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Blue Water Creek and the First Sioux War 1854-1856

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Blue Water Creek and the First Sioux War 1854-1856
By R. Eli Paul. (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press: 2004. Pg. xii, 260. Illustrations, Maps.) ISBN: 0-8061-3590-5.

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - January 28, 2005

The lopsided conflict between the U.S. Army and the Sioux Confederacy of Tribes was long and bloody. Yet, despite being faced with overwhelming military superiority, the Sioux made the Army suffer dearly for each and every victory. Throughout the long years of warfare they fought bravely and cunningly, often gaining the upper hand against all the odds - a fact that General George Custer can aptly attest to.

In Blue Water Creek and the First Sioux War 1854-1856 R. Eli Paul offers a comprehensive look at the Battle of Blue Water Creek and the initiating event, the Grattan Massacre, which marked the beginning of the larger Sioux War. This account is written primarily from the viewpoint of the U.S. commanders, providing a detailed overview of the military campaign that they waged - and its consequences. This account provides much needed information on a period that is, and was, overshadowed by subsequent events such as the Civil War and the Battle of Little Bighorn. While perhaps insignificant in comparison to later events, the Battle of Blue Water Creek was to lay the ground for all future relations between the Lakota Sioux, the United States Army, and the white settlers.

The basics of this tragic tale are as follows, in August of 1854, Brevet 2nd Lieutenant John L. Grattan's was the causal factor in a military blunder that led to his own death, as well as that of most of his men. Grattan's 'blunder' stemmed from his attempt to enter a Brulé Camp located near Fort Laramie to arrest a Lakota man. This man had been accused of stealing a lost cow that reportedly had belonged to a member of a Mormon wagon train. In addition to the culprit, Grattan also wanted the cow returned. By this time, the cow had probably already been eaten. Grattan met with the group's chief, Conquering Bear and when negotiations did not go satisfactorily, one of Grattan's men shot Chief Conquering Bear in the back - and the melee was on.

Although this incident was clearly the fault of Grattan and his men, General William S. Harney was ordered to go to what was then the Nebraska Territory, with the expressed purpose of seeking revenge for the Grattan Massacre. When he spotted an encampment along the banks of the Blue Water Creek, he attacked. As history would note, this was Chief Little Thunder's Brulé (the Brulé are one of the many Lakota Sioux tribes) camp, and Henley's men indiscriminately killed all the men, women, and children that they could find - while under a flag of truce! From such an improbable and inglorious beginning, a war was ignited.

Blue Water Creek and the First Sioux War 1854-1856 examines these events in detail, and Paul tries to show what motivated the various participants. As well, throughout the book, Paul has interwoven biographical sketches of the principal players from both sides of the battle, including General William S. Harney and the Brulé Chief Little Thunder. He has also included a collection of first-hand witness accounts of the battles. However, accounts from the Lakota side are scanty, which is the only weekness in this otherwise excellent and long overdue military history of this pivotal campaign.

This is the sixth volume in the University of Oklahoma Press' Campaigns and Commanders series. It is well suited for use in university courses in American History, Native American Studies, and Military History. Paul has included an extensive list of notes endnotes and an up-to-date bibliography that will help guide readers wishing to pursue this subject in greater detail.

Related Reviews:

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Stripping away the fact from the fiction, Bray presents a detailed and engaging biography of the great Lakota leader, Crazy Horse.

Fort Bowie, Arizona. Combat Post of the Southwest, 1858 - 1894, by Douglas C. McChristian.
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