American Settlers Meet Spartans

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Peter Cozzens, The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, 576 pp., $35.00.

The war in Afghanistan is said to be our longest war, but the war against the Plains Indians was longer, lasting from the 1860s until 1890. Peter Cozzens, a retired Foreign Service Officer and independent historian, has written what he hopes is a balanced account of a conflict that has, for decades, been defined by Dee Brown’s, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Published in 1970, countless colleges have taught this biased book, and it has never gone out of print. Mr. Cozzens writes that it is unique for “so crucial a period of our history [to] remain largely defined by a work that made no attempt at historical balance.” The Earth Is Weeping is his carefully researched antidote.

It is a story of inevitable tragedy. I am reminded of the opening words of T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances.” The Indians were an alien, warlike, and cruel people who stood in the way of Westward expansion, but as Mr. Cozzens shows, the American government never wanted to exterminate them. It tried to “civilize” Indians by making Christian farmers out of them, but nothing could have been more contrary to their nature.

There had been trouble with Indians ever since 1607. When Andrew Jackson sent the “Five Civilized Tribes” from the Eastern states out to the Great Plains, he believed it was a humanitarian solution and that whites would never follow them. However, as pioneers settled the West, they found tribes that were even more dangerous than the mostly farming, sedentary Indians in the East. There was never a chance for peaceful coexistence; only a choice between levels of horror.

In the West, Indians had traditionally lived for only two things: war and buffalo hunting. Until 1630, no Indians rode horses, so they hunted and made war on foot, and their most lethal weapon was the bow and arrow. By 1750, all plains Indians rode horses and had begun to use firearms; they became much more mobile and deadly.

New-World Spartans

Mr. Cozzens describes a way of life that could almost be that of Classical Sparta. He writes:

Fighting was a cultural imperative, and men owed their place in society to their prowess as warriors. . . . Fathers raised their sons to aspire to great martial deeds, and training for a warrior’s life began early . . . . At age five or six, boys were made to run long distances and to swim streams and were regularly deprived of food, water, and sleep — all with a view to toughening their bodies.

By the time an Indian was an adolescent, he was, in the words of Col. Richard I. Dodge, who spent 30 years fighting them, “the best rough rider and natural horseman in the world,” nothing less than “the finest soldiers in the world.” No young man could even think of courting a girl unless he had showed courage in battle. Any suitor had to face a mother who grilled him about his record as a warrior. If a young man wasn’t a “brave,” he was nothing.

Col. Richard I. Dodge, from his book, Our Wild Indians via Wikipedia.

Unlike the Spartans, who kept serf-like Helots to grow food, Indians hunted buffalo, which only made them better warriors. Women prepared meals, took care of children, and managed households. For many men, weapons and horses were their most prized possessions. They bought the best repeating rifles they could afford, but it was not easy to keep a good supply of ammunition, nor could they repair broken weapons. Corrupt cavalrymen sometimes sold them weapons, which Indians might use against them. Many continued to fight with bow and arrow — to excellent effect. One white trooper wrote that braves could hold half a dozen arrows in the left hand and let fly all of them before the first one hit the ground.

Taking scalps was proof of success in battle; an Indian scalp was worth more than a white scalp because Indians were harder to kill. It was common to mutilate enemy dead to keep their spirits from tormenting their killer in the afterlife. Indians were therefore determined to take their dead from the field. They practiced on horseback until they could scoop a fallen comrade off the ground at a full gallop. When the cavalry reported casualties for Indians, they were often just guesses because Indians left so few bodies behind.

Robert McGee, one of the few men ever to survive scalping. (Image via Library of Congress)

In battle, chiefs signaled to their men by holding a flag or gun tilted in a particular way or by flashing mirrors from high ground. Some blew shrill notes of an eagle-bone war whistle. Many Indians spoke English and when they were in earshot, they taunted and insulted the whites — just as they did enemy Indians.

Almost without exception, Indians believed in “medicine” to protect them in battle. This required ritual objects, incantations, face- and horse-painting, and prayers; some Indians would not fight if they could not prepare their “medicine.” Men wanted to ride with famous chiefs with strong “medicine,” but if such a man died in battle, his followers might give up the fight. Indians were afraid of artillery; just a few rounds would usually scatter them.

In most tribes, a warrior’s career was over by age 35 or 40, or once he had a son to take his place. It was a system of forced retirement that meant every man in the field was young and vigorous. Older men trained the young, and the most respected became chiefs.

