Category Archives: military

U.S. Army Decline, 1870s

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1154-1167:

Even as the Indian Wars intensified, Congress—intent on paying down the massive national debt incurred during the Civil War—repeatedly reduced the rolls of the regular army. From an authorized strength of fifty-four thousand men in 1869, the army would plummet to just twenty-five thousand by 1874. Reconstruction duties siphoned off a third of the army and sucked the institution into partisan politics. As Southern states were readmitted to the Union, their representatives made common cause with the budget balancers in order to emasculate their blue-coated former oppressors, and the frontier army became a skeleton force.

Declining numbers were not the army’s only problem. Gone were the sober and purposeful volunteers who had restored the Union. In their place was a decidedly inferior brand of soldier. Not all were “bummers and loafers,” as the New York Sun alleged. There were also a disproportionately large number of urban poor, criminals, drunkards, and perverts. Few soldiers were well educated, and many were illiterate. Unskilled laborers in search of a steady job flocked to recruiting depots, usually to desert when better-paying work became available. One-third of the frontier army consisted of recent immigrants, mostly German and Irish, some of whom had seen service in European armies and proved an asset, and sprinkled among the American undesirables were good men who had fallen on hard times. Nevertheless, as one general observed, while the army had a greatly improved rifle, “I rather think we have a much less intelligent soldier to use it.”

Incentives to enlist were few. By the 1870s, regulars earned just ten dollars a month, three dollars less than had Civil War volunteers a decade earlier.

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U.S. Pawnee Battalion vs. Cheyenne Dog Soldiers

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1565-1570, 2266-2281:

The only force that had proven able to best the Oglalas and the Cheyennes was Major Frank North’s Pawnee Battalion. North’s command was an experiment in recruiting friendly Indians as soldiers that paid handsome dividends. Uniformed in regulation blue and well armed, the two hundred warriors of the Pawnee Battalion protected Union Pacific work crews far more effectively than the army. They marched and drilled as cavalry but fought in the loose formations of Plains warriors. In early August, a Pawnee company attacked a large Cheyenne war party that was plundering a derailed freight train, killing by North’s estimate seventeen warriors. Cheyenne sources disputed the numbers, but the blow kept their war parties away from the railroad.

The Pawnees did most of the killing at Summit Springs, and they killed without mercy. The Cheyennes expected as much. “I do not belittle the Pawnees for their killing of women or children because as far back as any of us could remember the Cheyenne and Sioux slaughtered every male, female, and child they could run across of the Pawnee tribe,” said a Dog Soldier survivor. “Each tribe hated the other with a deadly passion and savage hearts [that] know only total war.” Sherman and Sheridan’s notion of total war paled beside that of the Plains Indians.

Carr achieved complete victory at Summit Springs. He reported fifty-two Cheyennes killed (sexes and ages unspecified), an unknown number wounded, and seventeen women and children captured. No soldiers died, and only one was wounded, barely scratched by an arrow. Carr burned eighty-six lodges and captured 450 ponies. Remnants of Tall Bull’s village reached the Lakota camps in the Black Hills, but the Dog Soldiers as a band had ceased to exist. In those twenty terrifying minutes at Summit Springs, their world ended. For all their truculence, the Dog Soldiers had not sought war with the whites. Tall Bull had spoken truthfully when he told General Hancock in 1867 that the Dog Soldiers wanted only to live unmolested in their Republican River home. When the Union Pacific Railroad began its inexorable way toward their country, bringing thousands of settlers and driving off the buffalo, the Dog Soldiers had fought 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. Nevertheless, it was a brutal fate that decreed the Dog Soldiers’ annihilation after they had given up the struggle.

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U.S. Betrayal of Pawnee Allies

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 3858-3875:

After Sitting Bull’s investiture as head of the non-treaty Lakotas, his uncle Four Horns advised him to “be a little against fighting but when anyone shoots be ready to fight him.”

Four Horns’s counsel, however, applied only to whites; Crows continued to be fair game. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse led the push to dispossess the Crows of their remaining hunting grounds in the early 1870s, but many from the treaty bands fought with them, as did the Northern Cheyennes and, to a lesser degree, their Northern Arapaho allies. The architects of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 had included Crow land within the Unceded Indian Territory, which made Lakota aggression perfectly legal. But it threatened the citizens of southwestern Montana, who had counted on the Crows as a buffer between themselves and Lakotas, and the governor appealed for federal intervention. Generals Sherman and Sheridan made it a matter of unofficial policy to supply the Crows with arms. Each side benefited: settlers felt safer, and the army winked at Crow retaliatory raids against the Lakotas.

