Winner of the Western Heritage Award et al

Review by Charles Williams

In 1893, a prominent historian named Fredrick Jackson Turner presented a paper which came to be known as "The Frontier Thesis." He postulated that the unique and rugged American character was forged by the clash of civilization with the untamed wilderness in the American West. While recent historians have taken issue with Turner, D. B. Jackson has illustrated and depicted the Frontier Thesis in an intensely human way. His heroes (and heroines) are at once flawed and courageous, his villains savage and evil, yet capable of fortitude and cunning, and it's almost impossible not to see the boy Matthew as anything but the soul of the new country. However tempting it is to read great and transcendental themes into the book, it is still in essence an engrossing and exciting story about a time when the West was the frontier. The Civil War broke many men, scraped away their veneer of civilization and sent them West. General Ike Smith, Jackson's memorable villain, seems almost overdrawn until one reads of real men such as Bloody Bill Anderson, William Quantrill, or the James boys. At the same time, people in the West were attempting to make a living in a partially tamed and raw land. Jackson's feeling and love for this land, still little changed away from the road, and the challenges and every-day tasks still facing ranchers give this book an extra ring of authenticity. It is a remarkable book to be enjoyed on many levels, the most important of which is that of a master storyteller at the peak of his craft. UNBROKE HORSES is richly deserving of its selection as The Will Rogers Medallion Award Winner for Western Fiction.--Review by Charles Williams

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Dances With Wolves by Michael Blake

The book that became the famous movie.

In 1863 US Army lieutenant John J. Dunbar gets a chance to fulfill a long-cherished dream: service on the western frontier of the United States. He did not come by it easily, however. Suffering a severe foot wound in a battle in the eastern theater of the Civil War, Dunbar patches his foot up and returns to service.

A short time later, maddened by pain, he volunteers to ride between the Union and Confederate lines to draw fire from the boys in gray. He also hopes it will result in his own death. Instead, he unintentionally triggers a Union attack that scatters the rebels and sees himself emerge alive.   Thanks to a kindly general, he keeps his foot and gets to request a transfer to whatever post he desires.  

So it is that as the novel opens he is riding in a wagon with an uncouth teamster named Timmons bound from Fort Hays to Fort Sedgwick in Comanche country. But little does he know that post commander Captain Cargill at Sedgwick, despairing that the army will ever send a supply wagon and down to a tiny garrison winnowed down by disease, desertion, and Indian raids, decides to abandon the garrison.   

They miss Dunbar and Timmons by miles, and when the latter reach the fort Timmons notes it is no longer a going concern and advises going back to Hays. Dunbar, however, insists on staying. It is his post, after all, and he will see his duties through. After all, the garrison might be out on other duties and may return at any moment. So Timmons and Dunbar unload the wagon, unhitch Dunbar’s buckskin named Cisco (the same horse that carried Dunbar on his ride to glory), and Timmons departs.

Dunbar does not know he will be cut off from the white man’s world when Timmons gets killed by a band of Pawnee far from Hays, where the commander who gave Dunbar his orders has gone insane. Both men’s fate cause Dunbar to drop off the face of the earth as far as the Army is concerned leaving Dunbar high and dry. Unaware of this, Dunbar begins his duties at the fort by making them up as he goes, taking notice of and become friendly with an old wolf he soon names Two Socks because of the white coloring of his forepaws.  

He also begins to encounter Comanche from a nearby village, but they are tense at first, especially whenever the likes of medicine man Kicking Bird, youngsters like Smiles A Lot and Frog, and warriors like Wind In His Hair all try to capture Cisco for themselves only to be   thwarted time and again by the mounts strong will and devotion to Dunbar which enables him to break free every time.   Finally, Kicking Bird opens a tentative connection with Dunbar that ultimately leads to Dunbar embarking on a journey of friendship, romance, and personal change.

Michael Blake narrates Dunbar’s story with a deft narrative that keeps the pages turning. I wish, however, that he spent a little more time on the backstory of his central character. Who, for example, is the young woman Dunbar dreams of but consciously pushes her memory out of his mind? I kept waiting for a revelation, but none came. Apart from that, however, it is worth a read, especially if you have seen the film version and wonder how it compares to the book.

The C-Bar Story

The C-Bar Story is Mr. Baugher’s first novel. When Mark was asked about how he came to write The C-Bar Story, his response was: “It’s as if I didn’t write this book. It poured out of me as if from some other person. I have no idea where it came from. People have asked me if I plan to write another C-Bar adventure. I tell them that I have no idea. I had no plan to write this one. Like the old saying goes: “People plan and God laughs."

