Tag Archives: Historiography

The “better angels” and the 1862 Dakota War

Cross-posted to the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

In 1862, as Lee carried the Civil War into Maryland and Lincoln prepared to turn the struggle for the Union into a battle of liberation, a bloody sideshow played out in Minnesota. Exasperated by broken promises and corruption among traders and federal agents, Dakota Indians launched attacks against settlers and the Lower Sioux Agency, setting off a conflict variously known as the Dakota War, the Sioux Uprising, Little Crow’s War, and a handful of other names. Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, a Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors by Gustav Niebuhr has joined a relatively short shelf of books devoted to the uprising.

The key player in Niebuhr’s account is Henry Whipple, a New York native who became Minnesota’s first Episcopal bishop and an advocate for better treatment of the frontier’s original inhabitants, working to change a system in which Indians were victims of corrupt officials and unscrupulous traders.  

Whipple’s concern for the Indians was unusual for a nineteenth-century white American, and an especially unpopular position for any resident of Minnesota in 1862 after four Dakota hunters initiated the war by attacking white homesteads and killing five settlers. As often happened in Indian wars over the course of American history from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth, many whites reacted to the uprising by calling for the extirpation of the Dakota, assuming that all the Indians on the frontier had settlers’ blood on their hands. As Niebuhr shows, the conflict was never so simple, even from its very beginning. Individual Dakota intervened to save the lives of settlers, sometimes because of previous acquaintance and sometimes out of simple humanity. Some whites, too, urged their vengeance-hungry countrymen to differentiate among the Indians, some of whom had converted to Christianity (partly through the efforts of Whipple, who supported Indian missionary efforts) and taken up farming. Whipple was thus the most prominent of a small number of people caught up in a volatile situation who nevertheless refused to engage in the collective demonization of the other that was so prevalent in white-Indian warfare.

The bishop wasn’t unsympathetic to the plight of settlers in the uprising’s path—in fact, he helped organize relief for white refugees displaced by the attacks and tend to the wounded—but he considered the Indians’ poor treatment at the hands of the government the ultimate root of the problem. He had been lobbying authorities to reform Indian relations for some time before the revolt, having tried without success to bring President Buchanan’s attention to the problem. Most men would have considered the outbreak of the Dakota War a most inauspicious occasion to persuade Washington of the need for better treatment of Native Americans, but Whipple was undaunted, heading to Washington, D.C. again in 1862 to plead the Indians’ case with Abraham Lincoln.

The bishop’s first impressions of Lincoln on the latter’s accession to office had not been favorable. And, as Niebuhr shows in a chapter devoted to Lincoln’s personal history of the Indians, the president wasn’t unaware of the misery marauding Native Americans could unleash. After all, an Indian had murdered Lincoln’s grandfather and namesake in Kentucky. As a young man, Lincoln himself had served in the Black Hawk War; while biographers tend to downplay this period in his life, emphasizing that he saw no combat, Niebuhr points out that Lincoln did witness firsthand some of the devastation of that war during his stint in the militia.

But Whipple had a few things working in his favor on his 1862 lobbying trip. The first was Lincoln’s personal tendency toward leniency and mercy. Thirty years before, while a volunteer against Black Hawk, he had intervened to stop vengeful whites from murdering an Indian captive. His tendency toward clemency and compassion remained evident during his presidency, when he routinely spared the lives of condemned soldiers and favored a moderate course in dealing with a conquered South. Like Whipple, Lincoln seemed to have a sort of innate immunity to the urge to dehumanize the other side which is so common in warfare, especially war between different races and cultures.

Second, as Niebuhr argues, there was a sense in which the timing of his visit actually worked in Whipple’s favor. The Dakota uprising coincided with a transformation in Lincoln’s thinking about the Civil War. As the Minnesota frontier erupted in violence, the president had determined that more extreme measures were necessary to preserve the Union and was preparing to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln considered slavery a national shame and a cancer in the body of the nation which had finally led to the rebellion; similarly, Whipple referred to mistreatment of the Indians as a great sin which led to the devastation of the Dakota uprising. Thus, for some months before Whipple’s visit, Lincoln’s concerns had been along some of the same lines as the bishop’s.

The timing of Whipple’s trip was fortunate in another way. Niebuhr argues that by bringing Lincoln’s attention to the poor treatment of the Dakota at the very time when the wounds from their uprising were still fresh, the bishop shaped the president’s thinking about the Minnesota revolt, framing it as a symptom of the government’s mistreatment of the Indians. As Niebuhr explains, “Whipple got access to the president before Lincoln heard any extended discussion about the war from anyone else in Minnesota. What the bishop managed to do was set the war within the context of federal government corruption and ineptitude. He created for Lincoln a lens through which to view the war.”