The Crows had it hard, but none suffered more for their fidelity to the Great Father than did the Pawnees. Agency Oglala and Brulé warriors raided Pawnee villages in central Nebraska with the implicit support of Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, who saw nothing amiss in young warriors sating their hunger for war honors at the expense of tribal enemies. Certainly it was preferable to unwinnable wars with the whites. In August 1873, at least eight hundred Lakota warriors, perhaps led by Spotted Tail himself, fell upon a Pawnee hunting party in southwestern Nebraska, killing a hundred, of whom nearly half were women and children. Only the timely appearance of a cavalry detachment prevented a greater slaughter.

The massacre broke the spirit of the Pawnees. Nebraskans who recalled the protection that the Pawnees had afforded Union Pacific work crews in their state were outraged and demanded the government give the Pawnees the best available arms in order to meet the Lakotas on an equal footing. Instead, the Indian Bureau banished the Pawnees to Indian Territory. In their single-minded ambition to remake the hostile tribes into white men, the eastern humanitarians did not lift a finger to forestall this unpardonable act of bad faith.

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U.S. Grant’s New Indian Bureau, 1868

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2321-2341:

The election of Ulysses S. Grant as president in November 1868 seemingly boded well for the army. After all, as commanding general he had defended Sherman and Sheridan’s hardfisted approach to the Indian problem and decried civilian meddling. But President-elect Grant was not General Grant, and to the surprise of the generals he welcomed ideas from the reformers, particularly the Quakers. Embracing their suggestion that religious men replace spoilsmen as agents, Grant gave the Quakers control over the two most critical—and difficult—Indian Bureau field operations: the Northern Indian Superintendency, comprising six agencies in Nebraska, and the Central Superintendency, which embraced Kansas and the “uncivilized” portion of Indian Territory (that is to say, the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho, and the Kiowa and Comanche agencies). The apportionment of these superintendencies to the Society of Friends became known as Grant’s Quaker Policy. To run the remaining superintendencies and agencies in the West, Grant selected honest and reliable army officers.

Grant also wanted to establish independent oversight of the Indian Bureau. To achieve it, he persuaded Congress to create the Board of Indian Commissioners. Composed of wealthy philanthropists, the board was given wide authority to scrutinize the operations of the Indian Bureau in Washington and in the field. And then Grant did something even more remarkable: he appointed an Indian to be commissioner of Indian affairs.

The new commissioner was Ely S. Parker, a full-blooded Seneca Iroquois sachem from upstate New York and a civil engineer who had risen to the rank of brevet brigadier general on Grant’s staff during the Civil War. Parker was a man of proven integrity. Although he subscribed to the prevailing view that the Indians’ future lay in acculturation, he nonetheless could be counted on to make it as painless as possible. In June 1869, Parker instructed his staff on their duties under the Grant administration: Indian agents and their superintendents were to assemble Indians in their jurisdictions on permanent reservations, get them started on the road to civilization, and above all treat them with kindness and patience. Indians who refused to settle on reservations would be turned over to military control, however, and treated as “friendly or hostile as circumstances might justify.”

Grant saw no humane alternative to his administration’s carrot-and-stick body of principles that the press labeled the “Peace Policy” and its concomitant policies of concentrating the Indians on reservations far from whites and of consolidating small reservations into larger ones populated by two or more tribes, which meant that tribes promised exclusive homes stood to lose them regardless of treaty guarantees.

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Retelling the Indian Wars in the American West

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 322-354:

A newspaperman once asked George Crook, one of the preeminent generals in the West, how he felt about his job. It was a hard thing, he replied, to be forced to do battle with Indians who more often than not were in the right. “I do not wonder, and you will not either, that when Indians see their wives and children starving and their last source of supplies cut off, they go to war. And then we are sent out there to kill them. It is an outrage. All tribes tell the same story. They are surrounded on all sides, the game is destroyed or driven away, they are left to starve, and there remains but one thing for them to do—fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage.”

That a general would offer such a candid and forceful public defense of the Indians seems implausible because it contradicts an enduring myth: that the regular army was the implacable foe of the Indian.

No epoch in American history, in fact, is more deeply steeped in myth than the era of the Indian Wars of the American West. For 125 years, much of both popular and academic history, film, and fiction has depicted the period as an absolute struggle between good and evil, reversing the roles of heroes and villains as necessary to accommodate a changing national conscience.

