Thursday, May 07, 2009

Wagner: "POWDER RIVER ODYSSEY: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts"

[Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts by David E. Wagner (Arthur H. Clark Co., 2009). Blue cloth, photos, 15 maps, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 253/283. 978-0-87062-359-2 $39.95]

The 1865 Powder River Expedition was a three-pronged punitive expedition directed against hostile Indian bands that had been raiding western immigrant trails since the previous year. Brig. General Patrick E. Connor led the western division personally and commanded the operation overall. According to plan, he would establish a fort along the Powder River and await the arrival of the center (16th Kansas Cavalry from Ft. Laramie) and eastern [2nd Missouri Lt. Artillery (temporary serving as cavalry) and 12th Missouri Cavalry] columns. A somewhat controversial choice, Colonel Nelson D. Cole, the 2nd's commander, would lead the eastern division from Omaha, Nebraska Territory. All three were to meet near Bear Butte in Powder River country, the last reported concentration of hostile Indian camps. In the end, it would be an expensive and rather fruitless affair.

David E. Wagner's Powder River Odyssey is a day-by-day annotated history of the eastern division's campaign, closely following the trek of Col. Cole's command as it wound its way through hundreds of dusty miles across Nebraska, the Dakota Territory, and Montana. Cole's men indecisively battled large numbers of Indians in early September before the serious lack of supplies forced a withdrawal to Ft. Laramie, the command having never achieved the planned link up with Connor [although it did meet up with the 16th Kansas]. Wagner's own fine narrative is enhanced immeasurably by the integration of the writings of three participants -- the diary of civilian chief engineer Lyman G. Bennett, the journal of 12th Missouri Cavalry Lt. Charles H. Springer, and the reports of Cole himself. Bennett provides by far the most vividly detailed picture of the physical landscape traversed and the expedition's logistical difficulties and military encounters. Many other manuscript sources, as well as a variety of published primary and secondary source materials, were used to flesh out the campaign history.

There is analysis, as well. Wagner acknowledges the inexperience and indecisiveness that characterized Cole's personal leadership, but argues convincingly that the literature's judgment of the officer as a complete incompetent is largely undeserved. The expedition was poorly planned from the beginning, with the columns too widely separated and no date set for their meeting. Cole had by far the farthest distance to travel, yet he was badgered by superiors into setting out before he could assemble enough supplies. This proved almost disastrous, as the command had to be placed on severely reduced rations during the campaign's most critical period and several men died of scurvy along the way.

In researching the book, Wagner personally traveled Cole's route, and his fifteen maps are a vitally important aid to the reader. An appendix further discusses the author's methodology, as well as some of the popular mythology surrounding the expedition [the other appendix is a casualty list]. What's missing are more detailed tactical scale maps of the September fighting against the Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne along the Powder River, but Wagner did thoughtfully include a fine looking set of personal and archival photographs. A visual record of many of the most prominent locations mentioned in the text, these latter reader aids are very helpful.

Powder River Odyssey is a skillfully written and compiled history of the eastern division of the Powder River Expedition. Documenting the military's transitional period from a Civil War volunteer force back to the professional army that finally conquered the plains, Wagner's study is also a significant contribution to the literature of the U.S. army's role in the rapid western frontier expansion of the mid to late nineteenth century. Recommended.

[review will also appear in On Point magazine in similar form]

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