Lincoln proved more receptive to Whipple than his predecessor, giving him access to government records of Dakota relations to help bolster his case. But there was still the matter of Indians captured in the wake of the uprising. A military tribunal sentenced over 300 of them to hang for participation in the war. Despite warnings that failing to execute them all would inflame white opinion on the frontier, Lincoln spared the lives of nearly nine-tenths of the condemned. The result was still the largest public execution in United States history, as thirty-eight Dakota men went to the gallows on December 26, 1862. And it’s important to remember that Lincoln’s record on Indian affairs was not spotless. Biographer David Donald notes that the president remained largely ignorant about Native Americans; like most other nineteenth-century whites, he considered Indians less civilized and more prone to violence than Euro-Americans.

Still, Lincoln’s receptivity to Whipple’s pleas for reform and his intervention in the executions are notable examples of Lincoln’s leniency, his aptitude for mercy, and his basic humanity—the traits which have made him one of the most beloved figures in American history.

Niebuhr’s book should spark wider interest in this often overlooked aspect of Lincoln’s presidency and bring greater attention to Whipple’s crucial role as a mediator between the government and the Dakota. It’s an enlightening piece of historical research, but also a very inspiring book, a reminder that the forces which Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature” can work their magic even in the most violent and divisive of circumstances.

 

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Fifteen books on the American Revolution: CSM’s picks and mine

The Christian Science Monitor offers a list of fifteen books on the American Revolution for your Fourth of July reading pleasure.  It’s not a bad list, although I think my personal picks would only include a couple of their selections.

Tell you what: I’ll take a page from CSM and list my fifteen favorite Revolution books, too.  It’s always fun to compare notes.

Let me stress that my list isn’t a balanced representation of the historiography, not by any means.  If somebody grabbed me by the shirt collar and asked me for fifteen books that would give them a pretty good overview of the Revolution, that list would look quite different from this one.  I’m not aiming for complete coverage.  These are just my personal faves.

Here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.  When Clio goes about sprinkling her magic fairy dust, she bestows a more generous dose on some historians than others.  She poured a tenfold measure on Fischer.
  2. Paul Revere’s Ride also by David Hackett Fischer.  Another examination of a Revolutionary event in which Fischer uses the technique of “braided narrative” to reconstruct an important event, unpack all its implications, and present it in the form of an engrossing story.
  3. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn.  Explains why the colonists reacted to British policy the way they did, and in the process it opens up their entire political mindset.
  4. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood.  Hard to overstate this book’s richly deserved influence.  It’s packed with so many important ideas you want to highlight the whole thing.
  5. The Radicalism of the American Revolution also by Gordon Wood.  The Revolution changed the pre-modern world into the modern one.  Wood explains how and why, and he does it in prose so crystal clear that it’s easy to forget what intellectual heft this book has.
  6. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character by Charles Royster.  This is one of my all-time favorite works of historical scholarship, a profound and elegant meditation on the Continental Army’s relationship to the Revolution and the society that made it.
  7. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas by John Buchanan.  Of all the books written about the Southern Campaign, this one is the most fun.  Buchanan’s enthusiasm for the subject practically somersaults off the page.
  8. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War by Wayne E. Lee.  Provides a framework for understanding the forces that both restrained and escalated the ferocious conflict in the Carolinas.
  9. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia by Woody Holton.  Makes a very persuasive case that in the Old Dominion the Revolution wasn’t just a question of freedom from British oppression; it was also an attempt by the gentry to maintain their authority at home.
  10. Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.  The most comprehensive, balanced, and thorough one-volume history of the war.
  11. John Adams by David McCullough.  A book that deserved its stupendous commercial success.  No biographer has ever brought a founding figure so vividly to life.
  12. Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse by Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard.  A fascinating piece of detective work, and the most precise reconstruction of a single Rev War battle.  (Honorable mention for Babits’s Cowpens book, too.)
  13. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 by Pauline Maier.  Unravels the process by which loyal British subjects became Americans.
  14. His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis.  There are a lot of books on Washington, but I admire the way Ellis captures his essence in this concise portrait.  It’s not a cradle-to-grave treatment, but it’s more effective than just about any book out there if you want to get your head around the man and his significance.  Same goes for Ellis’s Jefferson book.
  15. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence by John Shy.  An essay collection that’s loaded with insights.  Shy asks and answers many of the important questions about the Rev War.

