Beginning with the 1778 Treaty with the Delawares, the United States engaged in some 375 treaties with Native Americans. While many were concluded hopefully, even earnestly, none ended well for Indian tribes. From George Washington forward, American presidents were confronted with the problem of Americans coveting and taking Indian land. Moreover, from the time of the French and Indian War in 1754, what would become the American army was fighting Indians.

Subjugating those Indians was a challenge of enormous magnitude: Only 5,000 soldiers patrolled a million square miles that was home to 200,000 to 300,000 Indians. And the Indians were generally more proficient at warfare. Soldiers fighting successive tribes of Indians as white settlers moved south and west to occupy the continent were mostly militia, with little prior experience of warfare. By contrast, most Indian tribes fought as their profession. As S. C. Gwynne emphasizes in Empire of the Summer Moon, “American Indians were warlike by nature, and they were warlike for centuries before Columbus stumbled upon them.”

Yet the United States had innumerable advantages it could bring to bear against the Indians: wealth, numbers, technology, industrial organization. Why did it take so long — over a hundred years — to do so? The answer is a complicated story, interweaving policy and military failures, failures of understanding and execution, and throughout it all an obdurate unwillingness of Americans on the frontier to uphold their government’s policy. The Indian Wars were finally won with the combination of simplified objectives, ruthless prosecution by both military and economic means, and international cooperation to preclude sanctuaries from which tribes could operate. But the lessons, and especially the military lessons, were there from the start.

These lessons are immediately relevant to the war we are fighting in Afghanistan. Nor are the lessons of the Indian Wars solely applicable to countering insurgencies. When asked by George Marshall in 1942 how the Army should train for pivoting from the war in Europe to the Pacific, the commander of the Marines on Guadalcanal answered “go back to the tactics of the French and Indian days . . . study their tactics and fit in our modern weapons, and you have a solution.” Many would now prefer to consider this kind of war a narrow subset of the spectrum of conflict; the Defense Department’s 2012 strategic guidance concludes the United States will no longer engage in large-scale counterinsurgencies.

Yet the impediments to winning the Indian Wars will be impediments to winning any kind of war. They have to do with an unwillingness by political leaders to acknowledge the scope and contradictory nature of their strategic objectives; an enormous gap between the campaign’s objectives and the resources political leaders are willing to put toward the effort; dramatic overestimation of the capacity of our government to effectively carry out a sophisticated policy with political, economic, and military elements; corruption delegitimizing the idealistic components of the policy designed to win support of “reconcileables”; military gains far outpacing civilian agencies’ ability to capitalize on them; existence of safe havens because of our inability to bring border states into cooperation; insularity in Washington against the consequences of the policy’s failures, which are principally borne by others; a military hesitant to credit their adversaries with superior tactics and even strategy; a cost-exchange ratio significantly favoring the enemy and therefore making our strategy episodically followed and their strategy more sustainable over time; ideological unwillingness to adjust the strategy to one more in line with conditions and resources. In fact, these are the same impediments preventing us winning the Afghan war.

In the beginning

Washington and his Virginians were beaten back from Ft. Duquesne in 1755 by Ottawa and Potawatomie (600 of the 800 French-led troops were Indian). In the aftermath, Washington reflected on “this kind of fighting,” and the importance of individual judgment when armies are dispersed. British General John Forbes, Washington’s commander, went even further, concluding “wee must comply and learn the Art of Warr, from Enemy Indians, or anything else who have seen the Country and Warr carried on in it.”

Once a tribe was forced to cede its land, however, the militia typically disbanded and returned to their farming and ranching. Even the last four decades of the 19th century, the period we tend to think of as the closing of the American West, nearly all battles were fought by small detachments of infantry and cavalry. The army did not carry lessons from one Indian War over into the next by, so instead of one war, the Indian campaigns are more properly thought of as a sequence of wars in which previous iterations were little studied.

Yet the Indian Wars were constant. From 1768 through 1889, according to R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy’s The Encyclopedia of Military History, the army fought “943 actions in twelve separate campaigns and numerous local incidents.” And as Fairfax Downey notes in his Indian Fighting Army, “from 1866 to 1892 there was not a year, and hardly a three months, in which there was not some expedition against the Indians in the vast regions west of the Mississippi, and between the Canadian and Mexican borders.” That the army chose not to study and learn from its experience is a terrible institutional indictment; that it succeeded anyway is a marvelous tribute to the inventiveness of the soldiers who fought these wars. That the wars were ultimately won only when effective military operations were integrated into a broader political and economic campaign is a lesson we seem always in need of relearning, as our current military success and strategic failure in Afghanistan makes clear.