13 Days To Glory: The Siege Of The Alamo

Lon Tinkle's classic narrative of the legendary siege

Eons ago I watched on TV the two-part miniseries “The Alamo: 13 Days To Glory.”  At the time I thought it was pretty good; much later I realized how dumb it was: Civil War-era uniforms for Texan officers in 1836?   Brian Keith as Davy Crockett?!    Texan volunteer from Tennessee  William Cloud falling for a young Mexican senorita whom he marries the night before the final attack?!   Alec Baldwin as William B.  Travis?!   Baldwin’s Travis standing on top of a well and dying there during the fall of the fort?!   Stock footage a go-go from the classic Alamo flick The Last Command edited in?!    Lorne Greene as an old, drunken, cowardly Sam Houston?!  I could go on and on, people.    If you ask me, Burt Kennedy was somewhat pedestrian as a director, at least on this turkey.

However, I did also discover it had taken some of its title from a non-fiction book it had been –extremely- loosely based on; this non-fiction book.

First published by McGraw Hill in 1958, Tinkle’s book is a journalistic job whose author takes pains to point out where he had to make assumptions in the narrative, which is engaging, brisk, and lively, beginning with the arrival of Santa Anna’s army in San Antonio, through the fateful siege, and the tragic final act, with notes on the sources at the end rounding things off.

I will grant some will claim the book is inaccurate due to –supposed- evidence that purports that Davy Crockett was captured and executed and did not die fighting, and that Tinkle’s depiction of General/President Santa Anna having married a woman in San Antonio just to have her for company is incorrect due to the unreliability of his source, a Mexican sergeant in Santa Anna’s army.

Nevertheless, I believe it is a must read for those interested in the Alamo, as well as Texan lore in general.  Just avoid the miniseries, which has been dubbed by Texas War of Independence re-enactors as “The Schmuckamo: 13 Daze To Boredom.”




Review: A Road We Do Not Know

A taste of Frederick Chiaventone's novel of the battle of Little Bighorn

Looking back, I don’t know why I wasted time in my youth with soapy historical novels like Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War And Remembrance or, in the case of the Wild West and George Custer, Ernest Haycox’s Bugles In The Afternoon.  Melodramatic love triangles and other angst related to matters of the heart involving fictional characters may work well with a romance novel, but in terms of bringing history to life, they –at least in my opinion- do nothing but gum up the works and make the story boring, not gripping.

Luckily enough, I soon discovered the likes of The Killer Angels ... and this novel.

Starting at 2 A.M. on June 25th, 1876, Chiaventone’s book puts soapy melodrama aside in favor of a straightforward retelling from that time of the fateful day to the destruction of Custer and the battalion under his personal command that day after the regiment was divided; a postscript set on July 5th at Fort Abraham Lincoln in which Libbie Custer and the other new widows get the news of the death of their respective husbands and a non-fiction summation of the fate of each character rounds off an incredible trip back in time that leaves in the dust Bugles In The Afternoon and each and every other novel depicting or touching upon the Little Bighorn campaign.

Deftly cutting back and forth between Custer’s men and the Indian village, A Road We Do Not Know brings the battle of Little Bighorn vividly to life in eloquent but even-handed prose that does not elevate either side to saint or demon but focuses on their humanity.  Even Custer is depicted as a person, not, say, the bombastic cavalryman from the book version of Little Big Man or the sadistic madman of Arthur Penn’s heavy-handed film version.

Chiaventone infuses his novel with only a modest amount of dramatic license (chiefly in the area of what happened with Custer’s battalion after it was last sighted) that in no way undermines the truth and drama of the day like the pre-battle soap involving a love triangle between a cavalry trooper, and officer, and a woman does Bugles.  In fact, it is such a good book, the only other thing I can say is that it is a must for those caught up in the lore of the American West, the Plains Indian, George Custer, or all three.

Review: Moon Of Bitter Cold

Frederick J. Chiaventone's brilliant take on Red Cloud's War and the Fetterman fight

To a degree, this book is the historical fiction to Dee Brown’s The Fetterman Massacre in that they both take similar directions when narrating the story and feature many of the same people (i.e. Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Colonel Henry Carrington, and, of course, Lieutenant William J. Fetterman, among others); he even entitles his chapters in a similar manner, using Indian descriptions of the moon’s phases (here rendered first in native tongue and then English bracketed by ellipses),

Chiaventone narrates with an eloquent pen, depicting everything from a Brule village in a snowstorm to a minstrel show on the trail as the 18th Infantry marches towards the Bozeman trail to Red Cloud and Colonel Carrington having a close brush at Fort Laramie during the tepid conference there between the “Great White Father” and the Indians determining whether or not they would allow the Bozeman trail to exist brining whites into their prized Powder River hunting country to, at last, the “Battle of the Hundred Slain” as the Indians under Red Cloud called the Fetterman fight, with an epilogue taking place at the dedication of the monument that stands on the sight of the fateful battle to this day, along with many more events and vignettes from this, the only war the Plains Indians ever managed to win.