Tribes moved with their families and possessions. Time and again, even lumbered with wives, children, and everything they owned, they outmaneuvered and outfought troops of professional soldiers — even in temperatures well below zero. Most of the time, the cavalry could not even find the enemy without the help of friendly Indian scouts.

The escape of the Nez Perce Indians to Canada in 1877 was a remarkable exploit. About 250 warriors, along with twice as many women and children under Chiefs Joseph, Looking Glass, and White Bird fought off and eluded a force of 1,500 Americans for 1,700 miles. They killed 180 and lost some 150. Mr. Cozzens writes that “man for man, they had proved themselves far superior to the soldiers sent out to stop them.”

Chief Looking Glass.

Mr. Cozzens admires the Indians’ qualities, but also sees their weaknesses: “The Indians of the American West might have been among the best soldiers man for man in the world, but their tactics were developed over decades of inter-tribal warfare, and poorly suited to open combat against a disciplined regular army unit.” Surprisingly, many army units were terrible.

The boys in blue

The war against the Indians started as the Civil War ended, just as men were leaving the army:

Gone with the sober and purposeful volunteers who had restored the Union, in their place was a decidedly inferior brand of soldiers. . . . There were also a disproportionately large number of urban poor, criminals, drunkards, and perverts. Few soldiers were well educated and many were illiterate.

The government was desperate to pay down the tremendous war debt and slashed the military budget. Soldiers were therefore badly trained, fed, and housed. General William T. Sherman, who fought Indians for years, wrote of army barracks in the West: “Surely, had the Southern planters put their Negros in such hovels, a sample would have been exhibited as illustrative of the cruelty and inhumanity of the man-masters.”

Mr. Cozzens writes — this seems difficult to believe — that “not until the early 1880s did the army encourage target practice, and replacements routinely took the field never having fired a rifle or ridden a horse.” One general remarked that while the army had a repeating rifle that was much better than Civil-War muzzle loaders, “I rather think we have a much less intelligent soldier to use it.” The cavalry had sabers, but almost never took them into battle. They knew they would be bristling with arrows before they got close enough to slash someone.

A 19th century Comanche warrior.

Mr. Cozzens calls the officers “a rogues gallery of bickering, backbiting mediocrities, drunks and martinets in epaulettes . . . . Both gambling and alcoholism were as prevalent among officers as they were among enlisted men. The sorry sight of inebriated officers stumbling to and from their quarters undoubtedly hurt unit morale.” Thousands of men deserted. Many saw a stint in the cavalry as a free trip out West that brought them within reach of the gold fields.

Such were the forces that faced each other as whites poured — in great numbers — into the West. In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which meant that any US citizen, including free blacks and female heads of household, got title to 160 acres of federal land West of the Mississippi if he improved the property and lived on it for five years.

Between 1861 and 1864, the population boom led to the creation of six new territories: Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, Dakota, and Colorado. In one six-week period, more than 6,000 wagons passed through Nebraska heading West. The Indians never imagined there were so many white people. During the winter of 1865 to 1866, whites so thoroughly depleted buffalo and antelope herds in Montana that the northern Oglala nearly starved to death.

In a period of just three years, railroads hauled 4,373,730 buffalo hides east from Kansas. Philip Sheridan, a Yankee who went on to fight Indians, knew how important buffalo were to the Indians and reveled in the slaughter. Hide hunters, he said, “had done more to settle the Indian problem in two years then the army had done in 30. For the sake of lasting peace, let them kill and skin until the buffalo are exterminated.” Without buffalo, the Indians could not live. They had no choice but to move onto a reservation and learn to farm or become wards of the Indian agency.

Sometimes, Indians had exclusive hunting rights and sometimes not, but either way, there were always hotheads who thought they could scare off the whites by killing enough of them. Buffalo hunters were mounted and well-armed, so Indians attacked settlers who may have never shot a buffalo — and did so with legendary cruelty. They slaughtered children, tortured men, ravaged and kidnapped women.

Mr. Cozzens writes of Kansas women captured by Indians: “They had been gang raped by the warriors, beaten without provocation by the Cheyenne women, and passed from hand to hand by purchase or as gambling winnings.” A typical game was for squaws to tie a white woman to a horse, turn them loose on the prairie, and let the men chase them on foot. Whoever caught the woman owned her.

