The Reluctant Conquerors


It followed that so high an estimate of the enemy’s ability undermined the Army’s pride in its own competence. Sheridan berated the inefficiency that made campaigns in the West “a series of forlorn hopes,” and Sherman wrote in so many words to the Secretary of War what had silently haunted his fellow officers: “… it seems to be impossible to force Indians to fight at a disadvantage in their own country. Their sagacity and skill surpasses that of the white race.” It further followed that victory against such valiant opponents was bittersweet. Both Sheridan and Sherman confessed to pity and compassion for the native Americans they had set out to destroy. As Sheridan wrote: We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them and it was for this and against this they made war. Could anyone expect less?

Few officers escaped a sort of wistful appreciation of their primitive enemy in what they took to be his insatiable appetite for war—and not a few admired precisely this unrestrained aggressiveness. Indeed, peaceful assimilation seemed not good enough for the Indians. One of Sheridan’s favorite generals sought a large audience to explain the temptations of the Indian culture: To me, Indian life, with its attendant ceremonies, mysteries, and forms, is a book of unceasing interest. Grant that some of its pages are frightful, and, if possible, to be avoided, yet the attraction is none the weaker. Study him, fight him, civilize him if you can, he remains still the object of your curiosity, a type of man peculiar and undefined, subjecting himself to no known law of civilization, contending determinedly against all efforts to win him from his chosen mode of life. If I were an Indian, I often think I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people who adhered to the free open plains rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation, there to be the recipient of the blessed benefits of civilization, with its vices thrown in without stint or measure.

Two years after he published this gratuitous advice, General George A. Custer met the object of his interest for the last time at the Little Bighorn.

General Nelson A. Miles, one of the officers who chased the Sioux after Ouster’s fall, had a personal reason for revenge: an Indian had taken a pointblank shot at him during an awkward moment in a peace parley. But Miles’s reflections show the remarkable extent to which men like him overcame their anger with the enemy. The general spoke of the Indian’s “courage, skill, sagacity, endurance, fortitude, and self-sacrifice of a high order” and of “the dignity, hospitality, and gentleness of his demeanor toward strangers and toward his fellow savages.” Miles was inclined to think that lapses from this standard meant only that Indians had “degenerated through contact with the white man.” Writing on this subject, he did not show the personal arrogance and pride that was the despair of his military superiors. Miles viewed Ouster’s fall in 1876 as a chastising message for the nation’s centennial. He quoted Longfellow: “… say that our broken faith / wrought all this ruin and scathe, / In the Year of a Hundred Years.”

Miles was not an eccentric in the sympathies he expressed. Colonel John Gibbon, for example, the man who discovered the mutilated bodies of the soldiers who had fallen with Custer at the Little Bighorn, seemed, during his subsequent chase of the Sioux, more angry at the “human ghouls” in the Army who had disturbed some Sioux graves than at the warriors who had killed his colleagues. Such desecrations, he thundered, “impress one with the conviction that in war barbarism stands upon a level only a little lower than our boasted civilization.” By Gibbon’s lights, the record of white hostility and treachery would force any man to fight: “Thus would the savage in us come to the surface under the oppression which we know the Indian suffers.” Like so many Indian fighters who addressed the perennial “Indian question,” Gibbon raised more questions about his own culture than he answered about his enemy’s.

To these soldiers the courage and bearing of the red man suggested a purer way of life before the coming of the white man, and the military frequently searched for Greek and Roman analogies to suggest the virtues of its enemies. Heathens though they were, they had nobility. Even the Indians’ faults might be excused by their manifestly lower stage of cultural evolution.

General George Crook was in a good position to speak of the red men’s virtues, for as a fighting man he resembled them. In the field he dispensed with the army uniform and seemed only at ease when he was free of all cumbersome marks of civilization. Crook left one post, he tells us, “with one change of underclothes, toothbrush, etc., and went to investigate matters, intending to be gone a week. But I got interested after the Indians and did not return there again for over two years.”