Author Interview--Michael S. Green (Lincoln and Native Americans) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Michael S. Green about his new book, Lincoln and Native Americans, published by the University of Southern Illinois Press in September 2021.

Part 1

That was a rather fascinating part of your work, but let’s leave that to people actually buying and reading your book. However, kind of related to these two previous questions, Lincoln does not seem to think too highly of the capacities of Native Americans? I am thinking here of the episode you recount where Native people visit the White House and he has the globe explained to them.

MSG: That is one of those moments that Allen Guelzo referred to in his history of the Lincoln-Douglas debates where Lincoln says something that his admirers wish he had not said. And I am an admirer, but I see his faults. One of them was that, from our perspective, he was slower to change that we might prefer, although it may have been quite a leap for him to go in four years from feeling that he needed to protect slavery where it existed to supporting an abolition amendment and limited voting rights for Black people.

We do not see that kind of progress in his view of Native Americans. Again, part of the issue is that they were not his priority. If they had really been a major force in determining whether the Union would be saved, I think we would know more and have seen more. Since enslavement and Black people were a larger issue, he had more exposure to them as well, and that seems to have affected his views.

So, if he had had to spend more time with Indigenous leaders, might he have come around on their capacities? I would like to think the answer to that is a qualified yes. One of the tropes about Lincoln is that he was capable of growth, and it seems likely here as well.

One aspect that Civil War historians like to overlook is that interactions with Native Americans went on as blue and butternut slugged it out. How did Lincoln see these fights in the West? Did he view them as an unnecessary nuisance? Did he buy into any conspiracy theories that rebel agents were behind some of them?

MSG: He made a reference or two to the possibility of rebel agents being behind such events as the Dakota battle. Again, we face the constraints of a lack of substantial private correspondence, and the old difficulty of knowing what recollections of Lincoln to accept, which to take with a grain of salt, and which to take with an entire salt mine.

I think it is safe to say that he viewed several matters as nuisances when they detracted from trying to win the war and save the Union. That included politicians on both sides of the aisle and within the factions in the Republican/Union Party. Patronage was important to him but gave him headaches, as it does any president.

As for the fights in the West, it depends on our definition of West! In Indian Territory and Kansas, he dropped the ball, to use a later phrase, and then tried to catch up. The nuisance there was the rivalry between officers, and what makes that interesting is that we hear a lot about the generals with the Army of the Potomac and at some points in the western theater fighting with one another (at times more than they fought the Confederates). It turns out he ran into the same thing here, and it vexed him, no question. But I think they were the greater nuisance to him than Native Americans were.

If we go into the West, the Far West or maybe call it the Farther West, he’s not really keeping up on it, at least from the sources we have. How much he actually knew about Sand Creek, Bear River, or Bosque Redondo is debatable. I don’t think it’s debatable that if he didn’t know much about them, he should have.

You are raising an interesting point about contemporaries that also holds true for modern historians, how much did the West, however defined, matter during the Civil War? There has been a robust debate on the topic. What are your thought on this topic?

MSG: I have commented a few times on panels related to this subject, and done a presentation or two, and I always tell this story. In 1989, I was pondering dissertation topics and went to see my adviser, Eric Foner. I mentioned the Civil War and Reconstruction in the West—not too specific, but that general area. He looked at me for a couple of moments and said, “That is your third book.” I didn’t understand, so he explained it—and I do understand now. Essentially, he said that few would care if a new Ph.D. produced that kind of work. If someone with a reputation did so, it would get attention.

Elliott West had a sterling reputation in western history when he published his article on “the greater Reconstruction.” Heather Cox Richardson already had a couple of well-received books under her belt when she published West From Appomattox. Now the era has become a much more significant part of western history, and western history has become a much more important part of Civil War history. As it should be. Glenna Matthews, Leonard Richards, and Stacey Smith have done fine books on California in the Civil War era, two edited volumes came out a few years ago that involved a number of distinguished scholars, and now Kevin Waite (see our interview with Kevin here: Part 1 and Part 2) has published a dissertation that he wrote at Penn, which is hardly a bastion of western history, that is a magnificent study of the South, the West, and their connections, and it is being treated with the respect it deserves.