The historical characters come alive quite vigorously via Chiaventone’s talented pen; none come across as a bore, or uninteresting.  Quite the opposite!  When done reading this novel, I believe one is bound to quickly grab themselves a copy of Dee Brown’s book just so they can learn more.

One thing that surprised me is that Fetterman, while depicted as somewhat boastful and a real pain in the rump for Colonel Carrington, also as not brazenly crossing the fatal Lodge Trail Ridge north of Fort Phil Kearny on the day he and eighty others lost their lives but, rather, allowing the men to snipe away at the Indians a little more before returning to the fort.  Even Crazy Horse mooning the whites (yes, mooning) does not make him mad as hell and barge ahead as Ralph Andrist speculated he did in his book The Long Death.

I was surprised that Chiaventone claims he moved forward in time John “Portugee” Phillips famous post-massacre ride to get help for Carrington; I could detect no such thing in the text dealing with the author’s depiction of the famous incident.

In sum, this novel is well-worth a read.



Review: Evidence and the Custer Enigma

Jerome A. Greene's examination of a certain Sunday in June, 1876

Once upon a time in 1995, I went out west on a family trip wondering how many books I would buy.  I wound up coming home with quite a haul, and, naturally, most dealt with George Custer and his last battle.    I began my spree at –fittingly enough- Little Bighorn National Battlefield Monument.

This was one of my purchases.

In this short but succinct work (its only seventy pages), Jerome A. Green even-handedly examines the evidence from Indians accounts, as well as artifacts from by both sides such as bullets, arrowheads, etc. , that were left behind from the immortal clash of Sunday, June 25th, 1876 that saw the end of an American legend … as well as the beginning of one.

It is not as “dry” as some books are and everything is pretty much in layman’s terms, not technical ones.

That said, this book is not a lightweight “popular history”-type book of the kind that is a dime a dozen about events such as the battle of Little Bighorn but, rather, a full footnoted work useful to the serious scholar as well as the casual student.

Illustrations abound, chiefly in the form of relics that have been located.  It is very fascinating –and chilling- to look at, say, a bunch of bullets found on the field and wonder things like Did they hit anyone?  Did they miss?  Who fired them amongst the Indians and Custer’s men?

Historians like Mr. Greene can sift, ponder, and postulate conclusions based on the evidence, but only the dead truly know.

This book is a must for serious students of the battle of Little Bighorn.

Review: The Bloody Bozeman

Dorothy Johnson's book on the storied trail

When you’re on vacation, you wind up collecting things as you go.  So much so I think it’s always best to pack lightly because you’re bound and determined to bring home a ton of stuff, whatever it may be.  One of the things in my case is books, and during a visit to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming, in 1995, history geek that I am, I naturally gravitated towards the gift shop … and came out with this book.

The saga of the Bozeman Trail had already gotten into my blood thanks to Ralph Andrist’s discussion of it in his book The Long Death.   Seeing this book, I jumped at the chance to get the whole story in-depth.  I was not disappointed.

In clear, crisp prose, Dorothy Johnson chronicles the saga of the trail from its conception by John Bozeman's trail-blazing to its demise at the end of Red Cloud’s War in 1868.   Along the way, the whole vast panorama of events on the trail unfolds, from the first trips over the route to Virginia City, Montana, and its gold, to the arrival of the U.S. Army after the Civil War to establish forts and –in theory- keep travelers safe.  The latter of which was easier said than done with tiny garrisons and numerous Indians; people had to travel in large groups for “safety in numbers” which meant the forts were mere islands of civilization as opposed to actively sending out patrols to chastise the “hostiles.  Finally, Red Cloud has his way and the trail meets its demise.

I confess I am disappointed she chooses not to go into too much detail about the event that made the Bozeman Trail truly “bloody” -the Fetterman fight. Instead Johnson goes simply with the known facts as opposed to facts laced with speculation like Andrist and Dee Brown did in their treatments of the subject.  That does not reflect badly on her book, however; it’s well worth a read for all casual and serious students of the American West.


The Fetterman Massacre

A review of Dee Brown's classic on this storied battle

Battles such as Isandlwana, Little Big Horn, and Maiwand have always fascinated me.  The combination of so-called “civilized” forces being pitted against “savages” and losing to the latter can grip the imagination when one imagines small knots of soldiers giving their all while surrounded by overwhelming numbers;  at least as depicted in popular culture.   The reality is always more gritty, desperate, bloody … but nonetheless just as fascinating as looking at, say, a sanitized painting by C.E. Fripp of the last stand of the 24th Foot in the face of the Zulu army defending their homeland at Isandlwana; if not more so.

