Thursday, September 16, 2010

Wagner: "PATRICK CONNOR'S WAR: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition"

[Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition by David E. Wagner (Arthur H. Clark Co., 2010). Cloth, 16 maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:268/296. ISBN:978-0-87062-393-6 $39.95]

Native Irishman and Mexican War veteran Patrick Edward Connor is best known for his controversial 1862-63 Bear River Expedition against the Shoshone in present-day Utah and Idaho1, the personal result of which was a promotion to Brigadier General. However, in 1865, in response to Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux raids on the western plains, he was ordered to lead an operation of vastly greater size and scope, the Powder River Indian Expedition (August - September).

Connor's strike force was organized into three columns, all composed of mounted Civil War volunteer units, many quite surly over being sent out west instead of  mustered out. Nelson Cole's eastern column set out from Omaha, while the 16th Kansas (under Lt. Col. Samuel Walker) moved north from Fort Laramie. Connor himself oversaw the western wing, which was under the direct command of Col. James H. Kidd (6th Michigan Cavalry). Heavily laden with the expedition's supply train, the Connor/Kidd force was tasked first with establishing a fort on the Powder River before joining up with and resupplying the other two columns near Panther Mountain in Montana Territory. While it was hoped that native resistance would be crushed, military results were indecisive.

Patrick Connor's War is the second Powder River Expedition study from the late David E. Wagner, both published by noted western Americana press Arthur H. Clark Company. While his earlier volume2 detailed the marches and skirmishes of the center and eastern wings, the new book focuses on the force directly led by Connor, as well as the ill-timed federally funded road surveying expedition led by civilian James A. Sawyers.

Stylistically, Wagner's writing is terse and tightly organized, with each chapter broken down into subheadings by date and column (Connor, Sawyers, and Cole/Walker). The system works well, allowing readers to easily chart the positions of the converging forces on any given day. The book's maps, while lean of terrain and landmark detail, are numerous and provide an adequate visual representation of each day's movement. A product of the author's extensive research into published and unpublished primary source materials, much of the action is told in the words of the participants. Also, Connor's official report, long believed to be non-existent by historians, is included as an appendix.

Ultimately, the expedition's primary goal of crushing the northern plains tribes to such a degree as to compel favorable treaty agreements was not met. Wagner's explanations of key errors made in the campaign are compelling. In his view, the overall plan was flawed from the beginning by starting Cole's eastern column from Omaha instead of far nearer Fort Pierre. Also, the expedition's logistical support, coming right as the Civil War-weary federal government was seeking to drastically cut short overall military spending, was abysmal. With the Civil War's end fulfilling their reason for enlisting, the volunteer regiments used were also extremely reluctant to fight Indians, and even mutinous in some cases. Finally, Wagner does make a good case throughout that subsequent questions about the competence of Cole and Walker, raised by Connor and others, are largely unjustified.  Taken together, David Wagner's Powder River Odyssey and Patrick Connor's War comprise the best modern study of the Powder River Indian Expedition. Both volumes are highly recommended.

1 - The best treatment remains Brigham Madsen's The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre (University of Utah Press, 1985).
2 - 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).

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