For General William Sherman, much of the appeal of receiving command of the army of the West in 1865 was that it took him out of Washington. Sherman loathed politics, instead preferring the straightforward life of a soldier. But as he quickly discovered, politics persisted on the frontier, where settlers were agitating for a military campaign against the American Indians.
During a tour of Wyoming and Colorado in the autumn of 1866, Sherman met a settler named Craig, who owned a commercial farm on a tributary of the Arkansas River. “He has thoroughly proven the ability to produce,” Sherman wrote to future president Ulysses Grant, his superior in Washington. “But then comes the more difficult problem of consumption. Who is to buy his corn?”
“The miners of Colorado, in the mountains two hundred miles distant, will take some, but the cost of hauling is enormous,” Sherman continued. “The few travelers and stage companies will buy a little. But he and all situated like him look to our military for a market, and that is the real pressure for garrisons and an Indian war.”
Craig and other settlers blamed the American Indians for the recurrent violence on the frontier, but according to Sherman, they weren’t the instigators. “The Utes are harmless and peaceable, and the Cheyennes and Arapahoes are off after the buffaloes,” he wrote. Nonetheless, Craig and the others demanded war against them.
“The Utes are harmless and peaceable, and the Cheyennes and Arapahoes are off after the buffaloes.”
Sherman rebuffed the demand. “I don’t see how we can make a decent excuse for an Indian war,” he wrote to Grant. “I have traveled all the way from Laramie without a single soldier or escort. I meet single men, unarmed, traveling along the road as in Missouri. Cattle and horses graze loose far from their owners, most tempting to a starving Indian, and though the Indians might easily make a descent on these scattered ranches, yet they have not done so.”
Still, the white people on the frontier insisted on more soldiers and sterner action against the Indians. “I received at Puebla a petition to that effect signed by so many names that I could not help answering,” Sherman told Grant.
While he could say no at first, he realized he couldn’t say no forever. The settlers controlled the territory’s press, only they could vote in territorial elections, and they had the ear of officials in Washington. The Indians had no such connections and influence.
Settlers would precipitate or fabricate Indian attacks and demand that the army come to their defense. Congress would press the War Department, which would order Sherman to act against Indians.
Sherman had seen enough of politics to know that congress often refused to pay for what it demanded. He supposed the same would happen now, and he and the army would be blamed for failing to carry out orders.
Worse, he’d be compelled to send his men into action insufficiently armed and provisioned. They would get killed, and the clamor for war would mount even more. It reminded him again why he despised politics.
H. W. Brands is the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of 30 books. His latest, The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo and the War for America, is out now from Doubleday