Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West
By Hampton Sides
Doubleday, $26.95, 460pp.
Among the most repeated Democratic National Committee talking points to be treated as fact by the mainstream media is the notion that the war in Iraq is “America’s first war of choice.” Counting on the average American’s historical ignorance, the media parrot the point that America's wars traditionally have been ignited by foreign attack and largely fought in self-defense.
However, very few of the wars fought by the United States between 1840 and 1940 can meet those criteria even with the most generous interpretation — though it’s almost sweet that the Blame America First crowd, in their manic quest to paint George W. Bush as an unprecedented warmonger, have adopted such a hagiographic view of our history.
In Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, Hampton Sides turns his sights on America’s “first war of foreign intervention,” the 1846 war with Mexico, and how it was used to secure territory from sea to shining sea.
See if any of this sounds familiar:
· A war pushed by a president with a singular vision who considered himself charged with securing the future of the United States.
· A war with the goal of seizing a large chunk of anarchic territory, ridding it of hostile foreign influences and establishing democracy there.
· An invasion that was easier than the occupation, as the corrupt, seemingly dominant opposing military power melted away.
· By extending its authority over the vast area, the United States inherited a ongoing, low-level ethnic war that the government did not understand.
· Even among those the U.S. Army was charged with protecting, many showed open support for foreign enemies, and radical clerics did their best to foment resistance.
· The success of the occupation depended in large part on who was in charge, with some military governors making good decisions while others took their particular visions to disastrous extremes.
· Further complicating matters, the U.S. military was stretched to the breaking point by commitments elsewhere.
But while history lends a useful perspective to current events, Sides’ main purpose in Blood and Thunder is to refute radical historians like Ward Churchill, not media blatherers like Chris Matthews. With tremendous research and superb storytelling skills, Sides deals a severe blow to the politically correct storyline that the settling of the West was a conflict between rapacious genocidal whites on one side and peaceful agrarian natives who only wanted to be left alone. Sides shows there were plenty of heroes and villains, and wise men and fools to go around.
In 1846, in response to border clashes between Mexicans and Texicans, President James K. Polk sends Gen. Zachary Taylor to the border. After an early rout of Mexican forces, Polk persuades Congress to declare war on Mexico. Polk — whom Sides argues may be the most effective albeit one of the most unlikely presidents in history — is a man on a mission. He has limited himself to one term and is determined in that short time to consolidate U.S. power on the North American continent.
But while most of the public’s attention was on Taylor’s invasion of Mexico, Gen. Stephen Kearney is leading his dragoons on the longest march in American military history to take New Mexico. Meanwhile, explorer John C. Fremont — a reckless dreamer whose success on such ventures as mapping the Oregon Trail was due largely to his partnership with mountain man Kit Carson — begins agitating in California in anticipation of Kearney’s eventual arrival.
Kearney’s takeover of New Mexico is nearly bloodless, as the corrupt governor there decides to take his money and run despite having the support of the populace — who had been told by their priests that Americans would take their women by force and destroy Catholic churches — and a perfect ambush set up for the American force.
Bringing the New Mexicans into line turned out to be the least of the U.S. government’s problems. For as long as the Spanish had been settling New Mexican, Navajos had conducted raids, stealing both property and women and children for slaves. The Navajo had become masters of the small incursion, and their economy depended on stealing just enough from the New Mexicans to be profitable but not enough to kill the golden goose.
Kearney had no time for this conflict – he had a coast to conquer. He set out for California with his dragoons after issuing a few stern commands to the Navajo to leave the New Mexicans alone. He left it to him commanders to sort things out.
Eventually, army negotiators met with the most prominent Navajo, a warrior named Narbona who had survived battles with the New Mexicans and other Indian tribes for an amazing 80-plus years. The Americans did not understand that the Navajo social structure was too loose for him to be called a chief and figured they had a binding treaty.
The Navajo, for their part, could not understand why the New Mexicans, whom the Americans had just fought, were now under the U.S. Army’s protective umbrella. Under the my-enemy’s-enemy principle, they figured it was now open season on the settlers.
