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Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics Paperback – June 1, 2012
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This book is the doctoral thesis of Professor David A. Nichols. He writes about Lincoln's Indian Policy. To sum it up, Lincoln's Indian Policy was a continuation of the policy of his predecessors. The Government made treaties with the Indians in exchange for land, moved the Indians to a reservation, and paid the tribe for the treaty. The payments were managed by Politically appointed Indian Agents. Most of these agents used their post to further their political power and line their pockets and the pockets of their friends and families. The welfare of the Indians was a secondary concern.
Nichols argues that the Indian Agents and their corruption was the cause of the Sioux Uprising of 1862. He also discusses a little known refugee crisis in Kansas caused by the Civil War's influence on the Indian Tribes in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). There is also some discussion of the treatment of the Navajo also. This book is critical of military policy towards the Navajo. Interestingly, T.R. Fehrenbach argues in his history of the Comanche the treatment of the Navajo by the military was considerably better than other tribes under other policies.
The book is focused on policy, so there is heavy emphasis on telegrams, white papers, statements by bureaucrats, and other movers and shakers in government. There is no accounting of the battles, no description of the organization, tactics and equipment of the units involved in the fighting. The Indians themselves are scarcely described. Only a few individuals are named.
If there is a hero in this book it is Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple (1822-1901) of the Episcopal Church. Whipple was an early version of the Christian crusader for non-white interests and he argued that the Indian Agent System bred discontent and ended in blood. Bishop Whipple lobbied the Lincoln administration for reform of the system.
The book appears on the surface to be an excellent summation of Lincoln's Indian Policy in particular and of American Indian Policy in general but in many ways it leaves more questions than answers.
First, the Indians themselves are portrayed as victims with no agency (no pun intended here). In this sense agency means an action or intervention, especially such as to produce a particular effect. The white traders, officials, and Indian Agents are uniquely evil and the war itself is a natural result. Essentially, it is the "otherization" in Christian Theology that has yet to have a coherent definition. I'll attempt to crudely define it here, Bishop Whipple, Dr. Nichols, and many modern religious leaders make non-white "others" sinless actors while free-will whites with agency either sin against them, or don't sin against them.
The start of the Dakota War is a perfect example of this. The war is an outgrowth of the clunky Indian Gifts system. Hungry Indians beseeched Agent Thomas Galbraith for food (p77), the Agent refuses to give the food and a trader rudely insults the Indians causing the war. This all begs the question, why didn't the Agent give up food (I know he didn't have cash on hand) to avoid the war? What about the Indians' internal food distribution services? Where the Indians facing Galbraith legitimate representatives of the tribe? What where the Indian's names? What did they say to cause an insult? People say insult in a heated moment, what were the Indians doing?
Additionally, government corruption was rife throughout the 19th Century, but progress still occurred. The Transcontinental Railroad did get built in spite of the Crédit Mobilier scandal. As a percentage of aid, how much was pilfered by Indian Agents and how much reached each Indian and by what means? Dr. Nichols does give an account in one instance, but the sum total seems to be off to this reviewer. Additionally, to put it bluntly, the Sioux were living in the States which are breadbaskets with enormous herds of buffalo. How is it possible that they were not able to get food from their efforts upon any endowment of land therein?
The long discussion of the trials of 300 plus Sioux and the mass hanging of 38 of them also bears witness to this "otherized" theology. The Lincoln Administration went into agony over the perceived moral consequences of a mass hanging of captured Sioux Warriors. Every case was scrutinized and Lincoln insisted he couldn't hang men to win a few votes. On the other hand, the Sioux Indian's Casus Belli was a conflict between a particular group of white traders and Government Indian Agents over food distributions. So why did the Sioux not specifically target the immoral white agents, traders and seize government food stores? Instead they killed, according to this book, 500 whites who were not involved in Indian Policy at all. The book fails to describe the nature of which the whites were killed, there was-apparently-creative, cruel and unusual killing on the part of the Indians as well as rape and arson. Notice the contrast, Lincoln orders records of trials sent from General Pope and Governor Sibley and has a battery of lawyers at DC Legal Rates look over the transcripts to find justice and cut down on the number of executions. The Indians disembowel white settlers not involved in the dispute with no trial or formalized process of justice whatsoever.
There seems to be a dark love of violence within the Savage Fellaheen Mind that is expressed on the American Frontier of the 19th Century and earlier to the ISIS of today. Notice that the Islamic Immigrant welfare recipients in the housing projects of France, England, and Minnesota leave their "reservations" when the siren song of dark, creative killing is called from the Minarets of Arabia by means of You Tube. I wonder if there was more of that as the cause of the Sioux War than any corrupt Indian Agent.
Finally, while Lincoln was unable to reform the Indian System to Bishop Whipple's liking, his successors did do reform. The Grant Administration fired the politically appointed agents and replaced them with religious men. The Quaker Lawrie Tatum was sent to the Comanche and there was still terrible Indian Wars. Perhaps the "otherized" theology of late is a bit flawed.
Ultimately this is a good book, perhaps the only book about the Lincoln Administration's dealings with the Indians. It has some pretty good research, but this reviewer was left with the feeling that the book was too much a 1970s Zeitgeist work that academized "the Indians were cool...man...cool."
But there is plenty of Civil War talk here; Indians were at the bottom of Lincoln's priorities. He dealt in Indian affairs only when they dovetailed with the Civil War. Lincoln's priorities were 1-The war, 2-The expansion west, 3- The Indians. He believed the three key things to the expansion west were homesteading, mining, and the railroad; and the Indians stood in the way of all three.
Nichols starts the book describing the corruption in the Office of Indian Affairs. Then he devotes much of the book on two important incidents. The first is a Confederate effort to obtain allies in Indian Territory, which evolves into a Kansas refugee crisis. The second is the Indian war in Minnesota, which humanitarians argued was the result of the corruption of the "Indian System."
Nichols is able to describe these horrible events without subjective language. He is fair to Lincoln and his peers; he argues that Lincoln was the product of thousands of years of prejudice. Even the reformers took a paternalistic attitude.