Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
11 March 2011
Review by Robert Wooster, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi
Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre
By Heather Cox Richardson
New York: Basic Books, 2010. Pp. ix, 363. ISBN 978-0-465-00921-3.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, 19th Century, Old West Print Version

Heather Cox Richardson ranks among the best and brightest of a new generation of historians of the Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and the American West. In her earlier West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War,[1] she successfully reintroduced western themes into larger narratives of the post-Civil War United States. She now focuses on the December 1890 tragedy near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, when soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry, themselves losing twenty-five dead and thirty-seven wounded, killed nearly three hundred Lakota men, women, and children. She attributes the slaughter to the Republican Party's political manipulation of federal Indian policy to retain its power: "The fate of the Minneconjous at Wounded Knee was sealed by politicians a thousand or more miles from the rolling hills and cathedral clouds of the Great Plains. The soldiers who pulled the triggers in South Dakota simply delivered the sentence" (18).

Richardson misses no opportunity to place local and regional events within the larger political context. She posits that Republican economic policies, which championed western expansion, the resumption of the gold standard, and high protective tariffs, exerted an "inexorable" (52) pressure on Indian life. Guided by Sen. John Sherman and backed by his brother, commanding general William Sherman, Republicans brazenly supported the interests of business, upon whose financial support their party depended. Committed to retaining power through the spoils of office, they handed out government jobs—especially in the Indian Bureau—and pushed through statehood for North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Idaho, hoping the additional seats would ensure an enduring Republican stranglehold over the Senate. To make the new regions viable for white settlement, however, the Great Sioux Reservation would have to be broken up, and the resulting 1889 land agreement stripped the Indians of nearly half of their land, establishing six separate reservations in the process.

As Richardson skillfully demonstrates, the new system, which made the Indians even more dependent on diminishing government allotments, was an economic and cultural disaster for the Sioux. Impoverished and depressed, many accepted the ways of the Ghost Dance, which promised a rebirth of Indian unity and a return to the ways of the old world without whites. Meanwhile, disaffected farmers, hurt by nearly a decade of unusually wet weather, blamed the protective tariff and the gold standard for their woes. In the face of these challenges, Republican bosses increasingly relied on the spoils system to maintain their diminishing political edge. The arrival of these political hacks, bewildered by the complex realities of the reservations, proved ruinous. Inexperienced men like Daniel F. Royer, the new Indian agent on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and E.B. Reynolds, a new arrival at the neighboring Rosebud Reservation, viewed the Ghost Dance as an affront not only to civilization, but also to their own personal authority. Panicked, they demanded military assistance; Benjamin Harrison's response, Richardson speculates, was once again based on craven political calculations designed to sustain Republican rule. Calling in the troops would be popular with western voters, who "liked military intervention in Indian issues" (199) and would profit from lucrative army contracts.

The army fares only slightly better in Richardson's account. John Schofield, commanding general and "a consummate politician" (290), had become a pliant tool of the Harrison administration. Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, commander of the military division where the reservations lay, was swayed by his own political ambitions, his (and the army's) longstanding efforts to wrest oversight of Indian affairs from the Interior Department, and his desire to preserve the army's relevance in the face of growing interest in a blue ocean navy. In mobilizing the army around the reservations to prevent an Indian uprising, "General Miles came down on the side of what was best for him and, it seemed, the nation as a whole" (209).