Theodore Roosevelt gave a typically clear-eyed summary of the Indian wars in his book The Winning of the West:

The frontier was pushed westward, not because the leading statesmen of America, or the bulk of the American people, foresaw the continental greatness of this country or strove for such greatness; but because the bordermen of the West, and the adventurous land-speculators of the East, were personally interested in acquiring new territory, and because, against their will, the governmental representatives of the nation were finally forced to make the interests of the Westerners their own.

That is an essential, and essentially American, truth: The federal government was too far removed from local concerns to craft workable solutions. Throughout the Indian Wars there was an enormous gap between the policy of the American government and the views of those Americans living in Indian territory. Settlements generally preceded forts, and government policy foundered on settler refusal to comply with government policy. From the capital, the government crafted a grand strategy it was incapable of implementing.

Bill Cody, awarded the medal of honor for his scouting with the army, said “every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.” Many in the professional army agreed with that view; more often than not, they blamed settlers for causing massacres through their own recklessness. The army was throughout the Indian wars generally unsupportive of the policies of state and territorial governments and hesitant to enforce them or cooperate with militia engaged in them. As late as 1871, General William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of the army, rejected settler demands for army protection on the Texas frontier, saying, “they expose women and children singly on the road and in cabins far off from others, as though they were safe in Illinois . . . such actions are more significant than words.”

From George Washington forward, with only the exception of Andrew Jackson, American presidents attempted to reconcile southward and westward expansion with preservation of Indian settlements, even if dislocating Indians from their tribal lands. Washington was unequivocal: “Indians being the prior occupants possess the right of the soil . . . to dispossess them . . . would be a gross violation”; confiscation would “stain the character of the nation.” Yet he could not prevent settlers doing so, and was pulled into defending them in the Northwest Indian War.

A nation divided

Andrew jackson’s more aggressive dispossession of land from Indians, not surprisingly, coincides with the rise of populism in American politics. It also traces the fault line between those Americans living in safety and those settling the frontier; the removal policy was deeply unpopular in New England, supported where people were exposed to Indians. And the political power of the frontier was rising with the admission of new states and continued expansion.

The separation of federal and state powers further aggravated the schism between presidential policies and local attitudes, as very often federal treaties promised land that states refused to hand over to Indian control. The policy cleaved along another uniquely American fault line during the Jackson administration, with the president declining to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision that Georgia must comply with federal treaties governing relations with the Cherokee.

After Jackson, though, the previous policy equilibrium was restored, in part because the attention of the nation was riven by conflict over slavery and the gathering storm of civil war. Secession of the southern states removed federal troops from the West and increased competition for skilled soldiers and militia. Before the Civil War, the professional army was spread across the nation; with the advent of war, all troops were recalled eastand states required to raise volunteers to protect emigrant trails and delivery of mail. America’s best soldiers were fighting each other, not Indians.

The last state militia were relieved by federal troops — professionals — only in 1866. The diluting of talented soldiery was especially felt in the southwest, where plains tribes pushed the frontier back more than a hundred miles. After the war, the federal government refused to allow former Confederate states to raise militia, even in response to brutal raiding by Apache and Comanche. In 1871 the line of settlement had not yet returned as far west as before secession.

The Army’s deficiencies

Militia may have been less capable soldiers, but even the professional army was not serious about the undertaking of fighting Indians. As late as 1871, General C.C. Augur had to issue an order that “henceforth officers would be expected to make a vigorous effort, even to the extent of privation, to overtake and punish marauders.” Indeed, life on the frontier for officers and their families was often glamorous amidst the danger and deprivation. Most officers, Custer included, picnicked and hunted significantly more than they trained. In the Battle of Rosebud in 1876, General Crook’s troops fired 250 rounds per Indian casualty, an appallingly low level of marksmanship. One observer of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, quoted in Nathaniel Philbrick’s Last Stand, before Little Big Horn reported that “sending raw recruits and untrained horses to fight mounted Indians is simply sending soldiers to be slaughtered without the power of defending themselves.”

Lack of wherewithal further impeded progress. The War Department was continually hobbled for funds, and chose policies for efficiency rather than effectiveness. It long held the belief that “if the Indians could be induced to keep the peace, forts and war would be unnecessary.”

