John Finerty Reports the Sioux War, edited by Paul L. Hedren, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2020, $34.95
Let no easygoing journalist suppose that this Indian campaign is a picnic. If he comes out on such business, he must come prepared to ride his 40 to 50 miles a day, go sometimes on half rations, sleep on the ground with small covering, roast, sweat, freeze and make the acquaintance of such vermin or reptiles as may flourish in the vicinity of his couch, and finally, be ready to fight Sitting Bull or Satan when the trouble begins, for God and the United States hate noncombatants. Thus was I, who am peaceably disposed, placed in the position of an eyewitness, my “mess” being with the 3rd Cavalry.
Thus did John Finerty, born in Ireland on Sept. 10, 1846, sum up what it took to be a credible war correspondent in his case for the Chicago Times. He may as well have described the Civil War journalists so detested by William T. Sherman, the scribes recording the campaigns of Alexander the Great (who was known to arbitrarily slay any who rubbed him the wrong way), Joe Galloway in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, an embedded journalist in Iraq in 2003 or just about anyone in his profession except Gaius Julius Caesar, who circumvented the matter of reporting on his Gallic campaign by writing it up himself. It was the gonzo journalist who got involved in the hardships and even the fighting who got on the soldier’s, the officer’s and the general’s good side. And as Great Sioux War expert Paul L. Hedren reminds us in John Finerty Reports the Sioux War, Finerty was not averse to getting in on the action—and the hardship and all else the campaigns of 1876 and beyond entailed.
Accompanying Brig. Gen. George Crook’s column, Finerty was actively involved in the Battles of the Rosebud River, Slim Buttes and two other engagements in the course of covering them and such adjunct color as the Black Hills gold rush in Deadwood and Custer City. Under the circumstances, one would expect Finerty to display an Irishman’s skill at weaving a compelling account perhaps lacking in objectivity. Indeed, one of his observations makes no secret of his feelings—oft reiterated—regarding the target of the Army’s campaign: “We soon entered magnificent Montana, a land that would maintain millions of people in living if there were enough emigrants to settle it, and if the whole tribe of Indians, friends and otherwise, were exterminated.”
Finerty later published his accounts in War-Path and Bivouac, which has become a staple of scholars seeking a firsthand account of the Sioux wars. Hedren discovered that Finerty’s book, edited with the benefit of hindsight, provides a more illuminating account of the campaign than the stories he dispatched to the Chicago Times. Here, then, is a compilation of the correspondent’s original accounts in all their immediacy, allowing readers to compare what he wrote then with what went into his book later. The differences add a further dimension to the life and literature of one of military history’s most adventurous gonzo journalists.
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