Mr. Cozzens writes:

No Indians elicited less sympathy from frontier citizenry then did the Apache. Their incessant raiding kept Arizonans in a perpetual state of turmoil. The agony they inflicted on their captives, torturing them with exquisite cruelty, nauseated people in the territory and instilled in them a burning thirst for revenge on any and all Apaches.

Sometimes, young reservation Indians went marauding just for sport, slipping back onto the reservation — which was supposed to be inviolate to US soldiers — before the cavalry could catch them. Older Indians knew very well what these rampages would bring. In 1868, when the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle learned that his braves had slaughtered and raped settlers in the Saline River valley in Kansas, “he tore off his clothes and pulled out clumps of hair in grief.” He knew what was coming. He did his best to make peace, but was killed that same year, along with 200 other Cheyenne, two-thirds of them women and children.

Chief Black Kettle.

The Dog Soldiers, a Cheyenne sub-tribe that hunted in parts of Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado, played out the usual tragedy:

When the Union Pacific Railroad began its inexorable way through their country, bringing thousands of settlers and driving off the buffalo, the Dog Soldiers had thought to save their country and their way of life the only way they knew how — with horrific raids calculated to terrorize the whites into keeping away. Few whites understood the Dog Soldiers behavior, and fewer still could excuse the atrocities. The Dog Soldiers were likewise unable to comprehend the social and economic forces that impelled the whites to take their country.

Indians were just as merciless in battle. After a victory, women came for the whites, stripping and mutilating the dead and torturing the wounded. It was common to disembowel a living man, cut off his penis and shove it in his mouth, or cook him over a slow fire. The trooper’s motto was, “Save the last shot for yourself.”

There is no doubt that ill-disciplined white soldiers butchered Indian woman and children at such places as Sand Creek (1864) and Wounded Knee (1870), but they practiced nothing like the elaborate torture that was common among the Indians — but that was their way of making war before the white man came.

In any conflict, civilians die when armed men consider the entire population hostile. During the Vietnam War, some Americans’ view was, “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s a Vietcong.”[i] A German POW, who was being surreptitiously recorded and had no reason to lie, told a fellow prisoner about how his men dealt with suspected partisans on the Eastern Front:

There were fifty men in the village; forty-nine of them were shot and the fiftieth was hounded through the neighborhood so that he should spread abroad what happens to the populations if a German soldier is attacked.[ii]

Notable men

The Earth Is Weeping recounts every major engagement between whites and Plains Indians. Only a specialist would know how they all ended, so there is plenty of suspense for general readers. Many fascinating characters emerge on both sides, and one of the most interesting is the Apache Geronimo. He was born in 1829 in what is now New Mexico, and was given the name Goyahkla, meaning “He Who Yawns.” He dropped this uninspiring name and kept the one Mexicans gave him — which is Jerome in Spanish.

Geronimo

Mexicans killed his family, and he took revenge many times over. He once said: “I have killed many Mexicans; I do not know how many. Some of them were not worth counting.” Geronimo was a gifted war leader, but too dour and disliked ever to become a chief. He claimed to have magical powers that would cause a rifle pointed at him to jam or misfire, and many Indians believed him.

On his forays north into the United States, “he pillaged ranches, swept up livestock, and killed randomly, torturing men in every imaginable way, roasting women alive, and tossing children into nests of needle-crowned cacti.” He surrendered several times, moving to the reservation, but broke out. Once, he bolted back to Mexico when new rules banned the traditional Apache practices of beating women, carving off noses of adulterous wives, and brewing corn liquor.

Mr. Cozzens writes that after Geronimo surrendered for the last time, he surprised everyone by “becoming a model farmer and impressing his growing circle of white friends as a ‘kind old man.’ He said he had learned much of the whites during his long years of captivity, finding them to be ‘a very kind and peaceful people.’ ” As he got older, he became a celebrity, appearing at fairs and expositions. He entered a calf-roping contest at age 75 and sold signed photographs of himself.

In 1905, Geronimo rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade, and even dictated an autobiography. Four years later, age 79, he was riding home drunk and fell off his horse. A neighbor found him the next morning lying in freezing water; four days later he died of pneumonia.

Sitting Bull met a different end. He once said, “The white man never lived who loved an Indian, and no true Indian ever lived that did not hate the white man.” He was killed in 1890 in an unnecessary shootout with native police who worked for the Indian Agency.