In the first eighty years following the tragedy at Wounded Knee, which marked the end of Indian resistance, the nation romanticized Indian fighters and white settlers and vilified or trivialized the Indians who resisted them. The army appeared as the shining knights of an enlightened government dedicated to conquering the wilderness and to “civilizing” the West and its Native American inhabitants.

In 1970, the story reversed itself, and the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme. Americans were developing an acute sense of the countless wrongs done the Indians. Dee Brown’s elegantly written and passionately wrought Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and, later that same year, the film Little Big Man shaped a new saga that articulated the nation’s feelings of guilt. In the public mind, the government and the army of the latter decades of the nineteenth century became seen as willful exterminators of the Native peoples of the West. (In fact, the government’s response to what was commonly called the “Indian problem” was inconsistent, and although massacres occurred and treaties were broken, the federal government never contemplated genocide. That the Indian way of life must be eradicated if the Indian were to survive, however, was taken for granted.)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee still deeply influences the way Americans perceive the Indian Wars and has remained the standard popular work on the era. It is at once ironic and unique that so crucial a period of our history remains largely defined by a work that made no attempt at historical balance. Dee Brown gave as the stated purpose of his book the presentation of “the conquest of the American West as the victims experienced it,” hence the book’s subtitle, An Indian History of the American West. Brown’s definition of victims was severely circumscribed. Several tribes, most notably the Shoshones, Crows, and Pawnees, cast their fate with the whites. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee dismissed these tribes as “mercenaries” with no attempt to understand them or explain their motives. These Indians, like the army and the government, became cardboard cutouts, mere foils for the “victims” in the story.

Such a one-sided approach to the study of history ultimately serves no good purpose; it is impossible to judge honestly the true injustice done the Indians, or the army’s real role in those tragic times, without a thorough and nuanced understanding of the white perspective as well as that of the Indians. What I have sought to do in this book, then, is bring historical balance to the story of the Indian Wars. I hesitate to use the word “restore” when speaking of balance, because it is the pendulum swings that have defined society’s understanding of the subject since the closing of the military frontier in 1891.

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Afghanistan’s Communist Revolutionaries, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2221-2259:

Taraki and Amin both belonged to the PDPA’s other faction, known as Khalq (“the People” or “the Masses”). Khalq’s ethnic basis was narrower than Parcham’s: Khalqis were overwhelmingly Pashtuns, and more often than not they hailed from a particular subset of the Pashtuns. Taraki and Amin were both members of a particular Pashtun tribal confederation, the Ghilzais, that had long chafed under the domination of more powerful Pashtun groups—and especially the Durranis, the dynasty that had dominated Afghanistan for centuries, right up until the Communist coup. (Both Daoud and Zahir Shah were Durranis.) The Khalqis tended to be far less vested in the existing system of ruling elites, and this helps to explain the radicalism that dominated their thinking.

Khalqis were, above all, dutiful Leninists. Like so many other would-be Third World modernizers, they detested their country’s backwardness, and they believed that the only reasonable cure was to frog-march it into the twentieth century by brute force, if need be. To be sure, Afghanistan didn’t really have a proletariat, and though many aspects of its agricultural system appeared backward and traditional, most peasants actually owned their own land. But no matter. There was one institution that could still serve as a revolutionary vanguard, and that was the army. For years the military had been one of the few structures in the country—along with the monarchy and a steadily expanding state educational system—that managed to coalesce the notoriously unruly Afghans around a sense of shared national destiny. The military was one Afghan institution that offered opportunities for advancement even to those who weren’t part of the traditional elites. And the upper ranks were filled with officers who had studied in the Soviet Union, which offered them a clear example of a primitive rural society that the Communists had mobilized into a modern industrial power.

The ideological differences between Parcham and Khalq were just part of the problem. There were also intense personal feuds at work. Karmal, the Persian-speaking patrician, despised Taraki and Amin as upstarts, and they were happy to return the favor. In the old, prerevolutionary parliament, Amin had been famous for his easy joshing with his opponents among the religious conservatives, who gave their atheist colleague the joking nickname of “Satan.” Karmal, a formidable orator once imprisoned for five years by the king, had emerged to become a political heavyweight courted even by Daoud himself, and he cultivated a self-regard that alienated just about everyone. As the new Communist regime got under way, Amin couldn’t help reminding the Parchamis that they had spent the “revolution” cringing in prison while the Khalqis got on with the job. The Parchamis, in turn, regarded the Khalqis as bumbling zealots who needed a bit of adult supervision.

