“The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend,” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, is a terrific new book out this week that reexamines the cruelty of expansion in the American West, the warrior ethos of the Lakota Sioux, and the strategy and tactics of Red Cloud in defeating the United States Army.
“The great warrior chief Red Cloud was the only Indian ever able to claim victory over the United States,” according to Drury and Clavin, a conclusion backed up by other writers and historians.*
Red Cloud and many other colorful protagonists in “The Heart of Everything That Is” are flawed anti-heroes in a world of intertribal raids and fights, torture, mutilation, revenge, lies and numbing grief on all sides.
|Photo reportedly by Ridgway Glover, 1866|
“Though the Sioux were to become its most vicious practitioners, warfare among Indians was simply a way of life. Nearly every tribe called itself “The People” and harbored deep suspicion and hatred toward outsiders with whom it competed for game and plunders. Death arrived swiftly and often in the violent thrust and parry of aggression and defense, abetted by a culture that revolved around a quest to avenge insults and injuries real and perceived.”
In the expansion across the North American continent, individual tribes who believed in The Great Spirit faced an enemy who justified their claims in the name of Manifest Destiny. The crusade by people of European descent can be considered a long campaign against Native Americans, often seen as less-than-human "others" undeserving of basic human rights and freedoms:
“The military historian Peter Maslowski, attending a guest-lecture series at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, was puzzled when a general from the Chinese People’s Army casually mentioned that the United States had fought the longest war in history. America had never fought a Thirty Years’ War, let alone a Hundred Years’ War. What was the visiting general talking about? The answer came with the foreigner’s next breath. He explained that he was referring to America’s nearly 300-year war against its Indians. Much of the world beyond North America considered it to have begun in the early seventeenth century and to have lasted until the late nineteenth.”
The authors establish characters and reveal history, introducing us to the shadowy Crazy Horse, grizzled Jim Bridger (left), genocidal Gen. Sherman, flamboyant photographer Ridgway Glover, fearless Paul Revere-like “Portugee” Phillips, frightening George Washington Grummond and "Queeg-like" Col. Carrington, among others. The book builds interest and tension throughout, culminating in a masterful depiction of the Fetterman Massacre, showing Red Cloud as “the equal of history’s great guerilla tacticians.”
Drury and Clavin, authors of other military books including “Last Men Out,” “The Last Stand of Fox Company” and “Halsey’s Typhoon,” make the book relevant to a Navy audience:
“The historian Stephen E. Ambrose notes that Indian fighting on the High Plains was more akin to naval warfare than to any other type of battle. The U.S. Army ‘was lumbering around with battleships and cruisers, chasing pirates in sleek, fast vessels,’ and the forts and camps were like home ports to which large ships must return often for supplies. Meanwhile the Indians lived off the land much as the pirates lived off the ocean, and the soldiers deployed to the frontier had no more comprehension of their surroundings than the crews of Columbus or Magellan reading blank charts marked with the warning, ‘Here be monsters.’”
With graphic depictions of monstrous mutilations and violence, the writing is closer to Larry McMurtry than Louis L’Amour, all the more powerful because it is nonfiction carefully noted and sourced. There’s a tie to McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” and there are references to Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte and von Clausewitz.
Descriptions are colorful and memorable: “Bull Bear, by all accounts a canker of a man with a face like a clenched fist...” “Under the broiling summer sun the stench of human and animal sweat and dung hung over the post like an illness.”
|Chief Red Cloud|
“At six feet, Red Cloud was tall for a Sioux, if not for most men of this era. His slender face was dominated by a beaked nose and a broad forehead, and the leathery skin around his ravaged brown eyes was prematurely creased, as if by parentheses, with age lines. Fond of accessories, such as eagle feathers and ribbons, he carried himself with an erect, regal mien; and at such formal ceremonies his long, course black hair was almost always bear-greased and plaited around the wing bone of an eagle to signify elegance and propriety. A good, new rifle usually rested across his saddle pommel. On the whole he projected an aura of quiet dignity with an undercurrent of physical menace.”
The book explores the role of technology in winning the overall campaign, discussing the role of the Navy Colt, Springfield rifle and other firearms and the development of the Union Pacific Railroad. It explores how close to the surface is the savagery in our souls. And it considers the importance of a strong defense in keeping peace. Red Cloud, Crazy Horse's mentor, “was a living embodiment of the maxim that war is the best teacher of war.”
Drury and Clavin write, “The four pillars of Sioux leadership -- acknowledged by the tribe to this day -- are bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom. Time and again Red Cloud exhibited each.” In the end, Red Cloud the statesman saw the way to peace.
The authors make a brilliant proposal in the Washington Post this week (during Native American Heritage month): Rename the NFL’s Washington Redskins the Washington Red Clouds.
“Named after such a proud and powerful winner, the Washington Red Clouds would be a lock to emulate their namesake and rout 49ers, defeat Raiders, humiliate Cowboys, pluck Eagles, turn back Texans, break Broncos and generally leave quivering the remaining would-be Giants and Titans of the National Football League,” they write.
In changing the Redskins name, Red Cloud would help win another battle...
Lakota delegation at the White House, 1877. Standing - Red Bear, Young-Man-Afraid-of-his-Horses, Good Voice, Ring Thunder, Iron Crow, White Tail, Young Spotted Tail. Seated - Yellow Bear, Red Cloud, Big Road, Little Wound, Black Crow. (Library of Congress)
* Other authors and historians reach the same conclusion about Red Cloud’s War. James Wilson noted that the government conceded defeat in “The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native Americans.” McMurtry refers to Red Cloud's victories along the Bozeman Trail in his beautiful and colorful "Custer" from 2012 (published, like "The Heart of Everything That Is," by Simon & Schuster).