One such desperate fight was the so-called Fetterman Massacre, which took place barely a year after the Civil War, on December 21st, 1866.   In this battle Captain William J. Fetterman lead a mixed force of infantry and cavalry with two Henry rifle-toting civilians tagging along (the walking soldiers carried the old Civil War-style muzzle-loading Springfield rifles, the cavalry seven-shot Spencer carbines)  on a mission to relieve an apparent Indian attack on a train bringing wood into Fort Phil Kearny on the Bozeman Trail to Virginia City, Montana, down in what once was known as the Wyoming Territory.

Little did they know, but they were riding and marching into a perfect ambush of over hundreds of Indians determined to wipe out a sizeable portion of the Fort Phil Kearny garrison.  A mission they accomplished after much blood and death as the battle-hardened troopers under Fetterman died in a way that would make the British Lion proud had they worn red coats instead of blue.

Dee Brown captures the whole story from the moment it was decided to send troops to guard the trail blazed by John Bozeman to the immediate aftermath of the Fetterman massacre (though the phrase “Fetterman fight” would fit better, given how it was a battle exclusively fought between soldiers and warriors; a rarity on the Plains).   In fact, his book is hard to put down.

By all means get it if you, like me, can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to have been with Fetterman on that bitter December day almost 150 years ago.

Review: Centennial Campaign: The Sioux War of 1876

A look at the classic work by John Stephens Gray

There are books about the Little Big Horn campaign … and then there are books about the Little Big Horn campaign.  This one –by the late John Stephens Gray- falls into the latter category.

The centennial year of 1876 dawned with another showdown between the Democrats and the Republicans over the White House, scandals in the Grant administration, a Centennial exhibition to be held in Philadelphia celebrating the first 100 years of the United States of America … and trouble swirling around a certain piece of land supposedly granted the Indians forever by the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868: Paha Sapa, the Black Hills.
The trouble was that gold had been found, and the US Army had been unable (or unwilling) to stem the tide of gold prospectors flooding into the sacred lands.   The offer to buy the Black Hills from the tribes was rejected, the US Government did some fancy paperwork that declared “hostile” all Indians not on the reservation by a certain date… and created yet another war; this war.   One destined to witness the violent end of one of America’s most famous soldiers: George Armstrong Custer.

Gray divides the book into two sections: a narrative and one devoted to facets of the campaign such as the medical service and just how many Indians were “off the reservation” in actuality.   All done in an even-handed, clear-eyed manner that at the same time mercifully does not blindly follow what Gray calls “The reams of melodramatic and partisan verbiage …” written about the Little Big Horn.  In fact, Gray found the very obsession over Custer’s fate at the Little Big Horn to be something of an obstacle: “Like the bicycle rider who concentrates so hard on avoiding an obstacle that he inevitably runs into it, I found that Custer battle constantly in my road.  So I tried to read around it in order to learn what happened before and after.”  He notes in his introduction.

Happily enough, as this book demonstrates, Gray found out just what happened before and after the Little Big Horn.  At the same time the book is a double-miracle in that Gray does not subscribe to the “Custer the Villain” approach so many partisan or sensation-seeking writers have done over the years, nor does he go out of his way to pander to the “Custer the Saint” crowd; here we see a view of “Custer the human being” when Gray must devote time to G.A.C.’s role in the trumped-up war that cost him –and many a family member and friend- his life.

Gray’s prose is lean but eloquent.  Here is a sample from the narrative section, in which we glimpse the 7th Cavalry on its advance into the valley of the Little Big Horn:

The sun beat down from a crystal sky at noon of the hot Sabbath of June 25th, 1876.  The 7th Cavalry squinted against the glare and men and animals sweated freely into the dry breeze as they topped the divide between the Rosebud and Little Big Horn and halted a third of a mile beyond, at 12:07 by Lt. Wallace’s official watch, set for Chicago time.

And another sample, this time from his section about the facets of the Centennial Campaign:

The Medical Department of that era was anything but a self-sufficient corps.  Its meager personnel consisted of surgeons, civilian as well as military, and a few non-commissioned officers.  The duties of nursing and feeding the sick and wounded fell upon enlisted men drawn from the regular company ranks.  And Medical Officers found themselves subject to orders from the Secretary of War and line officers, as well as the medical chain of command.

This book is not to be missed if you are like me and are insatiably curious about the Indian Wars of the American West as well as the life and death of George Armstrong Custer.