The Afghan public at large knew little of this, of course. What they saw instead were slogans, revolutionary parades, and a burgeoning personality cult centered on Taraki. There is little doubt that the vast majority of Afghans—most of whom had no access to television or newspapers—regarded all this with bemusement, apprehension, or apathy. But the state almost immediately denied them the luxury of disengagement. Within weeks of seizing power, the new revolutionary government announced a series of far-reaching edicts that would tip Afghan society into a maelstrom from which it is still struggling to recover.

Decree Number One proclaimed land reform. The proclaimed intent was to uproot the supposedly feudal underpinnings of Afghan society, stripping power from traditional landlords and canceling unfair lending arrangements that had kept millions of people indentured to local power brokers. The political aim was to give the majority of Afghans—who overwhelmingly lived in the countryside—a reason to love the new government. A flurry of other new reform measures followed. A literacy campaign taught the benighted how to read and write. Women received full civic rights. It was a program that bore a striking resemblance to the shah’s White Revolution [in Iran].

It all sounded wonderful, on paper. The problem was that this blizzard of reforms, and especially the realities of their implementation, bore little or no relation to the society they were intended to change. Of course, everyone believed in the goal of literacy, but the catch was that the government had little in the way of resources to accomplish the task of educating the rural poor. So it relied, as Communist regimes so often had in the past, on a mixture of mobilization and brute force to fill the gap. Zealous young schoolteachers dispatched to the villages, invariably without proper textbooks or teaching materials, often ended up haranguing the locals on their backwardness. What particularly inflamed the locals was the newcomers’ insistence that women should take part in the courses, in classrooms that mingled both sexes. Mobs drove the arrogant outsiders away. In some cases the do-gooders then returned with escorts of government troops, and literacy classes then proceeded at bayonet point.

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The American Revolution as Proxy War

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1016-1023, 3715-3731:

What had begun as a sectional rebellion in North America had grown into a major geopolitical shift thanks in part to the inability of the king’s commanders to snuff out the revolution in its infant stages. While the capture and occupation of New York and Philadelphia had been major benchmarks of Howe’s tenure on the continent, Washington’s penchant for escape had allowed a supposedly containable problem to spread. The loss at Saratoga and the entry of France had helped to legitimize the rebel cause. Now, with Washington’s army rejuvenated at Valley Forge, the British would have to not only deal with his rebels but also focus their military efforts elsewhere. As the Americans had no navy to speak of initially, they could not pose any meaningful threat to Britain’s island holdings around the world; the arrival of France, however, suddenly had George III fighting a defensive war, on land and on the seas.

French policy makers treated the American rebellion as a proxy war, an analog to the great struggle for influence and colonial control that was the defining theme of European conflict of the eighteenth century. With that commencement of hostility the war that began as a colonial uprising transformed into a global affair. Fueled by Old World rivalries and longstanding animosity over decades-gone wars, the planet was divided into theaters of combat that extended far beyond the initial shots at Lexington Green. The still smoldering kindling of over six centuries of periodic conflict between Great Britain and France reignited in a blaze ranging from the Caribbean Sea and Central America to the subcontinent of India. The two world powers had each lain in wait with long-standing strategic objectives and contingencies in place for capturing high-value possessions of the other, and with the formal declaration of war it did not take long for them to go into motion. Already by the time that the Waldeckers sailed from New York in November, the British East India Company had successfully orchestrated a ten-week siege to capture the highly profitable French-controlled port of Pondicherry on India’s eastern coastline.

War had come, and the Caribbean was equally on notice. It did not take long for action to get under way, and for the French it began almost immediately. Situated in the heart of the Lesser Antilles the island of Dominica was a long-standing reminder of the lingering animosity of the Seven Years’ War. Originally a French colony, Dominica was captured in 1761, and by 1778 remained firmly in British hands; the fact that it was nestled between the French islands of Martinique to the south and Guadeloupe to the north made this especially insulting. Although it was a painful memento of their past defeat, for the French high command it was now serving as a practical thorn in their side as well. It was no secret that privateers often used the island’s ports as launching points to raid enemy shipping, and if Dominica could be captured it would take away Britain’s vital toehold in the area. Along with disabling Britain’s overall effectiveness, French policy makers believed that reclaiming the island would greatly improve communication between the two island colonies that it separated.

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