A chronicle of the white conquest of the inland Northwest at the expense of native peoples defeated in a war that even the newcomers recognized to be unjust.
Oliver Otis Howard enjoyed mixed success—but mostly failure, it seems—as an officer in the Army. At Gettysburg, his command suffered such heavy losses that he was summarily replaced by a junior officer, which, recounts Sharfstein (Law and History/Vanderbilt Univ.; The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, 2011), left him “mortified.” A leading agent of Reconstruction, Howard failed to avert Jim Crow. He was unwanted during the Spanish-American War, but he haunted the military camps as a kind of evangelical candy striper. In between, he commanded a badly conducted campaign against the Nez Perce Indians of the Northwest, led by a man named Chief Joseph, who, though not a war chief, had plenty of experience tangling with white invaders. Sharfstein looks at that well-studied campaign in light of those framing events, seeing westward expansion and the Indian Wars as a continuation of the nation’s growing militarism, which closed off the century with war against Spain. The author contrasts Howard, a sometimes-competent, often self-doubtful man, with one of his junior officers, who went from fighting the Nez Perce in a savage war—as Sharfstein writes, “there was nothing abstract about the dead,” scalped, mutilated, and blackened in the hot sun—to becoming a fierce critic of American imperialism. Even there, notes the author, the oppositional argument was tainted with social Darwinist ideas, warning against “the dangers of absorbing ‘an Asiatic population of mixed blood,’ millions of ‘yellow, naked mongrels’ and coolie laborers.” Mixed with exciting set pieces—battles, treaty negotiations, oratory over whose rightful land it was—and bolstered by impressive archival research, Sharfstein’s story unfolds as a swift-moving narrative of tragic inevitability.
A superb, densely detailed complement to William Vollmann’s poetic/fictional treatment The Dying Grass (2015), of compelling interest to any student of 19th-century American history.