Four days before Christmas in the year 1866, a heavily decorated Civil War veteran named William J. Fetterman led a troop of 80 cavalrymen up a grassy hill in pursuit of a small Indian raiding party—one of whose number was a young man, Crazy Horse, who would soon become world-famous. At the top of the ridgeline, a thousand Brulé, Oglala, Miniconjou, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors awaited the white soldiers. Soon Fetterman and every single one of his men lay dead on that knoll, not far from another patch of grass along Montana’s Little Bighorn River, where, a decade later, George Custer’s cavalrymen would meet their destiny.
The Fetterman Fight, or Fetterman Massacre, as it is also known, signaled the beginning of the end of a war that had been raging on the Great Plains as the Civil War was closing. That war has two highly significant aspects: First, it marked the first time that an American Indian leader, a man named Red Cloud, ever defeated the U.S. Army in open war—not just a battle, but an entire conflict. It also marked the first time that an Indian leader on the Plains had ever forged an alliance of peoples who had historically been at odds with each other in the interest of battling a common enemy, revealing Red Cloud’s skills as a diplomat as well as warrior.
Ask a college-educated American these days what he or she knows about Red Cloud’s War, and the chances are you’ll come up empty. That may very well be by design, for the standard American history textbooks don’t dwell on that terrible defeat any more than they do Vietnam—the latter of which is already being remade as a just war fought to preserve American freedoms. Bob Drury, who, with fellow military historian Tom Clavin, is the author of the new book The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend, puts it succinctly: “Sweeping Red Cloud’s War under the rug represents nearly 150 years’ worth of efforts to ignore not only his stunning victory, but the genocide perpetrated on scores of American Indian tribes by the U.S. government.”
Drury and Clavin, who have teamed up before for books about Vietnam (Last Men Out), Korea (The Last Stand of Fox Company), and World War II (Halsey’s Typhoon), came to Red Cloud’s story precisely because they’d never heard of him. That is to say, recalls Clavin, they were once talking with a fellow military historian who mentioned Red Cloud as the one Indian who ever won a full-scale war against the United States. “We had the same reaction as when we learned of the typhoon-wracked sailors of Halsey’s fleet, or the Marines on Fox Hill, or the Marine security guards stranded on the roof of the Saigon embassy: ‘Huh? How come we don’t know about this?’"
The two immediately set to work researching Red Cloud and his times, even though they had not worked extensively with 19th-century materials. It helped, says Drury, that the story had plenty to do with the big-picture question of Manifest Destiny—“and that it’s set against the vast geographical canvas of a youthful and fragmented United States becoming a continental power, well, that just added to its appeal.”
One answer they turned up to that big question of why Red Cloud isn’t better known has to do with sheer geography: the Great Plains of the mid- to late 1800s was vast and little populated, except by the vast herds of bison that had lured the Sioux from their eastern woodlands homes to begin with. The territory was so sparsely settled by whites that, even though they had plenty of reason to talk about Red Cloud’s derring-do, the news didn’t spread far east. Ten and 20 years later, when Sitting Bull rubbed out Custer and Geronimo held off half the U.S. Army, the news would travel faster and farther, but most white people of Red Cloud’s time didn’t really know of him—a fact that did nothing to keep the people of New York from honoring him with a parade when he came to visit after peace was finally declared.
Red Cloud’s War ended quietly. Having forged a great alliance of Plains Indian peoples and won his struggle, he settled into old age on a reservation. He died quietly in 1909, having avoided the notorious imprisonment of Geronimo, the sideshow celebrity of Sitting Bull and the martyrdom of Crazy Horse. He was thus overlooked when popular culture and Hollywood came calling for legendary Indians to lionize. Bob Drury and Tom Clavin’s book does much heavy lifting in restoring Red Cloud to the pantheon of true heroes—and, as they put it, “to his rightful place as the most significant and successful Indian leader in American history.”
Look for their next book, though, to return to familiar ground: another adventure story set in World War II. The authors aren’t ready to talk about it in detail. “We will tell you,” says Clavin, “that if we were pitching it to a Hollywood producer, it would go something like, ‘The Dirty Dozen meets Unbroken.’” Stay tuned.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.
Bob Drury (pictured above and to the right) and Tom Clavin (pictured above) photographed by Anne Drager.