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The Indian Wars and US Military Thought, 1865-1890

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Journal article

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This verse from an old marching tune recalls perhaps the most storied period in the history of the US Army, the Indian wars of 1865 to 1890. The era is certainly familiar to most Americans thanks to countless novels, television programs, and movies telling of the Armys battles with various tribes of the West. The popular images of campaigns against the Sioux, Cheyennes, and Apaches are of a small professional Army meeting an unconventional enemy on his own terms and defeating him. The romantic view created by movies and novels, however, is only partly true. Engagements with hostile Indians were rare, and rarer still was one that was an unqualified victory for the Army. Even rarer yet were instances of Army units fighting Indians with unconventional techniques. The casual student of this chapter of history assumes, of course, that the Army developed a doctrine of war specifically tailored to the mobile hit-and-run tactics employed by the Indians. On the contrary, as noted by historian Robert Utley, The Army as an institution never evolved a doctrine of Indian warfare. No course of instruction distinguishing between conventional and unconventional warfare was ever instituted at West Point, nor did the staff bureaus ever issue guidance to deal with the guerrilla tactics of the Indians. Utley concluded, Lacking a formal doctrine of unconventional war, the Army waged conventional war. This unconcern with doctrine for fighting Indians is remarkable. Throughout most of the Armys history to that point, its principal occupation was dealing with Indians. In fact, this mission was often the only justification Congress and the American people saw for the continued existence of the Army. What explains the Armys neglect of unconventional warfare doctrine Several factors contributed. The Army of 1865-1890 was an organization that became increasingly isolated from the society it served during the post-Civil War period.

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  • Humanities and History
  • Military Forces and Organizations
  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics

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