The Last War for America

A pile of stones in arid Skeleton Canyon, Arizona marks the place where the last war for America ended. But the highway marker commemorating Apache warrior Geronimo’s surrender to General Nelson A. Miles, United States Army, in 1886, is placed ten miles away, unseen by the drivers who speed by on the asphalt black ribbon of road. The two locations are near enough, but they are still worlds apart.

H.W. Brands’ new book, The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo and the War for America, is the story of the last years of armed conflict between two peoples from these different worlds: indigenous Americans who lived on lands in the world of nature and the irrepressible flood tide of white people determined to remake these lands as part of their new world. Brands focuses on the final years of the Indian Wars in North America, the post-Civil War period from 1865-1886, and the last and pivotal campaigns on the edge of the shrinking frontier

The Last Campaign is the work of an exceptional American historian. Brands holds the Jack S. Blanton, Sr, Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin. A diligent researcher and a prolific writer, he is the author of more than thirty works on U.S. history and has built a well-deserved following among readers of historical scholarship and a wider and appreciative general audience. His 2000 biography of Benjamin Franklin, The First American, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a New York Times best-seller. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2008) was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Decades of Conflict

Brands’ latest book is a work in five parts. The first part of The Last Campaign provides relevant historical context for the Indian Wars. Brands describes the conflict over land in the new republic: “Every president starting with George Washington worked to separate whites from Indians, typically by moving the tribes out of the path of white settlement.” In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act that created Indian Territory west of the Mississippi for displaced eastern tribes. White migration to territory lawfully established for these tribes and to lands already inhabited by western tribes was a constant irritant for American Indians. Then the post-Civil War waves of white settlement, the transcontinental railroad, and the demand for the land and the vast natural resources of the west became sources of constant friction between the two cultures. Friction caught fire in Indian raids and punitive expeditions by whites and their allies, flashed in brief battles, and burst into open warfare.

Brands covers those three decades of war in a four-part chronology that nearly mirrors the U.S. Army campaigns in the American northern and southern plains, the Northwest, and the Southwest. “Just as the end of the Revolutionary War had left the Indians (of the Eastern tribes) at the mercy of the victorious Americans, so the end of the Civil War left them (the Western tribes) to face the victorious Union army.” Brands’ central thesis is that military leaders like William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan—schooled with the hard-earned lessons of waging total war—and the white settlers flooding western lands forced the native peoples to face unsurmountable obstacles:

The Union army had been tested in battle, with officers like Sherman having mastered the brutal art of war. Western expansion, largely stifled by the conflict between North and South, resumed with a vengeance. And the Indians continued to struggle with disease, dislocation, and other disruptive forces that sapped their strength and numbers. In 1865, the total population of Indians in the United States was fewer than four hundred thousand and falling. The population of non-Indians was over thirty million and growing rapidly.

In the face of these obstacles, Indians under determined leaders including Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Geronimo, fought ferociously before surrendering to army officers who led relentless campaigns to defeat the tribes in battle and force them onto reservations. Brands tells both sides of this story, draws heavily on primary sources, and makes extensive use of letters, diaries, memoirs, and contemporaneous official records. He often quotes at length from the accounts of actual participants and witnesses of the historical events—Indians, soldiers, scouts, reporters—and lets their words tell the story. But Brands is selective. He has a keen eye not only for lucid writing but for insightful accounts that add meaningful context to the larger narrative.

The Last Campaign is the history of how a massive, combined force surged across the country, subdued its indigenous people, and conquered a continent.

For example, Brands quotes extensively from the Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman (1876) and the Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan (1888), and not without reason. Sherman was Commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, a vast territory home to dozens of native tribes. Sheridan served as field commander. It was Sheridan who best articulated the way the final Indian campaign would be fought:

Death is popularly considered the maximum punishment in war, but it is not; reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life . . .

I made up my mind to confine operations during the grazing and hunting season to protecting the people of the new settlements and on the overland routes, and then, when winter came, to fall upon the savages relentlessly, for in that season their ponies would be thin, and weak from lack of food, and in the cold and snow, without strong ponies to transport their villages and plunder, their movements would be so much impeded that troops could overtake them.

Brands then recounts in several instances how the army, during winter campaigns, easily located Indian bands that left tracks in the snow, then launched repeated attacks that targeted villages and engaged defending Indian warriors. The troopers were warmly clothed, adequately sheltered, and well-fed: “They harassed the Indians relentlessly, keeping them constantly on the move. The Indian women and children suffered from hunger and exposure until their chiefs had no alternative but to surrender.” Pony herds were deliberately slaughtered, food caches were destroyed, and lodging and blankets were put to the torch. Small parties and then even larger bands of Indians were made destitute—starving and homeless.

This was a brutal strategy enabled by the new national policy of making way for white migration by resettling Indians on reservations—if necessary, by force. Armed resistance was met by overwhelming force. Tribal leaders were killed, captured, or surrendered. There were no safe havens even in forbidding terrain or across the border. The United States and Mexico agreed to cross-border hot pursuit for troops from both nations.

In addition to providing insights into the Indian policies of the era Brands offers readers an unbiased account of the period. He describes atrocities and shameful episodes on both sides including, for example, the 1871 Massacre at Camp Grant, Arizona Territory when 144 surrendered Pinal and Aravaipa Apache were ambushed and murdered by a party of Americans, Mexicans, and Tohono O’odham Indians. The Last Campaign also makes it clear the United States was sometimes faithless in negotiations and in making and keeping its treaties with the tribes. It’s surprising, then, that Brands briefly recounts Custer’s 1868 attack at Washita River but fails to mention the Cheyenne of the Black Kettle tribe encamped on the riverbank were then at peace and seeking a peace treaty with the army. 

The final chapter of this book is an odd coda. Entitled “Old Warriors Die,” it describes the last days of Sherman, Sheridan, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and others who played pivotal roles in the last thirty years of the Indian Wars. And it offers readers an unusually odd perspective framing white people as “one of many tribes that once trod the land (and that) had finally conquered, dispersed, or outlasted the rest.” Diseases, technology, and sheer numbers “had been too much for the indigenes to withstand.” But, the Indian Wars were not tribal wars that while sometimes fierce, were always episodic.

The last thirty years of the American Indian Wars were a sustained effort by a standing army numbering in the thousands and a vast national system that constantly supplied it. The pressures of mass migration by people in an ascending culture also proved irrepressible. The Last Campaign is the history of how this massive, combined force surged across the country, subdued its indigenous people, and conquered a continent.