The administration and the army, Richardson insists, had caused a crisis, even as the influence of radical Ghost Dancers remained minimal. Local civilians "weren't very worried" (223) about an Indian outbreak, but the fourteen reporters drifting in and out of Pine Ridge in the army's wake put out inflammatory, highly exaggerated narratives about the state of affairs. By early December, even though "the Ghost Dance movement was coming apart" (240), Miles, fearing for his own political future and infuriated by the administration's criticisms of his handling of Indian affairs, escalated the problem by moving his troops in closer. The death of Sitting Bull, killed by Indian police in a botched arrest attempt, further inflamed the situation. As desultory negotiations continued, on 29 December Col. James Forsyth, with nearly five hundred soldiers and four Hotchkiss guns, attempted to disarm Big Foot's 350 hungry men, women, and children. But Forsyth bungled the task; the Indians having delivered only a few old weapons, he allowed a small contingent of his command to become intermingled with the Sioux. A young man, Black Coyote, refused to give up his Winchester and his gun went off as several soldiers wrestled with him. The soldiers, most of whom were surrounding the encampment, opened fire indiscriminately, and the terrible slaughter that was Wounded Knee ensued.

Political considerations once again ruled in the following months. Horrified by the disaster, Miles began an official investigation, insisting that Forsyth's poor disposition of his troops had invited a tragedy. General Schofield and Secretary of War Redfield Proctor, however, saw things differently. Better to praise the army and win the public's support for the heroic bluecoats, asserts Richardson, than admit that their policies had caused a tragedy. Proctor thus praised the restraint of the soldiers and blamed the massacre on the Indians. Richardson's condemnation of the Republican Party in general, and the Harrison administration in particular, remains unrelenting:

The Harrison administration has wrongly been buried in obscurity, for its effects were far-reaching.... Its rosy promises for the West—and the subsequent need to make those promises come true—spelled disaster for the western landscape. Its focus on economic development doomed the Sioux to poverty, and its manipulation of the electoral map changed the dynamics of politics. The actions of Harrison and those around him regarding legislation and policy were complicated and hard to follow, but they are worth understanding (308).

This argument is compelling but frustrating. As Richardson acknowledges, the Republicans were hardly the first party to use federal offices, especially in the Indian Bureau, to reward their friends. And Republican economic policies indeed had a devastating impact on the Sioux and northern Cheyenne. But the experience of the previous two hundred years suggests that white expansion would have continued even without them. Finally, the General Allotment Act of 1887 (often dubbed the Dawes Act), which, by fueling the privatization of tribal land, had a disastrous impact upon Indian life, was supported and signed into law by a Democratic president, Grover Cleveland.

Military historians will find Richardson's relative unfamiliarity with military affairs more troubling. Occasional errors of fact—Col. Guy V. Henry, for example, was not black (66)—are compounded by questionable interpretations or exaggerations. Richardson quite appropriately stresses the growth of the navy during the 1880s. Indeed, naval spending during the decade increased by 62 percent. However, claims that the "very survival" (206) of the army was at stake are wildly overblown, for army spending had also increased by 17 percent during that same period.[2] Moreover, she fails to realize that the renewed coastal fortifications program of the late 1880s meant many new jobs and increased funding for the army, not the navy.

Richardson, in a fluent prose style, offers an important new examination not only of the tragedy at Wounded Knee, but also of the larger Gilded Age. I would, however, have liked less dogma and a little more qualification. "Until the soldiers had come into South Dakota," she maintains, "there had been no sign of worry about an Indian uprising from local settlers, not a single complaint from a newspaper, not a worried telegram from a public official" (212). One initially wonders when federal Indian agents, who Richardson emphasizes had sent many such warnings, suddenly lost their role as public officials. And although a quick survey of regional newspapers indeed shows that tales of an Indian outbreak clearly increased after the army entered the picture, at least one newspaper—the Grand Forks Daily Herald—wrote on 28 October 1890 (three weeks before the army's arrival) that the tribes at Standing Rock were "threatening an uprising," with Sitting Bull allegedly "inciting them with stories of the Custer massacre" (1). Those seeking a military history of Wounded Knee should still rely on Robert M. Utley's older classic, The Last Days of the Sioux Nation.[3]

[1] New Haven: Yale U Pr, 2007.

[2] See Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest Times to the Present, ed. Susan B. Carter, et al. (Cambridge/New York: CUP, 2006) 5:92.

[3] New Haven: Yale U Pr, 1963.

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