Gary Gallagher has been probably the most vocal critic of the increased focus on the West’s role in the Civil War. I do think it’s possible to overstate that role—the Battle of Glorieta Pass has long been called “the Gettysburg of the West.” That would be overstatement if someone claimed it was as significant to the war and the country’s future as what went on in Pennsylvania. But I think most who describe it that way are simply making the point that it had the same kind of effect on Confederate efforts to take over the West as Lee’s loss did on the South’s hopes. 

I would remind people—and I do remind my students—that James G. Randall asked in a 1936 issue of the American Historical Review, “Has the Lincoln theme been exhausted?” That was only 85 years ago. He answered no at the time, of course, and I would say the same now, and that it is equally true of the Civil War. Expanding the concept of the West to mean the western US and not simply the western theater opens a lot of avenues for study. More importantly, I think it is valuable to find out what was going on out that way—or, since I am in Nevada, this way—for understanding how the war did and did not affect the area and vice versa. I think they affected each other, but I don’t think we know it for sure until we thoroughly research it.

I also would add that my state is the subject of many myths, and one that I always have found fascinating is that Lincoln pushed our statehood to make sure he had the silver and gold from the Comstock Lode. No. He already had the gold and silver: Nevada was a territory, and his control over it actually was greater than it would have been if it had been a state. But if you look in his papers, you find a list of states and electoral votes, and then Nevada is magically added. He thought he might lose in 1864—thus the “Blind Memorandum”—and certainly that the election would prove to be closer than it was. The addition of Nevada to that list speaks to an awareness back there that the West might just matter a little bit more than Gallagher and those who agree with him suggest.

How do we enhance the narrative and understanding of the Civil War by looking to and integrating the West? Does studying the struggles in Colorado, Minnesota, the question whether to create secessionists states in Arizona and Southern California, and the fears along the West Coast, not to mention the border issues with Mexico, really matter in the study of the Civil War era?

MSG: I think all of it helps present a more rounded portrait of what the North and South were doing and fighting for. Really, if you think about it, the North and South were fighting over the West—wasn’t the key issue of the 1850s whether slavery could extend into territories where it did not exist? We have had studies of conspiracy theories and “the fire in the rear,” to quote Lincoln, but out west, which might have felt forgotten (and certainly has been by a lot of historians), there was fire in the rear as well as a commitment to the Union. If we are going to talk about those beliefs and related actions, well, they were part of the US.

There also is room for comparison. For example, I wonder how many scholars of the Civil War era have heard of the Los Angeles Star. It was the first newspaper in the area, so far as we know. The editor was pro-Confederate and arrested. The paper soon shut down. When we talk about the suppression of the press during the Civil War era, we hear a lot more about the Chicago Times, and I am not saying that we shouldn’t. But the Star is part of that story, or comparable, and worth our attention.

I also cannot resist a little self-promotional trivia. I did a book for an ABC-CLIO series on the Civil War era that John David Smith edited, a synthesis, Politics and America in Crisis: The Coming of the Civil War. I have a chapter on 1859 being the year of the “B’s.” We know about John Brown, right? Ableman v. Booth is another one, maybe less widely known, but still known. Another one was about David Broderick, a senator from California, a Douglas Democrat, who dies in a duel with a pro-southern Democrat, William Gwin, and as Richards had argued, this is part of the national debate (and they were dueling over political battles). A couple of prominent scholars of the era told me that they had never heard about this. It is part of the bigger story.

It also is a part of the diplomacy of the Civil War as well. Many historians have reminded us that when Lee crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and when Lincoln issued the Preliminary and final Emancipation Proclamations, they were factoring in the European reaction in particular. It is a big “if,” but if the Confederacy had taken over the West Coast, what impact might that have had?

Further, think of the year 1862. The Republicans (or Union Party) in Congress pass and Lincoln signs the Homestead Act, the Morrill Land Grant College Act, and the Pacific Railroad Act, and they create what will eventually become the Department of Agriculture. Each of these is related to the West, owes its passage at least in part to what they plan for the West, and helps shape the West. But if the South had not seceded, there was no way the Republican Party would have been able to pass these measures, or they might have passed in very different form. In turn, if we are going to claim that the Civil War had a big effect on the West—and it is safe to say that it did—then are we going to deny that the West had any agency in this? It needs to be addressed.

To close the interview, Mike, do you plan to expand on this book with a broader study in the future?

MSG: I hope so. Without giving away an idea or two, I hope to join the scholars I have mentioned already who have made great contributions to our understanding of the era in the West and the West’s role in the era. Or maybe I should say, I hope to write something, and with any luck, it will be a great contribution!