Plains Folk

War on the Plains


Across the eastern states, Americans are commemorating the events of the Civil War, 150 years on. Visitation to historic battle sites is surging, and re-enactors are having a field day reliving one engagement after another. The carnage of the Civil War seems safely consigned to the past. It can be remembered without reopening the sore.


The Civil War did surge onto the western plains here and there. In the Indian Territory, Oklahoma, elements of the Five Civilized tribes, many of them slaveholders, sided with the Confederacy, thousands of them even serving in the Confederate Army. Cherokee Stand Watie, in fact, would be the last Confederate general to surrender. Lesser numbers of Oklahoma Indians fought for the Union.


A little army of Texas troops invaded New Mexico and sought to take Colorado, coveted for its producing gold mines, but that went badly for the southerners. Union volunteers made a rapid march down from Denver and stopped the Confederates at Glorietta Pass.


The new state of Kansas more than lived up to its nickname, “Bleeding Kansas,” not only by contributing more troops to the Union cause (proportionate to population) than any other state but also by being the scene of vicious guerilla warfare. Mostly this took place along the eastern border, although the Missouri bushwacker Dick Yeager did burn the stage station at Diamond Springs, on the Santa Fe Trail.


All this Civil War action spilled onto the plains, but was not of the plains. There was, of course, a surge of Indian-white conflict on the prairies. Generals in blue often spoke of the Plains Indians as somehow conniving with the Confederates against the Union, but such was not the case. The Indians had reasons of their own for fighting, and they got no help from the Confederacy.


Historians later came to speak too easily of the Indians of the plains taking advantage of the withdrawal of federal troops to fight in the east, thus leaving the frontier defenseless. This does not hold water, either. Because of the induction of volunteers and conscripts, there were way more federal troops on the plains during the war than before.


No, the main reason for the outbreak of Indian-white violence on the plains in the 1860s was more direct and obvious than all that. It had to do with the rising pressures of white western settlement and the increasing precariousness of Indian ways of life on the plains.


On the central plains the Colorado gold rush attracted thousands of immigrants who made a shambles of previous treaty arrangements. On the northern plains, the fight that began as Dakota resistance to loss of lands in Minnesota spilled west into Dakota Territory and Montana. In fact, there would be Wahpekute and Mdewakanton Dakotas from Minnesota in the fight when Custer bought the farm in 1876.


The disturbing impact of the war on the plains, which still stirs unease yet today, was the advent of total war. Fighting for limited aims gave way to fighting for blood and even extermination, as famously illustrated at Sand Creek and Whitestone Hill. Noncombatants, Indian and white, paid the price. This is a matter not for exuberant celebrations but rather for sober remembrance.

By Tom Isern

Copyright 2013 Plains Folk


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