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Washita breaks the big picture apart
into real pieces
The U.S. Army attack against Black Kettlešs Cheyenne village at Sand
Creek in 1864 was possibly the saddest moment in the Indian Wars because
it led to so much more.
To call Colonel John Chivingtonšs attack at a creek bend on the eastern
Colorado plains a massacre is to relegate it to the realm of the unreal,
an unimaginable horror that couldnšt be repeated. But Chivingtonšs raid
at Sand Creek set the stage for campaigns against the Plains Indians for
the next two and a half decades. It solidified in the minds of the military
people involved the efficacy of the surprise attack on a sleeping population,
which Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer would use in his only successful
Indian raid at the Washita River in Oklahoma in the winter of 1868 an
attack which would put an end to traditional Cheyenne society.
The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867-1869, by Jerome Greene;
University of Oklahoma Press (Campaigns and Commanders series), 2004,
304 pages, 23 illus., 3 maps, $29.95, hardcover, 0806135514, www.oupress.com
The opening pages of Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes,
1867-1869 capture the complexities of Indian and American societies prior
to Sand Creek. Jerome Greenes research is brilliant. At Greenes
pen, however, historical fact garnered from primary and secondary sources
buoys the writing, creating a compelling narrative packed not only with
action, but also with intrigue, personality and verve.
Greene accomplishes what few historians have. He has written a work that
explores the deep cultural, economic and emotional aspects of internecine
conflict, both on the side of the Americans and the Indians without preaching
or taking sides. This is quite a feat since few modern Americans think
of their culture or of the Indians as being that of multiple fractures
mended over time rather than united fronts in conflict.
Greene begins with the idea that mid-19th century American and Indian
cultures were multifaceted and often at conflict within themselves. At
the time, those Americans facing the Indians were traders, frontiersmen,
mountain men, disparate Army units and politicians, each vying for their
own interests and none solidified in their goals.
The Army at the time of Sand Creek was fighting a Civil War, trying to
create safe passage for wagon trains and settlers crossing Indian territory,
and attempting to fulfill treaty obligations negotiated with various tribes
and bands of various tribes. Each general, colonel and administrator has
his own idea on how to do things, and who to stroke or roll over to get
what they wanted.
Similarly, the Indians represented separate nations, rarely untied, and
often shifting in alliances. Treaties, in particular, had divided the
nomadic and fiercely independent Cheyenne into northern and southern tribes
in the early years of the 19th century. And these tribes were divided
again into bands along family lines, with a new offshoot of Dog Soldier
bands that vigorously fought any white incursion into traditional Cheyenne
territoriesthe vast prairies extending from the Rockies to the Missouri
River and south to Texas.
Army personnel, trying to settle the plains, placate federal, state, and
territorial interests and to keep the states and territories from
taking on the Indians on their own tried to fit the Indians into
a stereotype, creating a policy of total war and making whole
tribes punishable for the depredations of a few renegade members.
In this setting, Sand Creek, and the Americans imagination-defying
acts of violence, murder and mutilation devastate what might have been
the best chance for peace on the Great Plains at the time. Black Kettle,
ironically, advocated peace with the Americans. At his village, Chivingtons
troops, many inexperienced irregulars, killed the majority of Cheyenne
and Arapaho peace chiefs. This, and the bloodletting loosed on the elderly,
women and children possibly created the circumstances for continuing warfare
with the Cheyenne and the tribes allies including Kiowa,
Comanche, Arapaho and various Sioux tribes until the 1890 massacre
at Wounded Knee ended Indian resistance on the Plains.
Sand Creek began and Washita solidified the severing of Cheyenne generational
leadership and material ties to a culture that had developed over centuries.
Washita brought Custer to the forefront and possibly created his demise.
After Dog Soldiers and Kiowa and Kiowa-Comanche renegades committed a
series of raids on whites in western Kansas, the army set out to attack
Indians while the natives were bedded down for winter. The intent was
to punish the raiding tribes, destroy their material goods and kill their
warriors. Custers force, lead by Osage scouts traditional
enemies of many of the Plains tribes, including the Ute, Kaw, Cheyenne,
Arapaho and Kiowa found Black Kettles village on a bend in
the Washita River the morning of Nov. 27, 1868, and attacked.
To tell the outcome of the Washita battle is to give away the story, so
much of Greenes narrative reads like a good novel. Washita is a
book that has few flaws. Its pacing, revelations and conflicts are
about as good as any reader could ask. And its a book that gives
Americans a view into themselves, not merely as an amalgam of people,
ideas and philosophies, but as a fusion of universals that exist between
Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor
based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine,
His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly,
eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories
have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review,
Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same,
and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at
the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Patrick Dobson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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