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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, July 25th, 2006
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Yellowstone Command: Colonel Nelson A. Miles and the Great Sioux War, 1876-1877

by Jerome A. Greene

Indian Wars

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

On June 25, 1876, at the Little Bighorn, 2,000 Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors won the most stunning victory in the history of the American Indians' struggle with whites. But by the following spring, the U.S. Army had broken the Sioux and Cheyenne, and the twenty-six-year contest for the northern plains had ended, as thousands of Indians streamed into the reservations and surrendered. Although this outcome was foreordained, few had anticipated the rapidity or totality of the Indian defeat. More than anyone else, General Nelson A. Miles was responsible for crushing the tribes.

A hero of the battles at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Appomattox, Miles had two years earlier conclusively defeated the Comanche, the Kiowa, and the Southern Cheyenne in the Red River War. The most successful Indian fighter in American history (after a century of relative scholarly neglect, he was from 1989 to 1998 the subject of no fewer than three academic biographies, which is really two too many), he would later beat Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé and Geronimo of the Apache; he would also put down the Pullman strike and serve as commanding general of the Army during the Spanish-American War. Miles was a courageous, energetic, highly competent, aggressive, and hard-driving field commander; he was also a world-class self-promoter and a jealous and petty infighter, all of which made him less than popular with his fellow officers, a group with whom he was competitive to the point of paranoia.

When Miles, with the Fifth Infantry under his command, entered the Sioux country following Custer's defeat, his charge was to maintain an Army presence deep in the hostiles' territory throughout the winter -- itself a difficult and unprecedented endeavor. But rather than remain in their cantonment on a tributary of the Yellowstone River, Miles and his troops relentlessly pursued the Sioux and Cheyenne through the blizzards and sub-zero temperatures of the northern plains. Thrown off balance, warriors were transformed from feared fighters into hunted fugitives. Women, children, and ponies weakened as food and provender dwindled. These conditions intensified the endemic factionalism that beset the tribes; they were soon fatally enfeebled from without and from within. In a series of engagements, Miles bested his opponents (most significantly at the battle of the Wolf Mountains, which, though indecisive, shook the resolve of Crazy Horse's and Sitting Bull's forces), but it was his dogged pressure, not his victories on the battlefield, that defeated the Indians.

Unglamorously methodical, Miles's campaign is among the most successful feats of unconventional warfare in the history of the U.S. military (it was so described by a fellow lecturer at a course on counterinsurgency I helped teach at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School years ago), but until recently historians have devoted little attention to it, compared with, say, Custer's hardly victorious but far more romantic efforts. This book, first published in 1991 and just re-released in paperback, is a model of military history. A historian with the National Park Service, Greene judiciously and inventively weighs his evidence (many of his sources were previously unexamined), elucidates Miles's campaign strategy, and meticulously reconstructs the grueling marches and battles of the winter of 1876-77. His efforts are informed throughout by an exquisite sensitivity to the topography and climate of southeastern Montana. This is among the most realistic books on war that I've read: it explicates not the horror and drama of battle but the hard slog, the brutal single-mindedness of winning commanders, the blunt facts of logistics and supply, and the slow but inexorable unraveling of morale.


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