While the Civil War was raging across the land primarily east of the Mississippi, another struggle was taking place on the Great Plains. There, even as great armies marched towards their appointments with destiny at places such as Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga, battles were fought in the vast western reaches of the United States that shaped the future of both the nation and the native people who strove to survive. In areas that we now call North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming, the Lakota people, commonly called Sioux by the Whites, waged periodic war to guarantee their way of life as well as their very existence.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, small fights between regular army soldiers and the Sioux resulted in indecisive outcomes. Then, spurred on by the effects of the Homestead Act, transcontinental railroad construction, and the discovery of gold, the pace of migration into Sioux territory exponentially increased. Faced with the perplexing and daunting reality that they could simply be swept away, the Sioux took the path of war.
First in Minnesota, and then along the Bozeman Trail in what is now Wyoming, the Sioux fought back against the existential threat they rightly perceived White encroachment into their lands to be. Among the most successful military leaders of the Sioux during this period was an Oglala chief whose reputation was mighty during the mid-19th century but has waned in the present era. That man was Red Cloud, and his life story is ably told in this concise biography.
While not strictly a Civil War book, John D. McDermott’s carefully written and researched biography does deal with a Native American leader whose life’s work spans the period prior to, during, and beyond that great conflagration.
As McDermott describes in this thoughtful book, Red Cloud began his career as a warrior by fighting other tribes that threatened the Sioux. Of particular importance, were the many raids Red Cloud participated in aimed at the Pawnee, a fierce rival of the Sioux people. It was on one such raid that Red Cloud suffered his worst wound in the form of a Pawnee arrow that completely penetrated his body and protruded only a couple inches from his spinal cord. In that instance, Red Cloud remained in a coma for three days and then was forced to undergo a lengthy recovery.
But, despite his near fatal wound, Red Cloud regained his stature as a warrior and rose through the ranks to become a war chief.
In this role, Red Cloud was part of a number of engagements with U.S soldiers including the destruction of small units of troops under the command of Lieutenants John Gratton and Casper Collins. Shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War, Red Cloud spearheaded the Sioux efforts to close the Bozeman Trail and destroy forts along that pathway through Sioux land. It is during this campaign that came to be called Red Cloud’s War that this redoubtable leader achieved his greatest military success.
Fighting in the vicinity of Fort Phil Kearney, Red Cloud adopted a strategy of hit and run tactics paired with the deception of his foes. U.S. forces included many men who had fought or commanded troops in the recently completed Civil War. One such man was Captain William Fetterman, a veteran of the Civil War who had been promoted for gallantry twice during his wartime service. Stationed at Fort Phil Kearney, Fetterman was once heard to say that with 80 men he could “Ride through the whole Sioux Nation.”
Against orders, Captain Fetterman took a force of 80 men out of the fort to pursue a small group of Sioux warriors who were actually operating as a decoy. Recklessly, Fetterman took his men over a ridge near the fort and encountered a vast array of Sioux warriors. In short order Fetterman and his entire command was killed in what the U.S. military labeled a “massacre” but what was viewed by Red Cloud and his fellow Sioux as a complete tactical victory. At Fort Phil Kearney, Red Cloud used a variety of strategies to punish the U.S. garrison. Despite being repulsed by small groups of soldiers armed with repeating rifles and tasked with cutting wood and hay at the Wagon box and Hayfield fights, Red Cloud was able to lay siege to U.S. forces and ultimately defeat them. After a brilliant campaign,
Red Cloud was able to cease hostilities and force the U.S. forces to acknowledge defeat. Fort Phil Kearney was formally abandoned along with several other forts along the Bozeman Trail, each of which the Sioux destroyed. While, in the long run the Sioux’s military fortunes would wane, Red Cloud was able in 1866 to defeat a veteran force of U.S. soldiers and temporarily forestall the eventual conquest of his beloved homeland.
In the years that followed Red Cloud’s successful campaign in Wyoming his, and his people’s, fortunes waned. Pressured by the steadily increasing settlement demands, mining initiatives, railroad construction, and seemingly continuous treaty renegotiations, the mighty Sioux people were compressed into reservations and swindled out of their native lands.
In these difficult years Red Cloud attempted to walk the razors edge of trying to salvage whatever he could of his people’s rights while simultaneously not triggering a potentially catastrophic war.
As a result of his efforts as a mediator, Red Cloud alienated many Sioux leaders while also appearing increasingly weak to U.S. representatives. Although his efforts were aimed a creating the possibility of a positive outcome for his people, Red Cloud’s actions such as avoiding involvement in the fight at the Little Bighorn, acquiescing to the sale of the Black Hills, and resigning himself to reservation life tarnished his reputation among both his contemporaries and modern day Lakota people. Yet, as McDermott details in this thoughtful and informative book, what was Red Cloud to do?
Unlike more iconic Lakota leaders such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull who died because of their unyielding defense of their people, Red Cloud lived to advanced age and died on the reservation.
Although his reputation was tarnished by his willingness to compromise in the face of overwhelming and unyielding pressure, those very same mediations may have helped his people to survive. For John McDermott Red Cloud remains a great figure in the efforts made by the Lakota people to defend their land, heritage, and culture. The story of this complex Native American figure is multi-faceted and one that is well told in this fine biography.
Title: Red Cloud: Oglala Legend
Author: John D. McDermott
Publisher: South Dakota Historical Society Press