Thursday, December 13, 2012

The History Urge



Our class at the Josephy Center read the Introduction and the “Manifest Destiny” chapter from Alvin’s Civil War in the American West this week. I was struck again by the paucity of information in general circulation—i.e., textbooks, movies, TV shows, and popular books—about Indians, Civil War, and the West. But Alvin said many times that there was and is a mother lode of historical information on places, people, and events that have shaped the American West: stories from Idaho, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oregon, California, stories of battles, of generals resigning to go home to the South, of emigrant trains, Pony Express (yes, that too during Civil War years), and Indian massacres. With a little digging, one could find the vote count in Oregon—the Republicans carried by 221 votes!, or the fact, turned up by one of our participants, that George Pendleton, namesake of our Pendleton, Oregon, was a staunch slavery advocate and the town once boasted streets named after Confederates.  

Most often, according to Alvin, amateur historians, good citizens with a history urge, have gathered these stories and kept them alive. His work was to gather and sift the material and relate it to what was happening in the East and to Eastern leadership of the Union and the Confederacy. I can bet that he came to the story himself through his work in Indian history. He would have turned up the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, and followed that to its sorry but important conclusion, then the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado and the Bear River Massacre in Idaho.

His genius was in gathering, standing back and taking a long historical look, and then weaving the pieces into a quilt that shows us more than the small pieces—or the dramatic events that dominate our idea of the Civil War—ever can. So we learn that the Civil War period saw a greater decimation of Indian tribes and takeover of Indian lands than any comparable time in our history. We follow the patterns—from Minnesota to Idaho—of encroachment, starvation, reprisal, loss of life and land, treaty, then more encroachment, starvation, etc.

I was struck, on rereading Chapter 8, on the number of times the word “starvation” was used. Settlers or miners came to an area, destroyed grasslands or used up other resources, starved, shot a settler’s cow, were hounded back and “treatied,” were promised secure (but much smaller) pieces of land, sometimes money and commodities, and then relived the cycle again or stewed and drowned in their diminished circumstances.

Alvin was a long-time editor at American Heritage. The Civil War book first appeared as a Time-Life western history volume in 1986. His passion was in making history readable, connected to the present, and true to historical facts. He wanted a general historical awareness, and praised the history buffs who carried local torches. I think he stayed at American Heritage after his own career as an historian had taken off in part because of his urge to keep the history urge alive in America.

And I remember him saying that he had gathered so much material on the Civil War in the West, and the general knowledge of the same was so scarce, that he had to do a full sized book on the subject. The big book was published in 1991. Something for the real history buff—and something the academic historians might have to take into account.

I was googling around to see what had happened to the big book—which is still in print, with four-star reviews. And I stumbled onto Gordon Chappell, who has published an on-line bibliography of the Civil War in the American West (with a nod to Alvin in the introductory paragraph). Pages and pages of books on events and people related to the War in the West. Books from university presses and books privately published. (I was struck by the number of titles from Nebraska and Oklahoma university presses, who make their living scratching the history itch.)

I wonder if Alvin ever met Chappell, but am sure that he met and encouraged hundreds of folks who had that same urge. If you are one of them, take a look at this bibliography of the Civil War—and scratch your own head about textbook and Civil War re-enactors fixations on Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

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