April 2018 Readers’ Letters | HistoryNet MENU

April 2018 Readers’ Letters

By HistoryNet Staff
1/26/2018 • Wild West Magazine

FRONTIER SOLDIERS
Regarding “Truths About the Frontier Army” [August 2017]: I have difficulty reconciling Peter Cozzens’ description of the typical frontier soldier as a lazy, unskilled, unemployable lowlife—slurs some have always applied to soldiers, even today—with the heroism shown at, for example, the Hayfield Fight, Milk Creek or Reno Hill. And this in spite of being led by “bickering, backbiting mediocrities, drunks and martinets in epaulets.” Undoubtedly many of the men who enlisted were down on their luck. However, I suspect the majority of frontier soldiers joined for reasons that have attracted generations of GIs—a thirst for adventure, a desire to prove oneself, the camaraderie of military life and, yes, even patriotism. They pulled difficult duty and should be honored for it.

H.R. Seivert
Crystal Lake, Ill.

Peter Cozzens responds: As a former Army officer myself, I truly regret that historical evidence does not support Seivert’s assumption that most of the soldiers of the frontier Army joined for elevated motives, or that they rose above the “slurs” he imputes I have leveled against them. Neither does the record support a low- to mid-rank officer corps of great merit. The desertion rate alone belies the notion of a dedicated frontier soldiery. As the Army and Navy Journal reported in 1876, during one three-year period 928 of 1,288 enlistees in a single frontier cavalry regiment deserted, a rate common in all but the black units, where desertion was rare. More often than not, those who served out their service left a good deal to be desired. As Brig. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord lamented, while the Army had a greatly improved rifle, “I rather think we have a much less intelligent soldier to handle it.” The battles Seivert cites simply prove the point that nearly anyone will fight hard when cornered, as the soldiers were in those engagements. That they were not annihilated has more to do with the Indians’ aversion to sustaining heavy losses than it does to the Army’s defense.

I read with interest Peter Cozzens’ article “Truths About the Frontier Army.” It was the first half I found most intriguing, particularly his argument “the Army was not hell-bent on killing Indians.” This is a correct diagnosis, but left unsaid is why, then, were so many Indians killed in the nearly constant Indian wars? The answer is because the white civilians were very much hell-bent on killing Indians, and they constantly precipitated warfare. Cozzens focused on the post–Civil War years, quoting William Tecumseh Sherman, John Pope, Henry B. Carrington and Alfred Terry, among others, to support his theme. Similar attitudes are plentiful in the Army during the antebellum years. A few examples: Ethan Allen Hitchcock: “It is a hard case for the troops to know the whites are in the wrong and yet be compelled to punish the Indians if they attempt to defend themselves.” Josiah H. Vose: “The white people were undoubtedly the aggressors, as is generally the case in all Indian difficulties.” William Whistler: “The abandoned and disorderly portion of them [civilians] would at once commence their lawless aggressions on the persons and property of the Indians.”

The Army was primarily a constabulary force on the frontier—peacekeepers. With the exception of the Seminole wars and the brief Blackhawk War, the years between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War were devoid of Indian fighting. Why? Because the Army almost universally realized its main adversary on the frontier was not the Indian but the avaricious, belligerent white frontiersman. The antebellum Army, overwhelmingly officered by civilized, socialized, professional West Pointers, was able to stem the white aggression. After the Civil War the West Point factor was watered down, and the nation had become inured to warfare. The officers, however much they tried, could not keep the uncivilized white frontiersmen in check, or maybe they just didn’t try as hard.

Gregory Michno
Frederick, Colo.

Peter Cozzens [Interview, June 2017] is substantially right when he says the U.S. Army never attempted physical genocide of the Plains Indian tribes but accommodated cultural genocide largely inflicted by civilians. The actual physical genocide took place in California, where Anglos virtually exterminated the California Indians, who were disorganized and far less able fighters than the Lakotas or Apaches. That was a near-comprehensive genocide. Today people would rather not think about it.

John Koster
Glen Rock, N.J.

As author of a two-part history of the Indian wars (1621–1890), S tomahawkem proti musketam (With a Tomahawk Against the Muskets), published in Prague, I fully support Peter Cozzens views on the topic. Finally a voice of reason amid the politically correct madness and attempts to rewrite American history.

Jiri Cernik
Needmore, Pa.

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