Author: Peter Cozzens (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)
Reviewed by David Bland
It is not often that a book stays with you over the years, popping up into consciousness unexpectedly and in just such a way that it helps you understand events that are completely unrelated to it. Such a book is, for me, “The Earth is Weeping.” The book is about America’s westward thrust in the latter half of the 19th century, but it changed the way I think about global events in the 21st century. For that reason, I wanted to share this book, published in 2016, with my friends.
This is a terrific book and a great read about an important era in American history, one that shapes our view of ourselves as Americans to this day. Author Peter Cozzens is one of those guys someone like me can only look upon in wonderment. He was a career foreign service officer, recently retired, who has written or edited some 17 books on the Civil War and Indian Wars, all while serving in the Foreign Service. He was awarded the William R. Rivken award of the American Foreign Service Association for officers who have “exhibited extraordinary accomplishment involving initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and constructive dissent.”
I knew little about native Americans or the Indian Wars prior to reading this book. Everything I knew came from casually seeing things in the popular culture, including movies, TV, the counterculture of the ‘60s and, not unimportantly, the new age mythologies about Native Americans since then. But I never read what was certainly the most influential book of my generation about America’s treatment of the Native Americans, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” though I did read many years later another very influential book, “Little Big Man,” a terrific read later turned into a terrific movie starring Dustin Hoffman.
Cozzens is very clear in his public statements that he wrote the book as a corrective to “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” and to what he terms the three most egregious myths about this period:
1. That the army was hell-bent on killing Indians. Cozzens says that many members of the Army’s high command as well as those posted to the frontier were, on the whole, personally sympathetic to the plight of the Indians.
2. That the Government’s policy was exterminationist. Cozzens says the Government never had such a policy, though in practice the army carried out numerous examples of what we would now call ethnic cleansing.
3. That Native Americans were united as a people in opposition to the United States. Cozzens points out that the tribes were at such odds with each other that many even allied themselves with the Army to defeat their historic foes, other Native Americans. Moreover, and I never knew this, he says that the Plains Indians who fought the Army were themselves an invading force who had conquered the Plains inhabited by other tribes a century earlier.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, given Cozzens’ “egregious myths,” since those “myths” pretty much summed up my own and most everyone else’s popular conception about the period, so let me state right from the start that Cozzens does not in any way sugarcoat or deny the brutal, inhuman, murderous activities carried out by the U.S. Government and the Army. I’ll come back to this point later.
What Cozzens does say is that Indians found themselves in an impossible situation, for they were a technically, numerically, and economically inferior group of disparate peoples facing a powerhouse united in its expansionist national policies following the Civil War. “The frontier army in 1866 thus found itself in the dual role of gatekeeper and guardian of the westering population of a nation suddenly delivered from internecine war and bursting with energy. During one six-week period, more than 6,000 wagons passed through Nebraska headed west. Emigrants scoured the land along the travel routes like locusts until there was not a stick of wood with which to kindle a fire; even buffalo chips were at a premium. Along the Platte River Road, telegraph poles became more plentiful than trees…”
To help put this in perspective, it is estimated that after the end of the Civil War, the entire population of Native Americans came to only about 250,000, while the population of the U.S. was over 35 million. Indeed, the expansion had gained so much momentum by the late 19th century (encapsulated by the term “manifest destiny”) was so powerful that after the 1890 Census, which happened to coincide with the end of the Indian Wars, the American frontier was declared closed by the Census Department.
Sympathetic Army officers
As to the attitudes of senior Army officers, to my own great surprise, Cozzens writes that very many were actually quite sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans. To give just one of his examples, Gen. George Crook, “one of the preeminent generals in the West,” said:
“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.”’
And this brings Cozzens to his central thesis, that America settled on two successive myths that were in opposition to one another:
In the decades following the Civil War, American mythology painted the Army as white knights clearing the land of violent and benighted savages, thus making way for the virtuous Christian white man to settle the frontier. But a century later, by 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. 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.)”
I also learned that Native American tribes were themselves quite disunited and often at war with one another, even to the extent of joining forces with the U.S. Army to defeat other tribes! This explains something that had always puzzled me, the presence of Indian scouts within the Army, something of inestimable importance to America’s conquest of the West.
‘We wanted more room’
‘Intertribal conflict was in part the consequence of a fact that has never been appreciated … that the wars between Indians and the government for the northern plains, the seat of the bloodiest and longest struggles, represented a displacement of one immigrant people by another, rather than the destruction of a deeply rooted way of life… An army officer asked a Cheyenne chief why his tribe preyed on their Crow neighbors. He responded, “We stole the hunting grounds of the Crows because they were the best. We wanted more room.” That was a sentiment that the Coloradans determined to rid their territory of the Cheyennes could readily appreciate.’
Cozzens describes at length and in great detail the many horrors and gratuitous violence against women and children that were inflicted upon Native American tribes who refused to capitulate. For example, in 1870, Major Eugene M. Baker led a winter attack against a peaceful Piegan village of 37 lodges. The Piegans offered no resistance and had even been given a safe-conduct pass by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but 90 women and 50 children were killed. “Condemnation of the army resounded in both chambers of Congress and in the eastern press, which demanded courts-martial of all involved in “this shocking massacre.” But in the West, among the settlers, Baker and his commander, Gen. Sheridan, became heroes.
This is a fascinating look at an important period in American history and it’s full of many quotes from both Army personnel and Native Americans. The Native American testimonies come from two sources, ethnographers who set out to engage with the tribes in the last part of the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, as well as—amazingly–Congressional testimony. It turns out that the Congress held hearings following many of the battles and took testimony from the losers!
I learned more about the Indian Wars periodof American history from this book than from everything else I’d read or seen. It’s a terrific, well-written book.
David Bland is a longtime member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.