Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wars for the American West

While reading John A. Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, I was intrigued by his comments on the Indians Wars of the American West, which constitute the longest conflict of the U.S. military, as well as being irregular warfare across large areas. Having a significant interest in the West and how it has shaped the United States, I picked up Bill Yenne's Indian Wars: the Campaign for the American West, which is an overview of the U.S. government's conflicts with Native Americans from 1849 to 1890. Mr Yenne covers the nature of the conflicts, the military's strategies and tactics, as well as the other influences upon the direction and outcome of the Indian Wars.

Prior to the Civil War, the American West was a vast, remote and sparsely populated region Aside from the settlers moving across the Plains to the West Coast, there not many U.S. citizens to defend, so the U.S. military focused on defending the trails used by immigrants. In order to provide this defense, the Army built forts from which they could operate and patrol the area around these bases. The primary strategy was "search and destroy campaigns against isolated bands with the purpose of keeping them off balance and unable to organize systematic raids" (p. 93). By 1853, 66 percent of the regular U.S. Army was located in the West (23 percent of these along the Mexican border) to enforce this strategy. Operating alongside the Army during this time was the Bureau of Indian Affairs, created in 1834 and transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1849. The Bureau would act as a diplomatic arm of the U.S. government, establishing formal relations with tribes and paying an annuity to peaceful tribes.

Even with the United States embroiled in a civil war, conflicts with the Indians continued. It may comes as a surprise to some, who think of the Indian Wars as taking place on the plains of Montana, Wyoming, etc., but in 1862 the Santee Sioux staged an uprising in Minnesota. As a result of this and other actions against the Sioux in the Northern Plains, the United States began to develop the reservation policy. The U.S. Army would destroy the food and supplies of the bands, forcing them to seek assistance from the Indian Bureau who would provide assistance in exchange for the bands camping in designated areas near Army posts.

The reservations became formal policy in 1868, when it became apparent that strict boundaries were needed due to the mass migrations resulting from the Homestead Act and tumult of the Civil War. From this time on, the goal of the U.S. Army would be to force the tribes onto designated reservations. The Army effort would be supplemented by the "Peace Policy" of the U.S. government through the Indian Bureau, which was staffed with missionaries and church boards, primarily the Quakers. The peace policy came about as public opinion in the East turned toward conciliation of the Indian tribes; however, this urge for conciliation soon evaporated with events like the Camp Grant Massacre, which turned public opinion against the peace process and forced President Grant to pursue a more aggressive strategy. For example, in 1876, President Grant would order the U.S. Army to force the tribes of the Powder River area onto reservations; this would lead to the Great Sioux War - the most famous battle of which would be the Little Bighorn.

The war on the Plains slowly came to a close, leaving the last area of conflict in the Southwestern United States. This region had been relatively peaceful for at least a decade when trouble arose in the form of Apache raids in Mexico and the United States. Returning from the Plains, Gen. George Crook restored order with his unique tactics that had worked so well in the past: small, mobile units, knowledge of the terrain, using native scouts and knowledge of the opponent. The Indian Wars officially ended with the final surrender of Geronimo in 1886, but this was not the end of turbulent relations between the U.S. government and Native American tribes.

There were many massacres committed by both sides during this period, and alliances were formed and broken between the U.S. and various tribes. Mr Yenne does not go into detail about all of these instances, nor is this a comprehensive history of relations between Europeans and Indian tribes, but Mr Yenne gives a wealth of information about the Indian Wars. If you’re looking to study this period of history, and U.S. relations with the Indians in particular, Bill Yenne’s book is a good place to start.

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