Wednesday, February 24, 2016

McFarland: "EDWARD J. STEPTOE AND THE INDIAN WARS: Life on the Frontier, 1815 - 1865"

[Edward J. Steptoe and the Indian Wars: Life on the Frontier, 1815 - 1865 by Ron McFarland (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2016). Softcover, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:207/260. ISBN:978-1-4766-6232-9. $39.95]

Edward J. Steptoe fought in the Second Seminole War in Florida and the U.S.-Mexico War but would be best known for his two year stint in the Columbia River Valley and Eastern Plateau of Washington Territory, specifically his near disaster there at the Battle of Pine Creek (Tohotonimme) in May 1858. His life and military career is the subject of Ron McFarland's Edward J. Steptoe and the Indian Wars: Life on the Frontier, 1815 - 1865.

Steptoe was born in Bedford County, Virginia in 1815 and enjoyed a comfortable early life until entering West Point in 1833. He graduated in 1847, ranked 34th out of 50 cadets and was assigned to the Third Artillery. Steptoe was sent to Florida twice during the Second Seminole War and served in various garrison posts before the outbreak of war with Mexico. He arrived in Tampico near the end of 1846. Joining Winfield Scott's famous campaign into the Mexican interior, Steptoe commanded an artillery battery during a string of battles and was brevetted twice, to major after Cerro Gordo and lieutenant colonel after Chapultepec. After the war ended, he again was posted to garrison duties. Stopping for a short period in Utah, he maintained a cordial if not trusting relationship with Mormon authorities but declined appointment to the territorial governorship in 1854. Transferred from the Third Artillery to the Ninth Infantry, Steptoe, after a brief layover in his home state at Fort Monroe, next found himself at Vancouver Barracks in Washington Territory in 1856.

In March 1856, Steptoe was involved in the relief of the Cascades blockhouse and settlements situated along the Columbia River portage that were under heavy attack by Yakama, Klickitat, and Cascades warriors. Later that summer, he established a permanent fort in eastern Washington at Walla Walla, with cantonments for both infantry and dragoons. During this period, the army repeatedly clashed with the civilian territorial authorities headed by Governor Isaac Stevens over white settlement and the yet unratified stipulations of the Walla Walla Treaty Council of 1855 involving the Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Nez Perce, Palouse, and Yakama tribes.

In May 1858, when word reached Fort Walla Walla of the murder of two gold prospectors, Steptoe gathered roughly 160 men and two mountain howitzers and headed north to discover the facts of the matter and perhaps arrest the perpetrators. Misjudging the level of hostility in the region, the small force encountered a large, fluid gathering of hostile Coeur d'Alenes, Palouse, Spokanes, Walla Wallas, Cayuse and others. After a daylong running battle on May 17, Steptoe found himself surrounded on a hill above Pine Creek. That night, by some combination of luck and skill, he guided his men through a gap in enemy camps and escaped back to Fort Walla Walla. Even though Steptoe's casualties (7 soldiers and 3 Nez Perce scouts killed and 13 soldiers wounded) were relatively light by most standards, the press and army considered the operation to be a terrible defeat and embarrassment, with General in Chief Winfield Scott calling it a "disaster."

Beyond providing a clear and balanced account of the expedition, author Ron McFarland does a fine job of comprehensively synthesizing the work of previous writers and matching their findings with his own interpretations of the many lingering legends and questions regarding Pine Creek (ex. what role, if any, did Yakama chief Kamiakin play in defeating Steptoe, how much did Chief Timothy of the Nez Perce factor into the campaign, was a deal made with the Coeur d'Alenes to allow the bluecoats to escape, why did the Indians not pursue?). That said, there is one particularly unfortunate omission and that is the failure to include a battlefield map or even an area map tracing march routes to and from the Pine Creek site.

One might criticize Steptoe for not taking along any reserve ammunition and being incautious in his advance but no one expected the overwhelming scale and heated temper of the opposition he would encounter. Facing odds of at least 4 to 1 (and perhaps even 6 or 7 to 1), Steptoe and his men found themselves in a situation no less perilous than that experienced by the annihilated, or near annihilated, Indian Wars commands of Dade, Grattan, Gunnison, Fetterman, and Custer. With this in mind, the author makes a strong case that Steptoe deserves far more credit for the extrication of his command with comparatively light loss of life than censure over a defeat.

Three months later, Pine Creek would be avenged by a punitive operation led by Colonel George Wright, who would defeat Steptoe's tormentors and their allies in two battles, at Four Lakes and the Spokane Plains. Steptoe himself was left behind at Fort Walla Walla and his continued ill health, the lingering effects of perhaps two strokes combined with malarial disease, led him to take an extended leave from the army. He suffered from partial paralysis of his right side and evidently lost the capacity of speech (the permanence of the latter unclear). He died on April 1, 1865 at home in Lynchburg, Virginia.

The book successfully argues that Steptoe has a legacy worth reconsidering. It's impossible to guess what kind of Civil War career he might have had or even which side he would have chosen. Like many of his fellow Virginians, he was a pro-slavery moderate with no stated interest in its expansion. His surviving writings indicate no sympathy with secession but the male members of his extended family all entered the Confederate army. Apparently, Winfield Scott had Steptoe's name ranked fourth on the list of Virginia army officers he most wanted to retain for Union commands.

The book's final chapter offers an interesting summary of Edward Steptoe's wide ranging, albeit mostly regional, cultural impact. In addition to his association with his namesake town, park, monuments, a festival, novels, plays and even a Hollywood movie, a number of landmarks are named after him, the most famous of these being the massive rock formation Steptoe Butte that towers 1,000 feet over the surrounding plateau a dozen miles east of Colfax, Washington.

McFarland did an impressive amount of research for this study. Steptoe's surviving papers are few in number and the author was able to discover a total of only 38 letters (dated between 1833 and 1860), all residing in public and private archives stretching from Washington to Florida. Throughout the narrative, the author skillfully employed archival materials written by associates and contemporaries, along with many other primary and secondary sources, to fill in the significant gaps left in the Steptoe correspondence. The result is another satisfying example of how to work around a paucity of personal papers when writing a biography of a nineteenth century military figure.

Largely forgotten among the general historical reading public, Colonel Edward J. Steptoe remains a controversial military personality among scholars and enthusiasts of the antebellum Indian Wars of the Pacific Northwest. A fresh reassessment, Ron McFarland's well researched and judiciously constructed biography brings some much needed balance to the equation and does much to restore the standing of a distinguished but unfortunate career army officer.

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