READERS, Many of you know historian and author Paul Andrew Hutton from his recent book, The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History.
But Hutton also wrote Phil Sheridan and His Army, (a Spur Award winner) and that’s what this interview is about.
Gen. Sheridan was one of the Union’s most important heroes during the Civil War, and, from 1867 to 1883, served as commander for the Department of the Missouri, the jurisdiction of which stretched from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains and from Mexico to Canada.
The Northern Plains were included in his command. This, in turn, meant he was also the commander in charge of most of the Western Indian wars.
It’s not possible to discuss America’s Indian Wars unless we also discuss Sheridan.
Robb-Welcome Paul Hutton. You wrote that Sheridan was intellectually limited. What did you mean by that? Would you use as an example Sheridan’s failure to realize the difference between the Northwestern Indians and the Great Plains’ tribes in terms of what it would take to pacify them? Wasn’t that just a learning curve?
HUTTON–Sheridan was not a cerebral man—he was a man of action. While a brilliant tactical combat officer he had neither the patience nor the intellectual capacity necessary to comprehend the task of dealing with the wide variety of native peoples in the West.
Of course General Sherman, who was clearly an intellectual giant, dealt with the Indians in much the same way.
The bottom line was that they had a job to do—dispose of the natives and open the West to white settlement as quickly as possible.
Sheridan did that job and did not lose any sleep over its morality.
Robb-Although, overall, Sheridan seems to have been an admirable general, you fault him for many things, among them not supporting Custer in his “courageous act” of testifying against corrupt Secretary of War William Belknap.
HUTTON-The problem for Sheridan in the West was the dual issues of administration and Indian policy. He pretended that he could not influence policy—that all he could do was fight—when in reality he had enormous influence. His knee-jerk defense of atrocities—such as Camp Grant and the Marias Massacre—undercut his position in the East. He preferred to pretend that this was not a political problem when in reality it totally was.
Robb-Sheridan seemed almost a physically challenged person, as if he had been born with birth defects; the long upper body and extra-long arms joined with super-short legs. Has medical science ever guessed what was wrong with his skull, regarding the two large bumps?
HUTTON—Sheridan was indeed oddly shaped, which may well have added to his pugnacious nature. He looked grand on horseback and was a marvel on the battlefield. The years were not kind to him as he quickly gained weight after the war. He also suffered from heart disease (undetected at the time) which carried him off prematurely.
Robb-After reading your book, it appears neither the whites or tribes had any idea what the other side meant when they were supposedly communicating. For instance, the Cheyenne failed to understand they were signing a treaty giving up a good portion of their land, as they did at Medicine Lodge in 1867.
HUTTON—Actually, neither the Indians nor the government understood how quickly the West would be settled. The railroad changed everything. Settlement that had taken 200 years to reach the Missouri River now swept over the rest of the continent in 25 years.
It was all over in a generation. Geronimo’s 1886 surrender ended nearly 400 years of the European struggle to conquer the North American continent.
Robb-The general (uninformed) public believes Custer was ruthless, yet of the two, Sheridan seems much more punitive toward the tribes than Custer.
HUTTON—The public perception of Custer is ludicrous. He was a lieutenant colonel of cavalry and yet popular culture has made him the central character and grand villain of the Indian Wars.
He was once famous as a martyr to Manifest Destiny so it was only natural that he should become the villain of the story once societal attitudes changed in the 1970s.
Sheridan was, of course, far more brutal toward the Indians. He meant what he said with, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Robb-Sheridan seemed to have mixed feelings about Custer, admiring his contributions in the Civil War so much he gave Elizabeth Custer the table on which Robert E. Lee signed the surrender.
Yet Sheridan said Custer was as “boyish as be was brave” and (was) “always needing someone to restrain him.. too impetuous; without deliberation; he thought of himself invincible and having a charmed life.”
HUTTON—Custer was Sheridan’s pet officer. He won that position by boldness and success during the Civil War. Custer was the premier combat officer for the Union’s premier combat officer.
They were a mutual admiration society. Sheridan, however, had no illusions about war—it was a dirty business—while Custer wallowed in the romance and glory of war. That endeared Custer all the more to Sheridan.
Still, when Custer attacked Grant’s administration in 1876 he lost Sheridan’s support. Sheridan was devoted to Grant. It was Sherman who got Custer restored to command of the 7th.
Nevertheless, Sheridan wanted Custer in the field, because Custer was the best the army had. Sheridan was devastated by Custer’s death.
Robb-Didn’t you note that the only successful tactics ever used against the northern tribes were the ones Sheridan dreamed up; winter campaigns and destroying the tribes stores and horses?
HUTTON—Sheridan employed the same total war tactics against the natives that he had used so successfully against the rebels in the Shenandoah. He destroyed their means of sustenance-the buffalo-and attacked them in their winter camps. The attacks on villages were a step beyond the Civil War because the Indians were viewed as a savage inferior race.
Although there were civilian casualties in the Civil War they were either incidental or accidental, but the Indian campaigns targeted noncombatants much like the bombing raids of World War II.
Robb-Was Sheridan the best general for the times?
HUTTON—Sheridan was in many ways the perfect general for his times. His pragmatism and elastic ethics made him a good fit for the unpleasant task of crushing the resistant natives. He was determined to destroy the enemies of Union—be they rebels, striking workers, or western Indians. And he was a success at this task, like it or not.
Robb-It surprises me the Sheridan assigned Capt. John Bourke (one of my favorite historical characters) and Capt. William Clark to study and publish information about the tribes and their cultures. What does this say about Sheridan?
HUTTON-He also was sensitive enough to recognize that something important was being lost and so he sponsored the work of Bourke and Clark. He also sponsored Capt. Pratt’s experiment in Indian education.
Sheridan was a complicated man, and I hope that my biography of him captured that.
Robb-In your book, as well as many others about the Indian Wars, you draw up a strong case that many of the problems between the Army and the tribes stemmed from Congressional inaction and delay. For instance, the failure to allocate money for the tribes (for a year) following the Treaty of Medicine Lodge.
HUTTON—The level of inaction, corruption, and general stupidity on the part of the US Congress regarding the Indians is simply mind-boggling.
The politicians made the mess that the soldiers then had to clean up. Then Congressional leaders condemned the army for doing its job. Nothing has changed. General Sherman once declared that “Congress should be impeached!”
Robb-As Robert Utley noted, the frontier army is accused of many things, among them wantonly slaughtering women and children. What do you think of the frontier army in terms of honor and effectiveness?
HUTTON-These were Victorian gentlemen with a high sense of honor. The slaughter of women and children was not condoned, but race nevertheless played a role in their approach to war.
These officers never would have galloped into a rebel town at dawn shooting down anyone who moved, yet they did that to Indian villages. They also took Indians as mistresses–certainly Custer did after the Washita.
So race played a key role in tempering their high moral code of conduct, just as it did with British soldiers on colonial duty in the same period.