While weapons technology advanced significantly during that time period, the fiercest of the Indians had access to the best weapons — in many instances they were better armed than the American soldiers they were fighting. Soldiers were provided with single shot muskets, mostly front-loading, making nearly impossible any reloading while on horseback (a distinct disadvantage in Indian country). As an economy measure, soldiers were also not issued ammunition to practice firing.

An industrial age solution

The federal government was finally pushed into “solving the Indian problem” in the second Grant administration. That solution was an overt renunciation of peace policies, development of a more proficient Indian-fighting army, relentless prosecution of a military campaign against the tribes, and decimation of Indian livelihood.

President Grant had initially supported what we would now describe as an ethical and culturally sensitive approach to the Indian problem. He sought to minimize conflict, supporting “any course toward them which tends to their civilization and ultimate citizenship,” ordering military commanders to prevent settler incursions onto Indian land, accepting responsibility for Indian welfare on reservations, establishing educational and medical programs — even symbolizing the policy by appointment of the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs. What in contemporary parlance we call “whole of government operations” were also in vogue for managing the Indian problem. Military commanders were subordinated to “Indian Agents,” government civilians purportedly caring for Indian interests.

The more nuanced strategy did not, however, reduce spectacular incidents of violence that changed public attitudes even in the cosseted east. The Modoc War on the California-Oregon border resulted in the killing (during peace negotiations, no less) of the only general officer during a hundred years of Indian warring. Custer’s Seventh Cavalry was massacred at Little Big Horn. Grant considered Little Big Horn Custer’s own fault; but the public would not be assuaged.

The “peace policy” was discredited as much by failure of the Indian agencies as by violence. The magnitude of corruption experienced throughout the Indian agencies has seldom been equaled; its revelation was devastating to liberal reformers’ hopes for a humane resettlement of Indians. Faced with collapse of more sophisticated strategies than enforcing compliance, and the public outcry after Custer’s massacre, Grant changed course, subordinating the Indian agencies under military control and ordering the military “to subdue all Indians who offered resistance.”

This instruction finally got the army serious about the Indian Wars. They brought men battle-hardened from our first industrial-age warfare; the change from the dashing romanticism of the frontier to its conquest is epitomized by the transition from Custer, with his long golden hair and buckskins writing memoirs of life on the plains, to Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, a severe, unpopular commander who defeated the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Sioux, Ute, and Apache with a fearsome mix of intellect and determination.

The intellectual revolution

Mackenzie graduated from West Point in 1862, was wounded six times during his Civil War service, and seven times breveted (given field promotions). In the space of three years, he was promoted from second lieutenant to major general; Ulysses Grant characterized him in his memoirs as “the most promising officer in the army.” Other commanders were better supplied, had more forces and less daunting enemies; none matched Mackenzie’s victories. The key to his success was understanding: He thought differently about the problem than his contemporaries.

Mackenzie set about to demonstrate seriousness to his own soldiers, eliminating sport hunting, drilling them relentlessly, and enforcing strict discipline. Like George Washington, he was at first unsuccessful fighting Indians — Comanche Quanah Parker stole his horses on his first campaign, and being unhorsed in Indian country was often a fatal error. Mackenzie made numerous other early mistakes: His scouting was deficient, winter provisions inadequate, he nearly got his men killed encamping between buffalo and water, and was outsmarted by both Kiowa and Comanche.

The Army won as conditions changed and as adversaries became more accomplished and dangerous.

But he learned from his mistakes, developing the tactical proficiency that would turn the tide. With hardened troops and logistical experience from the Civil War he began to operate at great distances from supply lines. He learned to utilize Indian scouts (which required understanding the enmities between tribes) and divided spoils among them to reward information; to march with a detachment of cavalry between scouts and infantry as a shock absorber; carry cartridges on their person; to wheel and volley in the face of an attack; and not to divert forces to chase retreating Indians. He campaigned during the winter, when Indians tended to encamp and were therefore easier to find and less mobile. Most importantly, he determined how Indians followed water trails in the desert. He also studied their social structure, learning (as Andrew Jackson earlier had) that an asymmetric grab for Indian families would derail attacks and Indian chiefs would make any concession to ransom their women and children.

Mackenzie also realized, as no other soldier had before him, that mobility was the key to proficiency for the plains Indians: He didn’t have to kill all the Indians, he just had to take their horses. And he did. Mackenzie raided for horses not, as the Indians did, for honor, but to prevent his adversaries utilizing their principal advantage. That higher-level insight, so obvious in retrospect, led to the broader observation that without buffalo to hunt, the Indian way of life would collapse.

