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The Reluctant Conquerors

July 2024
14min read

How the Generals Viewed the Indians

The white man’s peace at Appomattox in 1865 meant war for the Plains Indians. In the next quarter century six and a half million settlers moved west of the Missouri River, upsetting a precarious balance that had existed between two million earlier pioneers and their hundred thousand “hostile” red neighbors. The industrial energy that had flowed into the Civil War now pushed rail lines across traditional hunting grounds. Some twenty-five thousand soldiers were sent west to meet insistent demands for protection coming from stockmen and miners spread out between the Staked Plains of Texas and the Montana lands watered by the Powder, Bighorn, and Yellowstone rivers.

It is ironic that the men who carried the wounds of the struggle to maintain the union of their own society now were ordered to dismember the culture of the native Americans. These Indian fighters today have been knocked out of that false gallery of heroes created by western novels and movies. On the centennial of the Battle of the Little Bighorn a granite mountain outside of Custer, South Dakota, is being carved into the shape of the Sioux warrior leader Crazy Horse. Times have changed, and a second look at the Army’s Indian fighters is in order. They have a complex story to tell, one filled with an ambivalence about their enemy as well as about the civilians who sent them to fight.

The officer corps did not relish their double assignment of pushing Indians back from lands claimed by whites and, for good measure, “redeeming” native Americans from “barbarism”—for Christian civilization. In the letter books and official reports that these men kept so meticulously on the frontier there is a continual lament: civilian officials and opinion makers only cut budgets and issued contradictory directions. The rules of war demanded restraint and a fine regard for the enemy’s rights, but it seemed as if the same civilians who interpreted these rules wanted quick work on the battlefield. The United States government itself broke the treaties that promised the Indians land, yet expected the Army to keep the peace through mutual trust.

At the same time that western settlers were clamoring for protection, their land grabs were provoking Indian retaliation. Not incidentally, army officers endured the torture of the annual congressional debate over how much their pay should be cut and seethed as western bankers charged 12 to 40 per cent to convert their government paper into the coin they needed on the frontier. “Friends” of the Indian—with their talk of a “conquest by kindness”—were a special annoyance. Eastern philanthropists like Edward A. Lawrence damned the officers when blood was shed and were among those who chillingly approved the “swift retribution” meted out to General Custer by the Sioux. Frontier forts rarely had the long, timbered stockades beloved by Hollywood set designers—but perhaps many officers longed for a massive wall, high enough to repel civilians as well as Indians.

By 1870 General William T. Sherman doubted he could fight with honor on the plains; from the west and the east, he wrote, “we are placed between two fires.” But Sherman may have been envied by another proud Civil War hero, General Philip H. Sheridan, who mused upon a shattered reputation as he watched whole frontier towns—wanting the extermination of Indians—turn out to hang him in effigy.

To officers so provoked, action seemed the thing to sweep away the complications of the Indian problem; to strike at the red man again and again appeared not only the quickest way to dry up civilian complaints but the just way to punish an incomprehensibly wild enemy. Sheridan pleaded with Sherman for authority to act upon the appalling reports that crossed his desk each week: Since 1862 at least 800 men, women, and children have been murdered within the limits of my present command, in the most fiendish manner; the men usually scalped and mutilated, their [he omits the word] cut off and placed in their mouth; women ravished sometimes fifty and sixty times in succession, then killed and scalped, sticks stuck in their persons, before and after death.

Sheridan said it was now a question of who was to remain alive in his district, red or white. As for himself: “I have made my choice.” It was, in fact, Sheridan who first enunciated the judgment that would become the epitaph of so many native Americans: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”

Sheridan’s choice, made in passion, proved extraordinarily complicated to carry out, for the fact is that the Indian fighters were troubled by various kinds of respect for their enemy. In the first place, no commander in the West could conceal his admiration for the red man’s fighting skill. “Experience of late years,” one reported to his colleagues, “has most conclusively shown that our cavalry cannot cope with the Indian man for man.” Though these seasoned veterans and heroes reported a very favorable official casualty ratio, in more candid moments they pronounced that Indian fighting was the most difficult combat American soldiers had ever faced.

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.”

In the harsh campaigns in the Southwest, Crook taught his men to move over the land like Apaches, and when white men failed him, he was adept in recruiting Indians for army service. Frederic Remington observed Crook’s methods and saw they made officers less “Indian fighters” than “Indian thinkers.” “He’s more of an Indian than I am,” marveled one Apache. Crook repaid such compliments; back at West Point to deliver a graduation address, he may have shocked many with this observation: With all his faults, and he has many, the American Indian is not half so black as he has been painted. He is cruel in war, treacherous at times, and not over cleanly. But so were our forefathers. His nature, however, is responsive to treatment which assures him that it is based upon justice, truth, honesty, and common sense. …

Crook hesitated to condemn even the most ferocious Apaches, because he respected their spirit and believed that “we are too culpable as a nation, for the existing condition of affairs.”

