced back to any number of times and places: New England in the seventeenth century; the South in the eighteenth; or the Midwest in the first half of the nineteenth. By the era of the Civil War, when the federal government began focusing relentlessly on securing an American empire that stretched to the Pacific Coast, centuries of distrust had ossified into hatred. So much so, that William Tecumseh Sherman, responding to news of losses in Red Cloud’s War, stated, “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination: men, women and children”. Unfortunately, though Drury and Clavin quote this passage not once but twice in different sections of Red Cloud, the violence at the core of their book remains unmoored from analysis that might have helped readers make sense of it – even if such an understanding eluded contemporary participants in Red Cloud’s War.

The fighting raged for more than another year after William Fetterman and his men died in service of an expanding American empire. In 1867, the tribal alliance, never especially robust, began to fray. Still, enough Native Americans continued to struggle to make life miserable for the US Army, which looked for but never found its footing in the Powder River Country. Indians kept harassing settlers along the Bozeman Trail, and occasionally, as at the Hayfield and Wagon Box Fights in late July 1867, attacking the garrisons constructed to protect that road. During the latter engagement, which took place near Fort Phil Kearny, federal troops carrying repeating rifles managed to hold off Native warriors for several hours. That stalemate looked enough like a win to satisfy journalists eager to file optimistic stories about the steady march of progress in the West. Newspapers around the country printed columns hailing the courage of the troops who, they said, had won a tremendous victory near the site of the Fetterman massacre. One breathless scribe claimed that more than 1,000 Indians had died in the battle, though the actual figure was probably less than a hundred.

Nevertheless, despite the occasional positive dispatch filtering in from the far Western frontier, authorities in the nation’s capital grew weary of the fighting, which, some experts suggested, would require the deployment of tens of thousands of additional troops if it dragged on for much longer. More concerned about the construction of the transcontinental railroad – by far the most important engine of imperialism in the nation’s arsenal – and the ongoing process of reconstructing the conquered South, federal officials began trying to forge a peace with the confederacy of tribal peoples that had, time and again, overmatched the US Army. Peace commissioners arrived at Fort Laramie in the spring of 1868, but Red Cloud refused to meet them until the government abandoned its garrisons along the Bozeman Trail. In August, blue-coated soldiers left their posts; the next day, Indians burned those installations. Finally, in November, Red Cloud signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which promised that the Black Hills and Powder River Country would remain off-limits to whites in perpetuity. Red Cloud’s War was over.

Still, conflict lingered in the region, as settlers ignored what James Madison had called “parchment barriers”, treaties that supposedly represented “the supreme law of the land”. Just five years later, after a federal expedition reported the discovery of more gold in Montana, streams of prospectors began pouring into the region. When Native peoples, recollections of victory during Red Cloud’s War still fresh in their minds, resisted those forays, the next bloody act in the Plains Indian Wars began. Perpetuity, it turned out yet again, had very little staying power in Indian Country.

One thought on “Liberty and Empire.

  1. Dorman Nelson

    It is like taking the book Crow Killer as a truthful biography of John Liver Eating Johnston, who was in the middle of the above history…..I am noticing more and more ‘biographists’ just grazing the books and information, instead of digging into the archives of the real information. I wish more would roll up their sleeves and get to work.


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