The American Military Frontiers: The United States Army in the West, 1783–1900
by Robert Wooster, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2009, $39.95.
Those of us who write about Western history for a living are especially grateful for such diligent researchers as Robert Wooster. In his latest book, the Texas A&M professor traces the Army’s role in advancing and defending the country’s multiple interests on the expanding Western frontier from the very founding of the country to the turn of the 20th century. The book explores several themes, including early power struggles between state militias and the Regular Army, the politics of military appointments and the Army’s ever-changing role with regard to Manifest Destiny, wartime diplomacy and Indian affairs. Wooster doesn’t miss a turn—military, civilian, political or diplomatic—and readers are sure to glean something new about virtually every key figure of the American frontier.
The book opens on post-Revolution clashes between pioneers and Indians in the Ohio Valley, detailing Anthony St. Clair’s rout on the Wabash and “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s subsequent success with the Legion of the United States, barebones forerunner of the modern U.S. Army. The next several chapters relate ongoing frontier tensions with the British and their Indian allies and the seesaw struggle on Capitol Hill and at the departmental level over the Army’s composition and duties. Thankfully, the book isn’t all policy and politics, as Wooster describes the soldier’s life and the evolution of uniforms, military pay, rations, rank and advancement, as well as fort and road building.
The pre–Civil War period saw a greater push to answer the “Indian question.” Here Wooster explores the issue with welcome candor. While intertribal conflict existed long before the first European stumbled into the frontier, the tensions precipitated by unchecked white settlement on Indian lands accelerated the violence exponentially. Frontier soldiers blamed that escalation largely on the pioneers and prospectors and the sutlers who enabled them. Successive gold rushes depleted the ranks of the very troops sent to enforce the treaties and keep the peace, desertion rates reaching an astonishing 40 percent. Even the reforms of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (yes, that Jeff Davis) couldn’t prevent the gathering storm.
Wooster successfully summarizes the profound changes on the frontier spawned by the Civil War, whose hastened arrival many attribute to bitter fighting along the Kansas-Missouri borderlands. The conflict witnessed Federal expansion of the Regular Army, both to deal with the Rebel bid for a Western foothold and to quash offshoot Indian uprisings. The troops remained in place following the war, ostensibly to keep a lid on frontier tensions. But their presence occasioned an unprecedented influx of pioneers, boosting resentment among their unwilling Indian hosts. Red Cloud won Round 1, pushing the Army out of the Powder River country with the Fort Laramie Treaty. But the handwriting was on the wall. The pioneers kept coming, and with them duty-bound frontier regulars, who drew the cordon ever tighter. The Sioux and Northern Cheyennes would punish Custer for his overconfidence, and the Apaches would lead troopers on a vexing chase through the desert Southwest, but the Army had the numbers and supplies, and it had time on its side. By 1890 the Indian wars were over but for the resettlement.
In his epilogue, Wooster considers the Army’s frontier legacy as explorer, nation builder, civil engineer, peace keeper and, of course, warrior. He rightly points out that civilians would have come, soldiers or no soldiers, but “without the regular Army, the loyalties of these people who staked out these claims might have been very different….The Army’s presence showed that Washington cared, and in the end, it would be the Stars and Stripes that flew over the American frontier.”
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.