In the view of many officers the weaknesses of their own culture were more glaring than the faults of their enemy. “Barbarism torments the body; civilization torments the soul,” one colonel concluded. “The savage remorselessly takes your scalp, your civilized friend as remorselessly swindles you out of your property.” Indeed, many of the officers who led the fight for civilization seemed to accept Indian culture on its own terms. Colonel Henry B. Carrington—one of the field officers who supplied Sheridan with maddening accounts of Indian outrages—was an interesting case study. Carrington’s official report of the eighty fallen soldiers under his command in the Fetterman fight in Wyoming in 1866 provided grisly reading: Eyes torn out and laid on the rocks; teeth chopped out; joints of fingers cut off; brains taken out and placed on rocks, with members of the body; entrails taken out and exposed; hands and feet cut off; arms taken out from sockets; eyes, ears, mouth, and arms penetrated with spearheads, sticks, and arrows; punctures upon every sensitive part of the body, even to the soles of the feet and the palms of the hand.

The Indian Fighters


Yet Carrington’s own response to this carnage was not vengeful but reflective, even scholarly. A year later Margaret Carrington, the colonel’s wife, published Ab-sa-ra-ka , a study of the region the Army had fought to control. In her book she treated this Indian act of warfare with impressive open-mindedness, never directly condemning it. She did note that “the noblest traits of the soldiers were touchingly developed as they carefully handled the mutilated fragments” from the battlefield—but she also praised the Indian: “In ambush and decoy, splendid .” Close observers, she wrote, overcame anger to become reconciled, even sympathetic, to “the bold warrior in his great struggle.”

As he took charge of enlarged sections of Ab-sa-ra-ka in the 1870’s Colonel Carrington expanded on this theme of noble resistance. To him the barbarities of the whites , in their “irresponsible speculative emigration,”overshadowed the red “massacre” of Fetterman’s men. Carrington confessed, like Custer, “if I had been a red man as I was a white man, I should have fought as bitterly, if not as brutally, as the Indian fought.” And standing before the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1880 to read his official report of the Fetterman mutilations again, Carrington explained to the scientists that the Indian’s disposition of enemies was intended to disable his foe in the afterlife, and so was quite understandable. Nor did he disparage the red man’s values, but rather closed his address by suggesting some inadequacies on the other—his own—side: “From 1865 until the present time, there has not been a border campaign which did not have its impulse in the aggressions of a white man.”

Few men in the West raised more unusual questions about both cultures than Captain John Bourke. He entered the campaigns, he wrote later, “with the sincere conviction that the only good Indian was a dead Indian, and that the only use to make of him was that of a fertilizer.” But the notebooks of this odd, inquiring soul reveal a man haunted by the details of the enemy’s life. Mastering several Indian languages, Bourke produced an impressive series of monographs on native religious ceremonies, and in 1895 he became president of the American Folklore Society. Learning proved corrosive to his early cultural pride, and at the end of his army service he was willing to admit that “the American aborigine is not indebted to his pale-faced brother, no matter what nation or race he may be, for lessons in tenderness and humanity.”

Admittedly, Captain Bourke’s appreciation of native culture was more complex than the respect paid by other Indian fighters. Acknowledging the red man’s fighting prowess and noble character, Bourke was more deeply interested in Indian snake ceremonies and scatological rites—mysteries thoroughly repulsive to most white sensibilities. Indeed, his interest in these ceremonies was as intense and sustained as were his protestations of “horror” during each “filthy” and “disgusting” rite. He put all this scholarship and his rather prurient curiosity to work in Scatalogic Rites of All Nations , where he observed such “orgies” throughout the development of Western civilization, even surviving in nations of what he called “high enlightenment.” Here was no sentimental accommodation with Indian culture but a panoramic reminder to the white race of its own barbaric past. Thus the Indians’ vices, no less than their virtues, set up a mirror before the advancing Christian whites.

It did not, of course, deter the whites. However noble their image of the savage may have been, it is important to recognize in all of these Indian fighters a fundamental conviction that the price of civilization was not too high. Aware as they were of the ambiguities of their mission, their sympathies and remorse never swayed them from their duty, and no officer of tender conscience was provoked to resign his commission.

How were such mixed emotions sustained? In point of fact, the military’s apologia for the red man answered certain professional and psychological needs of the workaday Army. The Army, for both noble and ignoble reasons, wanted to assume control of the administration of Indian affairs that had been held by civilians—a few good words for the long-suffering red man smoothed the way to this goal. Further, by praising the Plains Indians as relentless and efficient warriors the military justified its own ruthless strategy—and setbacks. Nor was frontier ethnology exactly disinterested; close study of the Indians often yielded military advantage for white men. And while empathy for the enemy clearly made the assignment to “redeem” the Indian more painful, there were some emotional satisfactions to be derived from even the most generous attitudes toward the Indians’ way of life.