While he unrelentingly insisted that military success was required to force Indian compliance, Mackenzie advocated strategies that incorporated military operations with political and economic components. This was most visible in his advocacy of negotiations with the government of Mexico to prevent Indians having sanctuary across the border (and in his violation of the sovereignty of Mexico by attacking Indians inside Mexico until the government agreed to U.S. terms).

In the late stages of the Indian wars, those occurring in the plains and along the southwest border of what is now the United States, the Army suffered losses and depredations, but it eventually won the war. Or, more accurately, won the wars. It won as conditions changed and as adversaries became more accomplished and dangerous. Battlefields shifted to the vast southwest and from infantry skirmishes to mounted warfare. But the pattern is remarkably consistent from George Washington in 1755 to Ranald Mackenzie in 1875: The American government does not reconcile its policy to its means until forced by the public, and when they do, the Army fights and loses, gains respect for their Indian adversaries and begins to mimic their tactics, brings in the supplies and organizational skills learned in campaigns against armies fighting as we do, which leads to the successful pushing of Indians off their tribal lands. If there can be said to be an American way of war, it is this.

Militarily, the Indian Wars follow an evolution in which the Indians first mastered the horse, Americans then countered with the rifle, and then both seized on the other’s strong suit. Both were equally motivated, both societies amazingly enduring of hardship and casualties. They fought, perhaps, for different things, certainly with different approaches; the Indians for personal valor, the Indian-fighting U.S. Army with the brutal arithmetic of industrial age warfare. The difference, ultimately, was that Indians did not continue innovating, whereas the Army did.

In the end, though, it was less the Army than the society that destroyed the Indians. As Mackenzie’s boss, General Philip Sheridan, testified to the Texas legislature in 1873 when the hunters were killing buffalo by the million, decimating herds of the plains,

These men have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular Army has done in the last 40 years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary. And it is a well-known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; but for a lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated.”

Population tables tell the story most succinctly: White settlement in Wise County, Texas, dropped from 3,160 in 1860 to 1,450 in 1870; but in 1880, five years after the end of the Indian Wars, it had surged to 16,601.

Indian-fighting country

The myth has grown out of the 20th century of the United States as a vaunted military power, determined to vanquish its foes. The Jacksonian tradition is credited with imbuing our culture with a commitment to fight until the unconditional surrender of our enemies and a reflexive willingness greater than in most other countries to support military solutions to vexing international problems. It echoes through debates on Iraq and Afghanistan, when advocates of greater commitment attempt to place the judgment of commanders above that of the leaders elected to determine how much national effort to commit.

That approach subverts the proper ordering of civil-military relations: Presidents are responsible for winning or losing wars. It is presidents who set political objectives and are accountable to the public for matching the importance of the war with the resources to attain them. It is presidents who hire and fire military leaders carrying out their campaigns. It is presidents who must sue for peace or determine to fight the enemy to extinction.

And no president has given limitless resources to any war the United States has ever fought. Not the Revolutionary War: Washington, as chief executive of the war effort, constantly harangued the Congress for authorities and resources they would not give him. Not the Civil War; Lincoln had to navigate draft riots and public exhaustion. Not World War II; Roosevelt was constrained by isolationist sentiment and concern about the recovery needs of the American economy.

The United States wins wars when it decides to stop losing wars — when it brings its strategy and resources into alignment and political leaders commit to outcomes within the constraints. In the case of the Indian Wars, that meant “simplifying our objectives” — relinquishing any pretense at justice in our dealings with Indians and fighting a war of imperial consolidation that would win control of the territory in question. It meant acknowledging the failure of our civilian agencies and directing the military to perform the functions necessary for the success of the war effort. It required putting forward military leaders able to understand the enemy and innovate to diminish his advantages. It required compromises and unwelcome commitments and the risk of a wider war with foreign powers to prevent safe havens. It required using our technological and economic advantages to decimate other societies.

In wondering why we don’t win our current wars, we ought perhaps to reflect that we as a society have not wanted that outcome enough to commit ourselves to the gritty and awful business of destruction. We are an incredibly fortunate society in that we have the luxury of choosing whether to win our wars. We ought perhaps to reflect on whether we could have won the wars we chose to win by the means we now consider sufficient and proper to fight them.

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