Sitting Bull (Credit Image: David F. Barry via Wikimedia)

George A. Custer stands out among the whites. He was last in the class of 1861 at West Point, where he committed infractions that should have gotten him expelled. The academy let him graduate because the Union needed officers to fight Confederates. After the war, he went West. The first time Custer saw a buffalo he tried to hunt it, but the buffalo gored his horse. Custer tried to shoot the buffalo but killed his horse instead. He didn’t know where he was, and wandered for five miles before stumbling onto a troop of cavalry. It was another case of his legendary good luck. Louis Hamilton, the grandson of Alexander, rode next to Custer on an Indian campaign, and was killed by a single shot.

Custer had a reputation for recklessness. He was also an arbitrary commander, handing out harsh punishments for minor infractions. During his first Indian campaign, he heard rumors that his wife Libby might be having an affair. He abandoned his post to find her, and got a one-year suspension from the army without pay.

Once, after Custer had attacked a peaceful Indian band, he falsely claimed he had recovered two kidnapped white children to make it seem as though he had been killing hostiles. After a battle with Cheyenne, Mr. Cozzens writes that the circumstantial evidence is strong that Custer and some of his men took young women as sex toys.

Mr. Cozzens writes that the Black Hills campaign that took Custer to the Battle of Little Bighorn was one of the most treacherous in the history of Indian warfare. President Grant wanted the Black Hills, even though they belonged to the Lakota by treaty.

General George Armstrong Custer (Credit Image: Mathew Brady via Wikimedia)

Custer’s relations with his two main subordinates, Frederick Benteen and Marcus Reno, were terrible. Benteen thought Custer had lost men in a previous campaign through laziness and bad judgment. Reno also hated Custer and went into the battle stumbling drunk. Against the heated advice of his white officers and Indian guides, Custer divided his command and attacked an Indian force many times larger than his. Little Bighorn was the army’s worst defeat in the West: The Seventh Cavalry lost 264 killed and 60 wounded. Indians lost 36 warriors, six women, and four children, with perhaps 100 wounded.

No sense of ‘Indianness’

Mr. Cozzens points out a fundamental Indian weakness in their fight against the whites: “Not only did the Indians fail to unite . . . they also continued to make war on one another. There was no sense of ‘Indianness’ until it was too late.” When the cavalry rode against one tribe, it was easy to find warriors from a rival tribe who wanted nothing more than to kill hereditary enemies. The army hired Indians as expert trackers and scouts, and “competent frontier officers knew they stood no chance of winning without them.”

Often, Indian allies did not join the attack for fear whites would mistake them for the enemy and shoot them, but once the action was over, they swooped in to scalp and kill the wounded and rape women.

Even if the red man had united against the whites, it would only have delayed the inevitable. United Indians might have been able to demand larger reservations with better farmland and game, but the free range could not last. Indians needed countless thousands of square miles to maintain their way of life, and whites were not going to cordon off half a continent for them.

Many Indians who moved to reservations and took up farming and herding as the government told them to do did well. However, can we imagine Spartans — trained for nothing but war — submitting to conquest and doing the jobs Helots did? For braves, war and hunting were the only ways to gain status. On a reservation, they were no better than women, and any who refused to work lived on rations from the Indian agencies. As Mr. Cozzens writes, “Idleness and brooding made abject alcoholics out of once-proud warriors.”

If ever there was a “clash of civilizations” — using the term loosely — this was one. But it would be wrong to see the war on the plains as a race war. It was a clash of incompatible ways of life. Racial animus added a vicious dimension, but once Indians stopped killing settlers, the army stopped killing Indians.

Indians lost the fight, but there had always been winners and losers. Tribes constantly fought each other, driving weaker bands from good hunting grounds and exterminating them when they could. Every square inch of land the Lakota defended against Custer was land they had stolen from other tribes.

To put it in contemporary terms, “diversity” and uncontrolled immigration destroyed the Indian way of life. There is poignancy in the last words of the Lakota war leader Crazy Horse, who had fought alongside Sitting Bull at the Little Bighorn. As he lay dying of a bayonet wound at the hands of a white trooper, he said, “All I wanted was to be left alone.”

 

[i] Sonke Neitzel and Haradl Welzer, (Jefferson Chase, trans.) Soldaten, Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, p. 88.

[ii] Ibid, p. 79.

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