In some instances an officer’s respect for the primitive’s unfettered aggressiveness happily loosened his own. Thus General George Schofield, commander of the Department of the Missouri, could confess that “civilized man … never feels so happy as when he throws off a large part of his civilization and reverts to the life of a semi-savage.” When Schofield acted on his own advice on a long hunting trip, he returned invigorated, recording that “I wanted no other occupation in life than to ward off the savage and kill off his food until there should no longer be an Indian frontier in our beautiful country.” One of Sherman’s aides reached a similar ominous conclusion after saluting the red man’s way of life. This officer was deeply impressed by his colleagues’ glowing reports of the nobility of Indian religion, and, he mused, There is no doubt the Indians have, at times, been shamefully treated. … And there is no doubt a man of spirit would rebel. … However, it is useless to moralize about the Indians. Their fate is fixed, and we are so near their end, it is easy to see what that fate is to be. That the Indian might be collected, and put out of misery by being shot deliberately, (as it would be done to a disabled animal), would seem shocking, but something could be said in favor of such procedure.

This puzzling mixture of aggression and regret is less surprising if we take into account the ways, according to contemporary psychologists, that anger and frustration can give rise to these contrasting emotions. The officer corps was enraged by much of what it saw happening to America. The Indians’ tactics seemed horrible yet ingenious. Their culture was repellent, but also alluring for its integrity. At the same time, evident in the reports and memoirs of these officers is a disturbing sense of having been abandoned by their own unworthy civilization. Army training and experience prevented these men from acting out their anger, and some anger was instead internalized and expressed in the mourning and guilt they exhibited so frequently. Their appreciation of the native Americans for what they had been was combined with a determination to punish a society for what it refused to become. Their fight for civilized settlement as it should be was troubled by their anger that some virtues, retained by the Indians, were slipping away from the white man.

If we appreciate the military’s doubts—of its mandate, of its justice, of its ability, as well as of its commitments to civilization, duty, and progress—the tragedy of the West does not go away. It deepens. Was there an escape from the emotional trap in which the Army found itself? To refuse to win the West would have required a conversion to primitivism hard to imagine inside the ranks of army life and scarcely imaginable in ordinary men living ordinary lives outside of the Army. But the career of one lieutenant in the Nez Perce war illustrates that such a transformation was possible.

Charles Erskine Scott Wood (1852-1944) served on General O. O. Howard’s staff, and it was he who took down the very moving speech of the defeated Chief Joseph. Wood’s reflections on the Nez Perce campaign, published in the early 1880’s, struck the conventional balance between remorse and pride. Surveying the shameful record of white treaty violations, he warned his army colleagues that retribution might follow. Yet there seemed to be no other possible outcome—“forces” were “silently at work, beyond all human control,” against the red man’s survival. Wood, a gifted literary man, proceeded to join the somewhat crowded celebration of the culture he had worked to destroy, hymning the vividness and nobility of the Indian, qualities that seemed poignant by their passing. But in all this he declined to attack directly the civilization that had corrupted and supplanted the Indians’, and his fashionable sympathy sounded much like General Ouster’s.

But Wood was, in time, to change greatly. He quit the Army, entered the Columbia Law School, and began to cause trouble. Not satisfied with the state of letters or the law in his time, Wood allied himself with the radical Industrial Workers of the World and searched for a literary form to express his increasingly anarchistic temperament. The fruit of this veteran’s singular rehabilitation was a long experimental poem, The Poet in the Desert , an affecting personal renunciation of “civilization” and a call for the revolt of the masses against privilege. Wood, with booming voice and flowing white beard, was in the twentieth century rather like Father Time—reminding Americans of sins against the Indians. He knew:

I have lain out with the brown men And know they are favored. Nature whispered to them her secrets, But passed me by.

I sprawled flat in the bunch-grass, a target For the just bullets of my brown brothers betrayed. I was a soldier, and, at command, Had gone out to kill and be killed.

We swept like fire over the smoke-browned tee-pees; Their conical tops peering above the willows. We frightened the air with crackle of rifles, Women’s shrieks, children’s screams, Shrill yells of savages; Curses of Christians. The rifles chuckled continually. A poor people who asked nothing but freedom, Butchered in the dark.

Wood’s polemic is more straightforward than many that are asserted today on behalf of the native Americans. He learned—and his colleagues in the Army demonstrated—that respect and compassion for another culture are very unsure checks on violence. And Wood’s life points out one of the costs of war that Americans have generally been spared: in a prolonged campaign the victor can emerge attracted to his enemy’s faith. Our frontier officers had put a civil war behind them and were not ready to turn against their society to save the red man. But their thoughtfully expressed ambivalence toward their task of winning the West throws a revealing light on a history that is still too often falsified with glib stereotypes.

An Officer’s Son With Chief Joseph

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