Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mullis: "Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas"

[Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas by Tony R. Mullis (Univ. of Missouri Press, 2004). Cloth, photos, illustrations, maps, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 268/295 ISBN: 978-0826215352 $44.95 ]

The scholarly literature inspired by the "Bleeding Kansas" era is richly developed, with a burgeoning number of books and articles examining the social and political aspects of that turbulent period. However, the U.S. military's prominent role in the conflict has been comparatively neglected. Tony Mullis's book Peacekeeping on the Plains sets out to address directly this area of deficiency. Along the way, Mullis succeeds in crafting a broad introductory study that both addresses specific military themes and points out existing gaps that were beyond the scope of his own work (hopefully to be filled one day by other scholars).

The author accepts a working definition of peace operations to be the "application of military force or the threat of its use, normally pursuant to [governmental] authorization, to compel compliance with resolutions or sanctions designed to maintain or restore peace and order" (pg. 3). Focusing his book on the period 1854-1856, Mullis studies starkly contrasting army operations, from treaty enforcement against the Brule Sioux in 1855 to peacekeeping duties in Kansas, conducted with the goal of maintaining the rule of law amidst mounting political violence. Not surprisingly, the author finds that army methods differed widely in dealing with Indians vs. the white citizens of the free soil and pro-slavery factions.

In is perhaps not immediately apparent why Mullis devotes so much attention and space in his book to William S. Harney's campaign against the Brule that terminated in the bloody battle at Ash Hollow and forced the tribe's compliance with the Laramie Treaty. However, the author's description and analysis of the campaign serves to effectively demonstrate to the reader the wide range of actions that might be defined as peacekeeping missions, and how their conduct can be almost indistinguishable from open warfare, depending on the perspective of the participant. The campaign against the Sioux in Kansas also highlighted the difficulties in C3I [command, control, communication, and intelligence] that would recur in the later factional disputes. Mullis's picture of the communications difficulties encountered by civil and military authorities in Kansas, centered around the various reasons behind the misuse and limitations of the available telegraphic system, is both surprising and instructive.

In the latter half of the book, Mullis deals with territorial military-civilian relations, and the controversies surrounding army intervention in "Bleeding Kansas". He traces the increasingly intimate partnership of the U.S. army with the federally appointed officials of the Kansas Territory. An unsavory aspect of army involvement in territorial affairs was land speculation by officers. While the practice was legal, the manner in which the War Department dealt with real and potential conflicts of interest was very inconsistent [the author compares and contrasts two high profile cases in great detail]. In terms of C3I difficulties, slow and uncertain communications meant that the officer on the scene was often saddled with making momentous decisions without clear instructions from superiors. According to Mullis, Edwin V. Sumner and later Persifor Smith performed their duties very well, although Sumner's action in dispersing the Topeka assembly came under great scrutiny in press and government circles.

Placement of these officers under the direction of locally elected civilian territorial officials was also problematic. Military officers were expected to be impartial in the performance of their peacekeeping duties, but partisan political considerations were omnipresent, leaving conscientious military officers in a tough bind. The ugly Kansas strife served to bolster the Republicans nationally as the 1856 presidential election approached, and the Democrats desperately sought a means to calm the crisis before the issue ruined their chances. The team of Governor John W. Geary and General Persifor Smith (both dedicated Democrats) effectively maintained peace in Kansas until their shared goal of the election of Franklin Buchanan was achieved. Although the peace didn't last, it became widely recognized that army involvement was essential to the exercise of popular sovereignty in Kansas and the transition to statehood.

A well researched and tightly drawn treatise, Peacekeeping on the Plains provides astute (and useful) analysis of the political, technological, and command issues that needed to be addressed and/or overcome by the U.S. army in order for the civilian government to maintain law and order in Kansas. Although specialized in nature, and rather more demanding in terms of background knowledge on the part of the reader than most introductory studies, Mullis's original work should be regarded as required learning for all students of Kansas's troubled origins.

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Upcoming books from the Univ. of Missouri Press Fall/Winter catalog:
  • Confederate Colonels: A Biographical Register by Bruce Allardice (October).
  • Thomas Ewing Jr.: Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General by Ronald D. Smith (October).
  • Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln: The Political Odyssey of James Henry Lane by Ian Michael Spurgeon (November).


  1. Bruce's book on Confederate colonels promises to be an excellent reference work and should be on everyone's shelves next to Krick's "Lee's Colonels."

  2. Art,
    I am also hoping to get a copy of another Fall release reference book Allardice was involved with, the Confed. Kentucky colonels and generals book from UK Press.

  3. Hi Drew,
    Great blog, I've been following it on my google reader. I wanted to pass along a link to my blog which you may find interesting, would love to hear what you think.

  4. Also looking forward to Bruce's book on Confederate colonels.



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