Hutton, Paul Andrew (ed). Soldiers West: Biographies from the Military Frontier.

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

This volume is exactly what it says it is — a collection of brief biographies of fourteen key military leaders who were closely involved with the settling of the American West, each by a different author. They’re presented in chronological order, beginning with William Clark, who may seem an odd choice to some — the Lewis and Clark Expedition and all that. But it all depends on how you define “frontier.” (Speaking to students, I’ve always defined it as beginning one mile west of Jamestown.)

Clark was a professional military man who began his career as a militiaman under his brother, George Rogers Clark, and then served as a lieutenant in Harmer’s disastrous campaign against the Indians in Ohio. He was also a mercantilist who saw the mot important role of the army as protecting the nation’s merchants as they headed west. Of the other subjects in this volume, Philip Sheridan, George Custer, George Crook, and Nelson Miles don’t need to be identified to anyone who has the slightest knowledge of American military or Western history.

Stephen Long was more typical of career officers in the first half of the 19th century in that he was an explorer and engineer first and never commanded troops on the battlefield. He was more a scientist than a soldier and as such he contributed greatly to knowledge about the wild lands beyond the Mississippi. William S. Harvey was a more problematic figure, a veteran of the War with Mexico and an Indian fighter in the 1850s who was one of only four general officers in the Army in 1860. However, he rubbed the War Department the wrong way, having a particularly brutal temperament which led him to be court-martialed four times, and through his negotiations with secessionists in Missouri. He was kept on a short leash in Washington until forcibly retired in 1863. Not one of my favorite people.

You might not have heard of James Carleton unless (like me, many years ago) you had made a study of the Civil War in the Southwest. Arguably, it was his formation of and command of the California Column that prevented Baylor and Sibley from cementing the Confederacy’s control of New Mexico and Arizona, which would have provided the South with a Pacific outlet and might have fundamentally changed the War. Benjamin Grierson is best known, probably, for his spectacular raid through Mississippi in 1863, but he then spent more than two decades as the outstanding commander of the 10th Cavalry’s “buffalo soldiers,” one of only two Black mounted regiments in the peacetime Army. He stood up for his men and for their dignity as American troops, and it cost him. Ranald Mackenzie was another highly competent but reticent general officer whose lack of flamboyance kept him largely out of the public eye. He graduated from the Academy in 1862 first in his class and served in every major battle of the War, ending as a very young brevet brigadier general. Then he settled in as commander of the 41st Infantry, another Black regiment, which he made into a crack unit on the Texas frontier. He also risked an international incident by his raid into Mexico in pursuit of Indian cattle rustlers.

Probably the least-known subject in this volume is William Hazen, a controversial figure in his day; his close friend (and Civil War aide) Ambrose Bierce called him “the best hated man I ever knew.” Having acquired some Indian-fighting experience in Texas in the 1850s, he rose in rank from lieutenant to corps commander during the War with a reputation for cold, spit-and-polish discipline. Later, he supported the reservation system as a solution to the “Indian problem,” regarding much of the Plains as of no use for agriculture (i.e., might as well give it to the Indians). He also managed to get himself in trouble with his superiors by his testimony on corruption among civilian traders assigned to Western Army posts.

The last essay is on Charles King, a household name in the late 19th century and now almost entirely forgotten. A West Point graduate, King was in uniform for an amazing seventy years, served in both the artillery and the cavalry and in five wars (the Civil War through World War I), and received a silver star for a fight against the Apaches in 1874, in which he was wounded. He was also a bestselling author of a large number of adventure novels about the frontier military — many of which are still read by military historians for their accurate depictions of the Indian wars (though their plots are pretty florid by today’s standards).

Each chapter in this engrossing volume includes numerous footnotes, both to original sources and to earlier secondary works, so don’t hesitate to make notes for future reading. Moreover, Robert Utley’s introductory essay is a first-rate examination of the key role played by the military on the frontier. “Leadership” means many things and these essays do an excellent job in defining those meanings at a certain period and in a certain place in our history.

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Published in: on 21 June 2012 at 6:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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