The Civil War in the American West

If western gold and silver had fallen to the Confederacy instead of flowing into Union coffers, it would have been Lincoln’s government which suffered runaway inflation and economic catastrophe, not Jeff Davis’. This single fact underscores the significance of the war in the West so masterfully described by Josephy. Only the Texas invasion of New Mexico and the Union invasions of Texas and Louisiana had little or no involvement of Native Americans. Some Indians saw the withdrawal of the regulars to fight in the East as the last good opportunity to drive the whites out of lands they had occupied in the 1850’s; others realized that their way of life was doomed. Complicating the situation was the flood of settlers and miners going west to escape the war or seek quick wealth, Confederate agents seeking to win Indian allies, and Texans dreaming of a giant slave empire in the West and Central America.

The nature of the sources enables Josephy to describe many examples of Northern racism, incompetence, cowardice, and alcoholism, and a smaller number of Southern shortcomings, but try though he might, he is not particularly successful at raising the Indians above the level of stereotyped victims. Even so, readers familiar only with DANCES WITH WOLVES and Little Big Horn will finally understand what was happening: a Sioux attack on New Ulm, Minnesota, in 1862 led to a larger conflict—and ultimately to Sand Creek and Wounded Knee.

The largest section describes the hard-fought campaigns in Louisiana and New Mexico. The author covers the civil war among Oklahoma tribes all too quickly as he rushes to the Battle of Pea Ridge, where the Indians’ lack of discipline discredited them in the eyes of Confederate leaders. One characteristic appears repeatedly: Although American society was divided into opposing sides in a great war, it was capable of organizing itself at a variety of levels and of persuading or compelling individuals to make sacrifices for its ideals; the Indian world, in contrast, was riven by tribal hatreds and an inability to persuade even the members of individual tribes to follow the policies decided upon by their leaders.

Without question, this is the best book yet on the war in the West.