The Earth Is Weeping by Peter Cozzens book review
Brian Hannan from Abbey Books in Paisley reviews another fantastic book, The Earth Is Weeping by Peter Cozzens
This award-winning history of the Indian Wars in America is so even-handed you won’t find a single mention of the word “genocide”. That’s about the only flaw in this magnificent history of a war that lasted nearly three decades.
With far greater access to historical data than Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (1970), previously the watchword for these campaigns, Cozzens The Earth Is Weeping brilliantly dissects American soldier and native warrior, examining flaws on both sides before conceding the Native Americans were the more effective soliders and only let down by lack of weaponry and the failure of the tribes to provide a united front against the invaders. The point is made that the Americans were only doing what the stronger Native Americans had done before them, absorbing the territories of weaker tribes, but that still seems a rather facile get-out clause.
On the other hand, you wonder how the Yank soldiers prevailed at all. Congress refused to properly fund any war, the numbers of soldiers dropping from 54,000 in 1869 to 25,000 just five years later. And there were little that was polished about them and little that any amount of spit-and-polish could do to change that. The U.S. Cavalry of John Ford movies such as Fort Apache was very much a John Ford invention. Foreigners, recent immigrants, accounted for a third of the force. Most were illiterate, unskilled and unfamiliar with weaponry. So many would desert when a better paid job – salary was just $10 a month – came along that less than one per cent actually lasted the 30-year term that would qualify them for a pension.
Accommodation and food was poor, uniforms ill-fitting. Most of their time was spent in manual labour rather than army drills. Most succumbed to gambling, alcohol and prostitutes. NCOs, whose job was to instil discipline, were more likely to encourage vice. NCOs also administered brutal punishment, staking transgressors to the ground or tying them to a wagon wheel in the brutal sun or hanging them by their thumbs.
The opposition was tougher and highly skilled. Young warriors were trained from birth to ride, shoot and kill. They could fire arrows faster the soldiers could shoot weapons, their aim more accurate than rifles. Bravery was the only way to gain advancement or even find a wife. In battles with neighbouring tribes courage could be proved not just with killing but by coming close enough to an opponent to touch him. As Indians wore their hair long, the traditional scalping of an enemy meant a warrior took away a prize of mostly hair. But since soldiers had crew-cuts the process removed a good chunk of their scalp, rendering the action far bloodier than intended. Warriors were also retired relatively young, so age never inhibited their movements.
That the war lasted so long was not so much a question of poor soldiering, but lack of a solid command structure, and that fact that the tribes had to be subdued one by one. Had the tribes come together in one unit it would have provided the opportunity for a pivotal battle. But placating one tribe did not result in another laying down arms. Equally, had the tribes united there was the chance, given their superior battle skills, that they could have won a decisive battle. There never was one final battle, just the gradual subjugation of each tribe. Public revulsion at the slaughter of outnumbered Indians and non-combatants at Wounded Knee in 1891 meant it was the last significant engagement.
The Earth Is Weeping casts a military and political eye on the long war. All the main leaders are represented – Custer, Crook, Grant and Sherman, veterans of the Civil War, on the one side and Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Cochise and Crazy Horse on the other. But also included in the thorough and well-researched history are the actions of countless others from the Sioux Uprising in 1862 to the final battle in 1891. It didn’t last a full 29 years, at various points intermittent peace was negotiated.
Many significant incidents were one-sided. The conflict was characterised by slaughter. The U.S. Cavalry carried out massacres at Sand Creek in Colorado (1864), in a Piegan village in Montana (1870), Camp Grant in Arizona (1871), Sappa Creek in Kansas (1875) and Wounded Knee. Indians retaliated by wiping out the Kidder unit in Kansas (1870), assassinating General Canby (1873) and killing Custer’s entire outfit at Little Big Horn in Montana (1876). But gradually, the U.S. army wore down the opposition and one-by-one the chiefs surrendered – Crazy Horse in 1877, Joseph of the Nez Perce the same year, Sitting Bull in 1881 and Geronimo in 1886 – or died, Cochise of the Apaches in 1874, his successor Vittorio in 1880.
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What might surprise some is the efforts Native Americans went to avoid war, refusing to commit their warriors to action, restraining the young braves, seeing their duty as protecting the tribe rather than giving in to bloodlust and embarking on a battle that would bring unacceptable consequence. They came across as more balanced in their attitudes than the invading soldiers.
While Cozzens does show the considerable attempts made to broker peace with the Indians and find a peaceful solution, he avoids the question of whether there should have been a war at all. Just because the Americans were overcrowded on the coast didn’t mean they had a right to just commandeer what they saw as great plains not being put to good use. Once the migration from east to west had begun, it was impossible for the U.S. Army not to step in to defend the settlers from attack instead of steering land-hunters away from Indian land.
In the end there may have been no solution but great efforts could have been made to ensure the Indians could continue their traditional way of life on the reservations. The victor writes the history right enough. Hollywood has fed us a diet of films about plucky settlers and marauding Indians rather than concentrating on the displacement of the latter. You can’t help thinking that the lack of a moral tone is a flaw in The Earth Is Weeping, but even so, that’s its only defect, and in the course of nearly 500 pages gives as accurate depiction on what actually happened as you are likely to get. Drawing on oral and written testimony from the Native Americans does present a better balanced picture.
The Earth Is Weeping by James Cozzens is available in paperback from Atlantic Books.