A bracing, deeply researched account of Oliver Howard, a champion of Reconstruction who nevertheless ruthlessly pursued the destruction of the Nez Perce tribe, Sharfstein’s Thunder in the Mountains is a fascinating yet devastating look at the historic and ongoing subjugation and destruction of Native American peoples. Recommended By Moses M., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Oliver Otis Howard thought he was a man of destiny. Chosen to lead the Freedmen's Bureau after the Civil War, the Union Army general was entrusted with the era's most crucial task: helping millions of former slaves claim the rights of citizens. He was energized by the belief that abolition and Reconstruction, the country's great struggles for liberty and equality, were God's plan for himself and the nation. To honor his righteous commitment to a new American freedom, Howard University was named for him.
But as the nation's politics curdled in the 1870s, General Howard exiled himself from Washington, D.C., rejoined the army, and was sent across the continent to command forces in the Pacific Northwest. Shattered by Reconstruction's collapse, he assumed a new mission: forcing Native Americans to become Christian farmers on government reservations.
Howard's plans for redemption in the West ran headlong into the resistance of Chief Joseph, a young Nez Perce leader in northeastern Oregon who refused to leave his ancestral land. Claiming equal rights for Native Americans, Joseph was determined to find his way to the center of American power and convince the government to acknowledge his people's humanity and capacity for citizenship. Although his words echoed the very ideas about liberty and equality that Howard had championed during Reconstruction, in the summer of 1877 the general and his troops ruthlessly pursued hundreds of Nez Perce families through the stark and unforgiving Northern Rockies. An odyssey and a tragedy, their devastating war transfixed the nation and immortalized Chief Joseph as a hero to generations of Americans.
Recreating the Nez Perce War through the voices of its survivors, Daniel J. Sharfstein's visionary history of the West casts Howard's turn away from civil rights alongside the nation's rejection of racial equality and embrace of empire. The conflict becomes a pivotal struggle over who gets to claim the American dream: a battle of ideas about the meaning of freedom and equality, the mechanics of American power, and the limits of what the government can and should do for its people. The war that Howard and Joseph fought is one that Americans continue to fight today.
"Daniel Sharfstein offers a searing account of an American tragedy: how Oliver Otis Howard, a champion for the rights of freed slaves, became an architect of the dispossession and subjugation of Native people. This beautifully written book will change the way readers think about the era of Civil War and Reconstruction." Ari Kelman, author of A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek
"An important book that will doubtless enjoy a broad readership among the general public and should be read by students as well as specialists interested in the Civil War era, military history, the history of the American West, and indigenous studies." Pacific Northwest Quarterly
"Sharfstein presents his view without polemic. Indeed, the writing is lyrical — smooth and engaging, albeit with scrupulous bibliographical notes to underscore its historical authenticity.… Sharfstein shows how at each interaction with federal authorities and their texts, Joseph focused on understanding not so much the particular words as the mechanisms through which ‘authoritative’ documents were created, trying to find his way in the wilderness of American power." Peter d’Errico, Indian Country Today
"A brisk narrative of one of the last major collisions between Native Americans and white America. [Sharfstein’s] two main characters are complex and compelling — Chief Joseph, a thoughtful, powerful speaker who spent years trying to find a way for his people to live alongside American settlers, and General O.O. Howard, a moralistic liberal Army general whose fate it was to crush Joseph’s small Nez Perce tribe." Thomas E. Ricks, The New York Times Book Review
"Intimate, propulsive and ultimately heart-breaking.… a compassionate military history and a shrewd examination of how cultural legends are created." Julie M. Klein, Chicago Tribune
"Magnificent and tragic.… Sharfstein is a wonderful storyteller with a deep knowledge of all the relevant source material from the period. His narrative is rich with fascinating historical details." Nick Romeo, Christian Science Monitor
About the Author
Daniel J. Sharfstein is a professor of law and history at Vanderbilt University and a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow. His first book, The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America, received the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. He lives in Nashville.