The American Military Frontiers: The United States Army in the West, 1783-1900 (review)
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The American Military Frontiers: The United States Army in the West, 1783-1900. By Robert Wooster. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009. Pp. xvi, 361. $39.95 cloth)

Robert Wooster's new book continues the tradition of the long-running series of Histories of the American Frontier in providing a comprehensive synthesis of an important aspect, area, and era of frontier history. Much of the information is available elsewhere—in the works of Robert Utley and Wooster himself, for example—and scholars of the Indian wars will probably find nothing new in the narrative of conflicts, but Wooster does a fine job of sustaining that narrative as he ties together multiple campaigns and skirmishes from different parts of the map.

The regular army participated in more than 1,100 combat operations against Indians between 1790 and 1900. Most patrols and expeditions never encountered Indians, and most soldiers never actually fought them. When they did, their record was mixed, ranging from instances of heroism and true humanity to acts of shameful brutality. Pitched battles against Indians were rare, and those that occurred often had disastrous outcomes for the United States: the destruction of Arthur St. Clair's army in 1791, the annihilation of Captain William Fetterman's command in 1866, and the slaughter of Custer's Seventh Cavalry in 1876. Like colonial armies before them, U.S. commanders found that the most effective way to fight Indians was to attack them in their villages and to destroy their food supply, which on the Great Plains meant the near-extermination of the buffalo herds.

Despite its long experience of frontier warfare, Wooster concludes, "the army rarely structured itself in a manner consistent with borderland realities" and the regulars "never developed a coherent doctrine for fighting Indians," a failing he attributes to a persistent disregard of Native American adversaries as meriting "systematic analysis or intellectual scrutiny. Their refusal to face the facts revealed a troubling institutional reluctance to grapple with the messy, [End Page 149] unconventional disputes that so often characterized military affairs on the borderlands, a failure that would continue to plague the nation's armed forces for another century" (p. 270).

The focus is on the army not the Indians, of course, and readers will learn relatively little about Native American motives for fighting, tribal foreign policies, or indigenous concepts of warfare. In some cases, familiarity with recent literature (for example, three new books on the Camp Grant Massacre of 1870 appeared in 2007-2008) could have produced more nuanced descriptions and interpretation. Nevertheless, Wooster provides more than just a standard retelling of army-Indian fights. He considers the army as an instrument of American expansion and western development, explains its role in facilitating and constructing transportation systems and stimulating and protecting settlement, and demonstrates its importance in the social, economic, and political life of the West. He links the army campaigns and Indian policies to political developments in Washington and he depicts daily life for the officers, enlisted men, wives, and others who made up the frontier communities at military outposts. Students of the military in the West will find this a readable synthesis by a prominent scholar in the field; readers (like the present reviewer) who are more interested in Indian experiences than military affairs will get a better understanding of an institution that served as an instrument of empire-building and intruded deeply into Native American life. [End Page 150]

Colin G. Calloway

Colin G. Calloway is John Kimball Jr. 1943 Professor of History and Native American Studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He is author of many books on American Indian history, including One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark (2003) and The American Revolution in Indian Country (1995).

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