As I said, my list leaves out a lot of important authors and topics, while other subjects are overrepresented.  A comprehensive Revolutionary reading list should also include Alfred Young, T.H. Breen, Gary Nash, Linda Kerber, Rhys Isaac, and Mary Beth Norton.  Likewise, it should have more thorough coverage of the shift from Confederation to Constitution, include biographies of additional key players, and make some space for the important campaigns in the North—to say nothing of the Revolution’s impact on women, slaves, Indians, tenants, and the urban underclass.

But those are the fifteen Am Rev books I’ve read and re-read with the most pleasure and awe.  Feel free to share your own picks in the comments.

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Remembering and forgetting John Sevier

If you’re in the Knoxville area, come out to Marble Springs State Historic Site this Saturday at 1:00 P.M.  Fellow history blogger Gordon Belt will talk about his new book John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Heroan examination of the ways we’ve remembered, misremembered, and failed to remember the man who probably did more than anyone else to create the Volunteer State.  

The cool thing about this book is that it offers an accessible introduction to Sevier’s life as well as a thoroughly researched examination of his place in tradition and memory. It traces the development of the Sevier legend across the three major phases of his life as a pioneer, a soldier, and a statesman, stopping along the way to address some of the more popular stories about him, such as the dramatic rescue of his future wife at Ft. Watauga, his involvement in the Franklin movement, and his public feud with Andrew Jackson.

I eagerly awaited the publication of Gordon’s book, not just because it fits my personal research interests to a T but also because I think it will help address a troubling bit of historical amnesia we have here in Tennessee.

I think I first realized the extent of the problem the day I went to UT’s library to borrow a book about Sevier.  It was Carl Driver’s 1932 biography, and I needed it for my master’s thesis on memory and the Battle of King’s Mountain.  The guy behind the counter looked at the title and said, “Oh, the highway guy.”

The highway guy?  And then it hit me: Gov. John Sevier Highway loops around the southern and eastern sides of Knoxville.

He was the state’s first governor, a member of Congress, a state senator, the only governor of the Lost State of Franklin, an officer in one of the Revolutionary War’s pivotal battles, commander of the state militia, defender of the frontier and the scourge of the Cherokees.  If we don’t remember his stellar résumé, we should at least remember his name, because it’s all over East Tennessee: Sevierville, Sevier County, Gov. John Sevier Animal Clinic, John Sevier Combined Cycle Plant, John Sevier Elementary School.  Along with his nemesis Old Hickory, he’s one of two Tennessee heroes in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.  Even his wife has an elementary school named in her honor.

But to the kid behind the library desk, he was “the highway guy.”

The notion that a Tennessean of any era would be unfamiliar with the exploits of “Nolichucky Jack” would have come as quite a shock to his contemporaries.  From the time of the American Revolution until his death in 1815, Sevier was one of the most popular men in his corner of the world.

But by the late 1800s, there was already a sense among antiquarians, regional authors, and amateur historians that Sevier and the other heroes of the old frontier had not received their historical due.  These men were determined to rectify the problem, but they overcompensated.  In the work of writers like James Gilmore and Francis M. Turner, Sevier became a frontier demigod.  The hero-worshipping writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries obscured the flesh-and-blood man behind a haze of tradition and sentimental prose.

There were other, later attempts to understand and commemorate Sevier and his times in the twentieth century.  Some of the most interesting were on the stage, as the early settlement of Tennessee became the subject of outdoor dramas.  On the printed page, regional historians like Samuel Cole Williams and Pat Alderman picked up where the antiquarians of the 1800s had left off.  But separating the man from the myth remained a problem.  Although Driver’s biography is the most thorough cradle-to-grave treatment of Sevier, it dates back to the Great Depression.

Gordon’s book is just the sort of fresh take we need to kickstart another revival of interest in one of the frontier’s most important figures.  Visit Marble Springs this weekend to hear him discuss it.

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Neglected heartland

The Washington Post reviews Jon Lauck’s The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History.  Lauck argues for renewed scholarly engagement with a region that has left an indelible mark on the course of American development and nursed quite a few innovative historians and historical institutions.  Looks like an interesting read.

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In book news…

Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winner best known for his work on WWII, is writing a trilogy on the American Revolution.

The Siege of Vicksburg is the subject of Jeff Shaara’s newest novel.

Finally, a new book on Dunmore’s War is hitting the shelves in July.  I’ve really been looking forward to this one; the publication date apparently got pushed back, so I’m glad it’s coming to the stores soon.

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Harold Holzer brings the war out of the vaults

The Civil War in 50 Objects by Harold Holzer is one of the more engaging books I’ve received lately.  It’s neither a catalogue nor a popular history of the war but an interesting fusion of the two.

