William Hogeland’s Autumn of the Black Snake is one of the finest books of popular American history I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Such familiar figures as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson and Henry Knox, come to life as never before, not as saintly paragons of civic virtue, but as they sometimes, often, were: grasping, venal, impatient, corrupt, and fundamentally indifferent towards people they regarded as their inferiors, particularly peoples of color. This is Hogeland’s fourth book about eighteenth century America, and all of them are remarkable, but I absolutely couldn’t put this one down. Above all, although I’m a history junkie–especially American history–Autumn of the Black Snake tells an extraordinarily important story that I’ve never heard before.
The book’s full title is Autumn of the Black Snake: The creation of the US Army and the Invasion that opened the West. Above all, it tells about the first real war fought by the new, fully constituted United States government. This war had no generally accepted name–not the War of 1812, not the Revolution, not the French and Indian war, though it was related to all three. And the stakes could not have been higher. Would the United States of America remain an eastern seaboard nation? Or would it expand, beyond the Alleghenies, and into what was then known as the ‘Northwest Territory’; the area we now know as western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. And once that territory was inhabited, cultivated, domesticated, administered, what was to stop further Western expansion?
George Washington had started his career in that territory, moving from his base in Virginia, on to surveying in Ohio, then land speculation, and also, of course, military adventurism. He knew the area well, and thought it contained the richest land he had ever seen. Some of the richest plots, he had surveyed and claimed for himself. Any Virginia planter was anxious for new land, as tobacco farming (and later, cotton farming) so badly depleted the soil. Now, it was 1791, and he was President of the newly formed United States of America. Ohio beckoned. And his vision for America required aggressive west-ward expansion. And Washington was happy enough to try to purchase land from the peoples who already lived on it. When that failed, though, it could always be obtained via conquest.
Only the first attempt to send an army to conquer it was a catastrophic failure. The Shawnee leader, Blue Jacket, and the Miami leader, Little Turtle did not agree about much, but they did agree that the future of their peoples required military cooperation between all the tribes of the Ohio Valley. They were fighting for the survival of their people. They had, against all odds–including the difficulties of coordinating the efforts of people who spoke different languages, worshipped different Gods, were in every sense from different cultures. None of that had come to matter. Now they were busy getting their heads around a new identity–not as Shawnee or Miami or Ojibwa or Potawatomi, but Indians, as their enemies saw them. And so, Blue Jacket and Little Turtle led their forces against American militiamen, led by General Arthur St. Clair. They had fought and they had won. St. Clair may have lost 650 men; he might also have lost 900, casualty lists being unreliable. Every student of American history knows about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the defeat of General Custer by forces led by Sitting Bull. Almost no one remembers St. Clair’s defeat. But he lost, at least, twice as many men, and his defeat looked far more consequential. The western boundary of the United States looked to be the Allegheny mountains.
To Washington, that result was unacceptable. And he knew what had caused it. The soldiers who lost so disastrously were poorly trained, poorly supplied, and poorly led. And this, in Washington’s professional estimation, was inevitable, given Congress (and most Americans) detestation of a ‘standing army,’ and corresponding love of militias.
Militias fed an enduring American myth; the freeholding soldier/citizen, who left his plow, grabbed his musket, and ran off to victory in combat. Washington had tried to win a war using militiamen, and knew them to be entirely untrustworthy and ineffective. Most Americans thought of standing armies as following the British model–poorly paid mercenaries, drawn from the dregs of society, instruments of royal tyranny. But Washington knew this truth; that soldiers are as good as their training, their discipline, and their effective leadership. Alexander Hamilton, who had been Washington’s Chief of Staff, knew it too. So did Henry Knox, Washington’s head of artillery. America needed an army; Washington and Hamilton conspired to persuade Congress to provide it one.
Commanding it would be General Anthony Wayne, a man who Washington knew well from his Revolutionary War days. Wayne is in some respects another American archetype; the military man par excellence, who can’t do anything but soldier. Wayne had been an effective commander; post-war he proved an abysmal businessman, a hopeless financier, a miserable and corrupt politician. He was good at one thing; training and leading troops. Washington promised him five thousand soldiers, fully supplied, and sent him to Ohio.
I have always known about the militia vs. standing army rift in early American politics–it was a major theme in the fight over constitutional confirmation. I knew that, initially, we didn’t have an army. Then, suddenly, we had one, and have had ever since. I just assumed that at some point in the late 18th century, Congress had decided to authorize one. What I didn’t know was that St. Clair’s disastrous defeat (which I hadn’t heard previously known ,much about), provided the impetus Washington needed to get Congress to act.
And so, Anthony Wayne trained his army. It took him over a year. He built forts, and guarded supply lines, and his army began marching, inexorably, west. His movements may have appeared ponderous, but they were incredibly effective. Little Turtle, the singular military genius opposing him, said, in admiration, ‘Wayne never sleeps.’
We know how it turned out. I’m from Indiana, and we have a town named Fort Wayne. As late as the 1930s, Anthony Wayne was a sufficiently notorious military hero that a strapping young actor with an unfortunate name, Marion Michael Morrison, took Wayne’s last name for his own screen persona. Ohio was made safe for white people. Within fifteen years, its population grew, from a few thousand to 150,000. And the United States became known for west-ward expansion.
At what cost? And that’s part of the genius of Hogeland; he never forgets the cost. Washington, Jefferson, Wayne himself were all slaveowners. Indians could be defeated and killed because, well, they weren’t white. We know the names Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton. We don’t know Little Turtle, or Anthony Wayne. Hogeland writes:
That the more decisive war, and thus, the more important people, has lapsed into obscurity points to a vacancy in American memory when it comes to what is perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of George Washington’s career, and to the political, moral, and existential burden his career, and its national indispensibility, will forever carry. That legacy is the formation of a permanent military establishment, via the conquest of indigenous people, in pursuit of the industrial and imperial power that, with our victory in its first war, the United States did go on to achieve.
Ultimately, the hero of this book is not Washington, nor Wayne, nor Wayne’s treasonous second-in-command James Wilkinson (who I haven’t talked about, but believe me, his story is insane). It’s Little Turtle. Little Turtle, who saw clearly how this professional army should be fought, and could be defeated. Little Turtle, whose outlook was never melancholy, but always tragic, who saw clearly what defeat would mean, who fought valiantly to prevent it, but who knew, in his heart, that his people were doomed.
Empires know what conquest costs. And the building of an American empire came on the backs of black slaves, of brutal and uncompensated labor by a people deemed inferior. And by the defeat of indigenous peoples, whose only crime was living on land Americans wanted, and who paid for it via genocide. Our history is not triumphant. It’s tragic. Hogeland captures that tragedy, while acknowledging genuine achievement. Can we hold that paradox in our heads?