An Interview with Peter Cozzens

  • May 2, 2017

In his latest work, The Earth Is Weeping, the historian shines a light on America's Indian Wars.

An Interview with Peter Cozzens

Among Civil War enthusiasts, Peter Cozzens is something of a cult figure as the author and editor of more than a dozen books on that deadly struggle. For his most recent book, though, Cozzens turned to another of his interests the 19th-century struggle between white settlers and Native Americans. The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West won enthusiastic reviews and the coveted Gilder-Lehrman Prize for Military History for 2017.

Calling the book “an instant classic of military history,” the award praised Cozzens’ “ambitiously broad sweep both geographically and chronologically, his diligent research, his masterful grasp of both strategy and tactics, but above all his beautiful written style.”

We caught up with Cozzens at his Kensington home, where he resides after a 30-year career with the U.S. Department of State, much of it in overseas postings as a foreign-service officer. He somehow combined that occupation with writing great history.

What possessed you to take on a huge subject like the Indian wars of the West? You had to know that the research effort would be massive.

Fortunately, I didn’t think too deeply about just how massive that effort would be when I pitched the subject to my agent and editors. I honestly also didn’t appreciate how hard it would be to weave together all the disparate conflicts and varied characters into a coherent narrative. But I really wanted to write something that was “epic” in scope; that is to say, that covered a large swath of American history and treated a subject that hadn’t been written to death. The Indian wars of the West fit those criteria nicely.

You — and your publisher — have made a point of calling your book a corrective to Dee Brown’s long-lived treatment of the same subject, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Why was a corrective needed?

Dee Brown never intended to write a balanced history of the era, and he didn’t. He was responding to, and in a large measure helped shape, a growing public awareness in the late 1960s of the wrongs that the government had done the Indians historically. Brown’s intentions were laudable, but he distorted the historical record badly by painting the era as an absolute struggle between good and evil. Or, as Brown put it, to present the conquest of the American West “as the victims experienced it,” hence the subtitle, An Indian History of the American West.

His definition of victims was severely circumscribed, however. For instance, several tribes, most notably the Shoshones, Pawnees, and the Crows, cast their fate with the whites. Brown dismissed them as “mercenaries” with no attempt to understand them or explain their motives. This sort of one-sided approach to history ultimately serves no good purpose. I maintain that it is impossible to judge honestly the true injustice done the Indians, or the army’s real role in those tragic times, without a thorough and nuanced understanding of all possible perspectives. In other words, bring historical balance to the story.

Of the many battle sites you visited out West in writing the book, which did you find most interesting? Most disturbing?

Without a doubt, I most enjoyed my trek over Rosebud Battlefield State Park in southeastern Montana. The park is less than 50 miles from Little Bighorn National Monument, which is the most-frequented Indian Wars site in the West, but Rosebud may as well be on another continent for all the traffic it gets. Little Bighorn hosted 317,000 visitors in 2015; the Rosebud, by contrast, attracted fewer than 5,000 people. The imbalance is ironic. The Battle of the Rosebud was among the most important clashes of the Indian Wars, with more warriors and soldiers fighting it out than in any other action in the West. There are just two descriptive markers in the rolling, starkly beautiful 3,000-acre park, which extends as far as the eye can see in nearly every direction.

I found the site of the Dull Knife Fight — which was the name given to the annihilation of the Northern Cheyenne people by a combined cavalry and Indian-ally dawn assault in the dead of winter — the most disturbing. The location is a deep box canyon at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains on private ranchland. The site is in absolutely pristine condition, which really gives one a feeling of time standing still. Very eerie.

When you visit a battle site, do you walk the perimeters with maps in your hand, or guides? What do you look for?

Whenever possible, I like to go it alone. In the case of the Rosebud, I went armed with a compass, a topographical map, a camera, and a series of battle maps from the Atlas of the Sioux Wars. When visiting sites on private land, of which there are many in the West, I employed a guide where it was necessary to obtain access to the site. In the case of the Dull Knife Fight, one of the ranch owners spent the day with me, which proved a real blessing, as she had devoted a good part of her life to mastering the details of the action.

When visiting a battlefield site, I examine everything from the type of vegetation to the peculiarities of terrain lines of fire, cover and concealment, things like that. I’ve always believed that walking the ground that I was writing about was essential to imparting an air of authenticity to the narrative.

In your telling of this story, the soldiers live in conditions almost as miserable as the Indians, and many army officers detested the violence they inflicted on Indians, with whom they sympathized. Were there any realistic alternatives to the harsh, often brutal policy of confining the Western tribes to ever-smaller reservations and trying to turn them into farmers?

Clearly, the Plains Indian way of life, in which nomadic peoples numbering fewer than 75,000 in the aggregate claimed as their hunting lands the equivalent of nearly a dozen modern Western states, was unsustainable amid a white national population of 38 million. But I agree with a number of thoughtful generals who considered the government’s plan to remake Indian warriors into farmers to be the greatest obstacle to their acculturation.

General Alfred Terry, a scholarly type who had been Custer’s superior officer in the Little Bighorn campaign, expressed the matter well. “You might as well take an Indian from the plains into the Elgin watch factory and expect to make a good workman of him,” as make him into a farmer. “The first step,” Terry and other generals maintained,” is to give the Indians cattle and let them lead a pastoral life, which is closely allied to their own natural life.” Unfortunately, the government didn’t heed their own generals’ advice.

We’ve had two major books in recent years about General George Armstrong Custer and his famous last stand, which your book also covers in a chapter. What accounts for the continuing fascination with the man and his unwise final end? 

I don’t entirely understand it myself. I imagine that, for some, it’s a fascination with those who are on a path to doom, be it the men of the 7th Cavalry or the unsuspecting passengers of the Titanic. A lot of the undying interest in the Little Bighorn also seems to rest in the countless “What Ifs,” and how the battle might have played itself out otherwise. And, of course, Custer is a character you either love or hate. Honestly, however, I think pretty much everything of consequence about the Little Bighorn that needs to be said has been said; Jim Donovan’s A Terrible Glory brings it all together very nicely.

For many of the years you worked overseas for the U.S. State Department, you also were writing carefully sourced books on American history. How could you find time for the research and writing, and how did you research Civil War history from South America?

It certainly was far more difficult then than it would be today, as little or nothing I needed in the way of source material was accessible online. I basically spent my vacation time, as well as the five weeks of home leave between assignments, at archives researching and photocopying frenetically. I also was a much faster writer than I am today. I marvel at the energy level I had during the decade and a half or so when I produced six original works while holding down my foreign-service job, but I’m not sure I would want to repeat the effort.

Most of your earlier books have been on Civil War topics — the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, or Stonewall Jackson’s Valley campaign. Are there Civil War books you still hanker to write?

No, I’ve run the course on the Civil War.

What’s next on your writing agenda?

I’m at work on a biography of the great Shawnee Indian chief Tecumseh. I’ve headed east of the Mississippi River and nearly a century back to a time when white conquest of Indian lands appeared anything but a forgone conclusion.

[Editor’s note: Peter Cozzens will appear at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in Gaithersburg, MD, on Saturday, May 20th. Click here for info.]

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