Henry Bertrand’s “Civil War and Bloody Peace” war years ended over 100 years ago, but in some ways, they’ve never ended at all. We now have a half-African American President in Barack Obama, which should be a great leap forward to ending racism in this country. But that it still needs to be ended indicates the grasp racism has had on this country — which has the distinction of being the last civilized country to free its slaves. The Democrats and Republicans still have a terrible time working together, as evidenced by the divisiveness in George W. Bush’s presidency, the current administration’s difficulty with a Republican Congress. George W. Bush got Democratic approval (not overwhelming but enough) for the start of his Iraq War was by saying, “you’re either with us or against us,” the same language used in the Civil War.
If we look seriously at Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, strip away all the rhetoric and mythology about how great he was, we’d recognize the effort he made to keep the country united, but that had less to do with Emancipation and more to do with the need for progress, industry, the railroads, and resources that the South threatened to withhold. As for being the first American president assassinated, I don’t see how Lincoln possibly could have survived the war, because he was so much a part of it. He probably knew, judging by the dreams he’d had, the ultimate outcome of a Republican presidency on a country so torn by the war. He hadn’t been willing to stop war from starting with recognition that slavery would die on its own as the slaves freed themselves. But if he’d tried that, perhaps an abolitionist would have killed him.
Andrew Johnson as president was easier for the abolitionists in Congress to push around, because he’d not been tried by fire. So that deluded Southern gentleman actually did them a favor. But we’re not here to play alternate history. Quite the opposite. We’re here to see why our country is as it is now.
Indians, too, have remained a notable presence in society, thanks in part to the money they make from their casinos. Their voices struggle still to be heard in the growing clamor for environmental awareness. Many retain an aura of anger toward the white society that seems to wait for a certain clue or signal, and yet it’s long past time that these angers are healed. Returning the Black Hills to Sioux and Cheyenne would be a good start.
Part of the problem is capitalism. Racism occurs when one group wants to keep another group out of the competition. There was a story William Powell told, shortly before Wounded Knee, of Indians who were looking to take part in the American system. One day, when visiting a reservation in the 1800s, he asked a young Indian who had excellent English and had been educated at an Indian school why he just loafed around. “Do you prefer that life to having something to do?”
“I would be glad to get anything to do to earn some money,” was the reply.
“Can you drive a six-mule team?”
“I can drive a six-mule or any other kind of team,” he answered, very proudly. “But nobody will give an Indian anything to do out here.”
Powell finished the story by saying, “Looking at it from a moral standpoint, the question which suggests itself is, Has the government no responsibility in the matter? It is our duty to fit them to take their places in the great struggles of life.”
Powell also noted that the best job for the Indians was as soldiers, because they were warriors from childhood. Sadly, even those who went off to fight America’s wars in the 1900s found little offered to them when they returned.
It’s ironic to realize, too, that the Indians made deals for the land but felt they had the right to retain the resources, only to find out the whites thought differently. Land included resources, and whites didn’t share. To get the resources back the Indians had to get the land back. They failed, although now their best bet is to buy it back, parcel by parcel.
What if the South had managed to become its own country? The Civil War would still have been fought, because both North and South wanted control of the West.
I hope this book offers a new understanding of how the United States came to be as it is today, and where we should be headed in the future.
Because the story of a soldier really is the story of a country.
. William H. Powell, “The Indian as a Soldier,” The United Service 3 (n.s.), no. 3, March 1890, The Army and the Indian, 397-399. Note this opinion was before Wounded Knee. Part of the reason for that unhappiness was their inability to control their future.