The book features items from the New-York Historical Society’s collections, arranged chronologically and illustrated in color.  The images are great, but this isn’t a picture book with the text limited to captions.  Instead, Holzer uses the objects as jumping-off points to explore various aspects of the Civil War era.  A wheel used to select names for the draft is the springboard for an examination of conscription, an 1864 campaign flag prompts a discussion of Johnson’s selection as a candidate for the vice presidency, and so on.  The chapters are short, but still substantial enough to give readers a nice little overview of the subject.

The objects run the gamut from a set of slave shackles to a portrait of U.S. Grant, from a John Brown pike to a manuscript copy of the Thirteenth Amendment.  Lincoln, emancipation, and the home front get particular attention, but the selection is broad enough to appeal to anybody who’s interested in the war.

This book gives you the same joy of exploration and discovery that you’d get from a museum exhibit.  You can read straight through it for an overview of some important aspects of the war, or jump around to whatever artifacts strike your fancy.  If you’re a museum junkie, it’ll be a welcome addition to your library.

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Andrew Burstein on historical dreams

The dreams of historical figures, mind you, not dreaming about history in the present day.  The essay is based on his forthcoming book, which looks pretty interesting.

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The backwoods battles of the Revolutionary War

While Continentals, Redcoats, and militiamen were battling it out in the American Revolution, a related struggle played out on the frontiers of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia as settlers and Indians wrestled for control of the West.  This frontier war for land and independence doesn’t get as much scholarly attention as the conventional war to the eastward, which is why I was glad to see the release of Richard D. Blackmon’s Dark and Bloody Ground: The American Revolution Along the Southern Frontier a couple of months ago. 

Blackmon demonstrates that colonial officials tasked with maintaining the Indians’ loyalty had long struggled with unscrupulous traders and land-hungry frontiersmen, and found their role even more difficult when those frontiersmen became rebellious colonists.  In the South, this responsibility fell on the shoulders of John Stuart, Superintendent for the Southern Department.  Both Stuart and his Whig opponents tried to secure the support (or at least the neutrality) of the southern tribes, which required supplying the Indians with the arms and powder on which they depended for hunting and persuading the tribes to expel agents working for the opposing side.

All-out war finally erupted on the frontier in the summer of 1776, after Stuart and his deputies failed to convince the Cherokees that a general assault on the settlements would only inflame white Whigs and Tories alike into reprisals.  The response from the Carolinas and Virginia was precisely what Stuart had feared.  Frontier militias rebounded from the attacks and marched into the Indian towns, burning crops and dwellings while engaging in battles with war parties.  These invasions of Cherokee country forced the tribe to trade land for peace, although a faction of warriors led by Dragging Canoe refused to lay down their arms and instead moved south to continue resistance against the settlements.

The Creeks, meanwhile, were divided over whether to join Britain’s war against the colonists, reluctant to take up arms without the support of British troops and supplies.  Pro-British Creeks did attack the Georgia frontier in 1778, although the Whigs kept part of the tribe neutral by supplying them with goods.  When British armies finally invaded the South, the Whigs faced the two-front war which they had long dreaded, but British military activity in that region was never as well-coordinated as advocates of a frontier strategy desired.

Ultimately, those Native Americans who cast their lot with England lost their military gamble, as British troops evacuated the southern posts they had been trying to maintain since the late 1770’s, leaving the Cherokees, Creeks, and other tribes at the mercy of an independent United States.  Although the war brought devastation and bloodshed to the frontiersmen (the Cumberland settlements in present-day Middle Tennessee and the Kentucky settlements proved especially vulnerable), it reduced residents of the devastated Indian communities to an especially precarious existence, and the final peace between the U.S. and England in 1783 proved to be a mere intermission in the contest for the West.

My only complaint about this book is a curious omission.  Blackmon’s description of the struggle between frontiersmen and Cherokees in 1776 is quite detailed, but it doesn’t really cover the summer attacks on the settlements in what is now northeastern Tennessee.  He does deal with the wrangling among Tennessee settlers, British officials, and Native Americans that preceded these attacks, as well as John Sevier’s later battles against the Chickamaugas, but readers interested in the early history of the Volunteer State may be disappointed that the siege of Ft. Caswell doesn’t get the same coverage as the Ring Fight, the defense of Boonesborough, and the Battle of the Bluffs.

That criticism aside, this book is a great addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in the American Revolution or the early frontier, utilizing both official documentation and eyewitness accounts of the major engagements.  Blackmon’s analyses of Andrew Williamson’s exploits and the negotiations at Ft. Patrick Henry are the best I’ve read.  Even if your knowledge of the war’s backwoods battles is extensive, it’s heplful to have a solid overview of the entire frontier war for the South in one volume, placed deftly in the context of the larger war as a whole.

