William Hogeland. Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion that Opened the West. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017. 464 pp. $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-374-90177-6.
Reviewed by Ryan W. Booth (Washington State University)
Published on H-War (February, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The eyes of the nation rested on the fate of the Old Northwest in 1794. Americans obsessively worried about it either falling into British hands or becoming a permanent homeland for increasingly hostile Native Americans. The twin goals of opening the West to American settlement at the expense of indigenous peoples, and the creation of regular army to protect and expand that enterprise, coalesced in the 1790s to create the US empire. William Hogeland’s Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion that Opened the West provides a fresh narrative on this pivotal period. The author’s main thesis is that the creation of a permanent military force, tested by war with the Miami Confederacy and their vanquishing of the same, set the United States on the path of “industrial and imperial power that, with victory in its first war, the United States did go on to achieve” (p. 375). The Battle of Fallen Timbers emerged as the moment that turned the US from nascent weakling republic into a powerful empire intent on western expansion.
Hogeland’s work is divided into three parts that follow a cause, course, and consequences framework. Part 1 explores the various machinations by British Americans to gain access to the Ohio Country. The work pays special attention to George Washington and his exploits both in real estate and with the Virginia militia during the Seven Years’ War. The author also reconstructs the lives of Blue Jacket and Little Turtle as well as their tribal claims to their homelands. Part 2 focuses on the fledgling US and its various attempts to organize its settlement claims to the Old Northwest and the people therein. As the country grappled with its newly won independence, the consequences of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, and British intransigence around the Great Lakes, the Americans frequently found themselves between a rock and a hard place. They lacked the resources, prestige, and strong military to project power into their newly acquired territory. The problems were further compounded by botched treaty negotiations and ruinous military expeditions led by Josiah Harmar and later by Arthur St. Clair. Part 3 focuses on the efforts of Anthony Wayne and his newly created and permanent US Army to avenge St. Clair’s defeat and establish American hegemony over the Native peoples of the Ohio Country. With Wayne’s successful battle at Fallen Timbers, the remaining Indian confederates found no protection from British forces and their coalition fractured. Thus, the United States established its dominion over the Old Northwest and ended any serious threats from Native Americans in the territory.
The book’s strengths lie in the author’s extensive research on various figures such as George Washington and Anthony Wayne. Washington’s biography is well-trod territory, but Hogeland holds a strong line to focus exclusively on his interests in the Northwest Territories. His Washington appears as a calculating puppet master intent on western land speculation. Where Washington was calculating, Wayne appears every bit the rough-and-ready character that he was. His troubles seem innumerable, from being a lady’s man and terrible planter to his sullen outbursts at perceived slights. This is all the more remarkable given his “mad” skills of disciplining and training an army; in this way, Hogeland draws on Alan Gaff’s work in Bayonets in the Wilderness (2004). Other figures leave an impression, but are even less edifying, such as Henry Knox, who seems only concerned with lining his pockets at the government’s expense. James Wilkinson emerges as the most perfidious spy in US history, as well as archenemy of “mad” Anthony.
The other main contribution is to revive the literature on the conundrum of a standing army in the early republic. Most of the founders also acknowledged that the militia was wholly inadequate to the task of providing a consistent and disciplined system of protection against all foreign and domestic enemies. This debate, however, is not new and is fully explored in Richard Kohn’s influential work Eagle and Sword (1975). The justifications and behind-the-scenes political deals made by the Washington administration were to gain passage of the March 3, 1791, and March 5, 1792, acts that expanded the army into a regular force for the protection of the frontiers. Therefore, one of the lasting legacies of Washington’s administration was the “formation of a permanent military establishment” (p. 375).
The book is uneven in the treatment of the various tribes that called the Northwest Territories home. Although Hogeland uses some well-known works such as Barbara Alice Mann’s George Washington’s War on Native America (2005), he leaves out some classics in the field such as Richard White’s Middle Ground (1991). Blue Jacket and Little Turtle emerge in the text as foils to the drama of western expansion, but only rarely as real people. Surely they had spouses and children; what were their names? Who were their relatives before them that paved the way for their leadership roles within their respective communities? Another way this neglect shows itself is with respect to the title of the book, Autumn of the Black Snake. “Black Snake” was a nickname given to Wayne by Indian scouts because of his apparent ability to never sleep (p. 332). Were there other meanings behind this name besides this? If one had to venture a guess, the Native peoples probably chose this moniker carefully and with much deeper significance. Works such as Sami Lakomäki’s Gathering Together (2014), on the Shawnee from 1600 to 1870, provide an excellent fusion of both the written and oral traditions of Blue Jacket’s people and could have contributed to a more realistic depiction of these formidable leaders. Lakomäki further argues that these were not just confederacies, but indigenous empires on the make. This matters because it shows indigenous agency and use of hybrid conceptions of Native and European frameworks to form their own identity and very nearly vanquish US hopes for western expansion. Infighting within these indigenous communities in the Ohio River Valley, due to the influx of dispossessed Indians from the eastern seaboard who now called the area home, made the area vulnerable to any designs for a divide-and-conquer strategy.
The other curious aspect of this story is the lack of serious consideration of the various trappers and British subjects present around the Great Lakes region. In Hogeland’s telling, the region is devoid of others, except the British and US military forces and some unbridled American squatters intent on getting rich through pioneering. In this instance, Patrick Griffith’s American Leviathan (2007) could have provided some good information about the various frontiersmen who called the Old Northwest home. For a nuanced reading of the economic benefits of the region, William Bergman’s The American National State and the Early West (2012) could have explained why the British were loath to give up the region, since its fur extraction economy was so lucrative. Bergman and Griffith’s absence in the bibliography is surprising.
Hogeland’s contribution is to make these stories accessible to a popular audience. All quibbles aside, this book will have great value for every armchair historian interested in the founding generation and their attitudes towards the West. Where earlier works such as Wiley Sword’s President Washington’s Indian War (1985) presented a more traditional military history, and Alan Gaff provided a recovery of Anthony Wayne as a military genius, Hogeland offers another interpretation: the destiny of the United States was built on the greed of its founders to secure more land and needed a full-time military force to protect their claims. In the end, it should provoke more discussion of the founders’ visions for the American West. Hopefully, this book will spark renewed interest in the Battle of Fallen Timbers and its far-reaching consequences.
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Ryan W. Booth. Review of Hogeland, William, Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion that Opened the West.
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