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The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo and the War for America

Review

The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo and the War for America

Studying American history can be challenging. Just as a new pair of glasses gives us a fresh and different perspective, our view of history can be altered by present-day events. The struggle between the United States military and Native American Indians reflects those changing opinions. In my lifetime, the various depictions of General George Custer --- from heroic victim of the Indian massacre at Little Big Horn to reckless military leader contributing to his own downfall --- is a simple example of how our viewpoints often evolve.

Custer appears briefly in H. W. Brands’ sweeping history of the final battles of the American Indian wars, THE LAST CAMPAIGN: Sherman, Geronimo and the War for America. While the book’s subtitle might lead readers to believe that this is a dual biography of a great American general and the leader of an Indian nation, it is a far deeper study than those two lives. The struggle began even before the birth of America. After the American Revolution, every president starting with George Washington had worked to separate whites from Native American Indians. President Andrew Jackson would accelerate the conflict by relocating many tribes beyond the US boundaries.

"[THE LAST CAMPAIGN is] interesting history for readers and a worthy recounting of the war between Native and Anglo Americans that was fought as western expansion after the Civil War was undertaken."

William Tecumseh Sherman was named after the Shawnee Indian leader whose life was much admired by Sherman’s father. His military career ended in 1850, and he began working first as a banker and then as a superintendent of a military academy in Louisiana. But the outbreak of the Civil War brought him back north, where he returned to the army. He eventually was attached to the command of Ulysses S. Grant and would earn his reputation as a ruthless commander, once observing, “War is cruelty, you cannot refine it.” When asked by Atlantans to rescind an evacuation order due to the hardships it caused, Sherman responded that suffering was the point of all of this.

Since the arrival of Europeans to the North American continent, battles between England, Spain and France had been repeatedly fought. For many American Indian tribes, loyalty was simply a question of geography, and that pattern continued during the Civil War. Tribes still living in the North sided with the Union, while those in the South supported the Confederacy. But in the West, outside the boundaries of the US, it was more complicated. The Apache homeland was occupied at different times by both Northern and Southern armies. For his part, Geronimo avoided such conflict by turning towards Mexico and resuming hostilities with them.

By the end of the Civil War, the Union Army was a battle-tested military. The total population of Indians in the US was around 400,000, while non-Indians numbered more than 30 million. With American expansion underway, the “last campaign” would now commence.

It was fought for a mixed bag of reasons. Settlers moving west sought protection from what they viewed as roving bands of Indian warriors. The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad required that some Indians be moved from their land. Part of Sherman’s policy sought to force them to relocate onto new reservations, even though there were no treaty provisions for those actions. Sherman wanted the Army to control the Bureau of Indian Affairs so they could have the ability to take immediate action against resisting tribes, but he was rebuffed by Congress. The entire struggle to control the Native Americans was filled with stories of greed, corruption, injustice and media gullibility.

Because there was no actual conflict between Sherman and Geronimo, THE LAST CAMPAIGN does not truly live up to its title. But it’s interesting history for readers and a worthy recounting of the war between Native and Anglo Americans that was fought as western expansion after the Civil War was undertaken.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on November 18, 2022

The Last Campaign: Sherman, Geronimo and the War for America
by H. W. Brands

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2022
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385547285
  • ISBN-13: 9780385547284