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The long ’75

Kevin Phillips’s 1775: A Good Year for Revolution is well worth your time, but possibly not for the reason the author intended.  His thesis is that it was not 1776 which was the critical year in America’s struggle for self-determination, but rather the previous one, since much of the groundwork for the colonies’ political and military success was laid over the course of what Phillips calls the “long 1775,” meaning the period from late 1774 through early 1776.  Having read his argument—and it’s not a brief one—I’m not entirely convinced that he’s made his case.  In the course of the attempt, however, Phillips covers so much material of interest that the book functions as a fine overview of the Revolution’s beginnings.

A longtime student of American political trends, Phillips devotes the book’s first section to the demographic, religious, economic, and ideological factors at play on the eve of the Revolution.  Religious affiliation, he argues, was an important factor in determining an individual’s allegiance; New England Congregationalists, backcountry Presbyterians, and low church Anglicans in the South were at the forefront of imperial resistance.  Tightening economic constraints were irksome to a growing colonial population plagued by currency shortages, indebtedness to British merchants, and restrictions on trade.  Seamen and laborers dependent on maritime activities were especially zealous participants in Whig mobs.  Frontier expansion was another source of ferment and division between western settlers and colonial authorities, complicating the efforts of both sides to draw on backcountry support.  Much of this background information will be familiar to readers who have read the work of scholars such as Patricia Bonomi, Woody Holton, and Gary Nash.

The book’s second section examines how the political, logistic, and military contests between America and the empire actually played out over the course of the “long 1775.”  Both sides had been moving toward armed confrontation for some time before Lexington and Concord, with de facto government and military power falling into Patriot hands across the colonies.  A key component of this early stage of the struggle was the contest for resources.  Americans scored a critical logistical victory in their effort to obtain gunpowder and other munitions, despite the trade restrictions imposed by the British in retaliation for the Continental Association’s import/export boycott.  British authorities, meanwhile, neglected their own logistical needs, causing serious problems for their forces besieged in Boston.  Raids by American privateers exacerbated these problems.

From a military standpoint, the British squandered a number of opportunities and committed a series of important mistakes in 1775 and early 1776.  Efforts by royal officials to enlist the aid of slaves and Indians only stirred up white colonists against British authority.  Raids on coastal towns, and threats to destroy these towns when supplies were not forthcoming, similarly made for potent American propaganda fodder.  British strategists neglected American vulnerable points while wasting time and troops on poorly-coordinated efforts such as the ill-fated expedition to the Carolinas, and allowing most of their forces to remain tied down in the demoralizing siege at Boston.  English attempts to obtain foreign mercenaries proved controversial at home, while the French and Spanish seized the opportunity to avenge their losses in earlier wars created by the American rebellion.

Patriots, meanwhile, enjoyed a number of military successes during this same period, as Whig militias acted to suppress Tory uprisings and makeshift American naval forces wreaked havoc on British supply lines.  Although Americans did lose their dramatic wintertime gamble to capture Quebec at the end of 1775, Phillips emphasizes the extent to which this campaign came close to victory, as British forces in Canada were stretched extremely thin.

During the “long year” of late 1774 to early 1776, then, the American Revolutionaries scored important military, logistical, and political victories that would help carry them through the disappointments and disillusions to come.  And since Phillips emphasizes how the Whigs had already taken de facto control of colonial governments, the eventual decision for independence comes off as anti-climactic, necessary only for diplomatic reasons and to shore up resolve before the massive British invasion of New York that same year.  But having built up the importance of the long ’75, he doesn’t spend much time demolishing the edifice of 1776, despite a few hints at how that year’s mythic status arose out of shifts in cultural memory after the Revolution.

Phillips does, however, demonstrate how the American successes and British missteps of the long ’75 gave the Revolution the breathing room it needed to mature.  Taken as a wide-ranging examination of the war’s formative period, this is one of the better books on the Revolution to be released by a commercial publisher in recent years, drawing on an impressive reading of the secondary literature.

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Two new American Revolution books

In his new book, Kevin Phillips argues that 1775, rather than ’76, was the decisive year of the American Revolution.  (Personally, I’d go for 1781, but that’s just me.)  Based on a quick appraisal while standing in the bookstore, this looks like a wide-ranging and meaty volume that’s well worth a read.

Jon Meacham also has a new biography of Thomas Jefferson out that’s gotten enthusiastic blurbs from some heavy hitters in American Revolution studies.

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