- The Second Seminole War and the Limits of American Aggression by C. S. Monaco
Although several books about the Second Seminole War have been published in the last few decades, none have broken as much new ground as C. S. Monaco does here. While building on the attention that Joe Knetsch, John and Mary Lou Missall, and Milton Meltzer have given to white Floridians and national politics, and that given by Patricia Wickman to the Indian side (meaning Miccosukees, Creeks, Alachua Seminoles, and others) of the story, Monaco goes to new lengths exploring ecological and medical phenomena and the violation of norms of warfare in a balanced military, political, and cultural history. Monaco begins from the standpoint of settler colonialism to explain U.S. aggression and emphasizes the unique ecology and disease environment of Florida to explain its limits. As one might then expect, his bibliography provides outstanding contextual range, and his research base in newspapers and archives is the strongest of any book on the conflict.
The Second Seminole War and the Limits of American Aggression is more topical, thematic, and suggestive than it is comprehensive or conclusive, and despite Monaco's criticism, students will still resort to John K. Mahon's History of the Second Seminole War, 1835–1842 (rev. ed.; Gainesville, Fla., 1985) for a fuller narrative. Thus, for example, Monaco presents a unique section on landscape and mental trauma, which goes beyond the usual references to [End Page 437] disillusionment and alienation among U.S. troops but does not do more than previous works to explore settler motives or experiences. For political historians, Monaco provides the most attention yet to Whig critics of the war, though he recognizes that their motives were more partisan than humanitarian. He emphasizes that northeastern urban Democratic newspapers expressed sympathy for Osceola, suggesting an urban-rural sectional dimension to support for settler colonialism and U.S. territorial expansion, but he does not examine southern Whig responses to the conflict, which may also demonstrate tension between section and party. For military historians, Monaco helps explain General Zachary Taylor's system of defensive "squares" as an effort to calm and attract settlers and clarifies the motives for General Walker K. Armistead's aggressive strategy (p. 129). Monaco criticizes U.S. practices of breaking truces to seize Indians but does not fully explain these practices either in the context of the character of the conflict and the negotiations—in which both sides routinely used deception—or in the debate among U.S. Army officers over the strategy. As a result, divisions among the Indians remain obscure, though persistent U.S. military pressure and the promises made in near-constant negotiations with small groups (what I have called elsewhere "family diplomacy" between Indians and the army) clearly aggravated the Natives to the point that many felt compelled to surrender.
Monaco's most important historiographical argument is against those who see people of African descent as the leaders of the resistance to U.S. aggression or the defense of slavery against marronage as the principal motive for the war. Monaco convincingly deconstructs the evidence for such claims. In the process he provides extensive attention to Indian motives, values, and objectives. All sides in this passionate debate can take heart from his conclusion: "historians have a responsibility to treat all those who trace their traditions to the Florida war with a sense of equity," while adhering to evidence over polemic (p. 191).
Monaco's significant argument regarding the war itself is that the climate and disease environment were most important in limiting U.S. success. Monaco asserts that their full impact has been "heretofore unrecognized" by scholars, but every survey has done so (p. 139). Monaco does argue in detail that disease limited Florida's attraction to settlers, and thus limited the impact of the settler colonialism that helped motivate the war, but in doing so he revives an insight that U.S. Army officers recognized at the time.