Kearney first encounters Kit Carson as he is traveling East to deliver the news of the takeover of California. Kearney orders the famed frontiersman to accompany him back West, instinctively knowing that having Carson by his side would be beneficial. It was an inspired choice. After Kearney, buoyed by the good news, sends most of his force back to New Mexico, he is besieged by the Californians and saved only by one of Carson’s most famed exploits — an impossible barefoot trek for relief forces over rough desert terrain.
The Navajo problem simmers long after the war with Mexico is over, but is not made a major priority as tensions mount between North and South. Various commanders make stabs at peace agreements with them, but the Navajo generally are raiding again within days. The Americans focus on Narbona and even try to bring in a wider circle of Navajo leaders for discussion.
By far, the most disastrous peace conference is conducted by Col. John Washington in 1849. Washington’s expedition in into Navajo territory brings them to talks. However, immediately after a treaty ceremony, the colonel makes the incredibly foolish decision to side with a New Mexican who claims one of the Navajos is riding a horse that was stolen from him. Washington orders the horse’s return and escalates the argument into an order to fire into the fleeing Navajos, killing Narbona.
This is the last chance for peace in New Mexico, as Narbona’s son-in-law, Manuelito, became an advocate for all-out war. For over a decade, the territory is marked by skirmishes right into the beginning of the Civil War. After a little-remembered incursion of Texan Confederate forces is beaten — with Carson again distinguishing himself — Brig. Gen. James Henry Carleton is given the task of bringing the increasingly hostile Navajo to heel.
Carleton has become one of the most infamous characters in many accounts of the Indian wars. He commissioned Carson to direct a scorched-earth campaign which served as a precursor to Sherman’s 1864 march through Georgia, which basically starved the Navajo into submission with very little direct combat or bloodshed. It was climaxed by the famed siege of the Canyon de Chelly in the Fall of 1863.
In fact, more Navajo died during the “Long Walk” to Carleton’s designated reservation, Bosque Redondo, than in the campaign. The reservation was a complete — and deadly — disaster and eventually was shut down by the federal government at the pleading of Carson. The remaining, thoroughly beaten Navajo were allowed to settle in a portion of their traditional lands.
Sides tells his story through the actions of real people, from Polk, who accomplished his goal of making the U.S. the dominant power in North America within his self-imposed one-term limit, to Kearney, perhaps the most underrated figure in U.S. military history, and Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the mouthpiece and architect of Manifest Destiny. The cast also includes a myriad of fortune hunters, mountain men, heroes, villains, wise men and fools.
Far and away, the most dominant character is Kit Carson, whose exploits inspired a series of wildly popular dime novels in the 19th century.
Sides inserts a few enlightened tsk-tsks about whether Carson overreacted in one instance or another — mostly because he acted according to the Indian war ethic he was honed on, not according to modern rules of evidence — but even he can’t help but get carried away by some of the great frontiersman’s feats. He describes the frontiersman as "a lovable man...loyal, honest, and kind. In many incidents, he acted bravely and with much physical grace. More than once, he saved people's lives without seeking recognition or pay. He was a dashing good Samaritan – a hero, even…He was also a natural born killer."
Carson was a man of great contradictions. He was unable to read or write, yet could speak five languages and more dialects. He outlived two Indian wives before settling down with a Latina with whom he had six children. But despite his unquenchable thirst for the untamed, unexplored wilderness, he ultimately was instrumental in making it possible for “the tendrils of civilization (to creep) in; the America he had left behind was finally catching up with him."
Blood and Thunder is a huge accomplishment. Sides takes an impossibly broad stage and in a mere 400 pages gives the big picture without sacrificing narrative drive and compelling detail. Appropriately, any time the sheer scope of the story threatens to drag down the narrative, Kit Carson rides to the dramatic rescue.
In many ways, Blood and Thunder is similar to this summer’s publishing phenomenon, Mayflower. It is another illustration of how Americans' interaction with Indian tribes is an incredibly complex story and leaves the reader with the realization that it would have taken a miracle of foresight and wisdom to avoid the tragedy in history’s march that those with 20/20 hindsight attribute to malice. It also is a direct slap to self-involved baby boomers who still think their times are unique to American history.
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