George Washington's 'Founding War of Conquest'

The standing army, Native American opposition, and the high cost of territorial expansion


Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion that Opened the West, by William Hogeland, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pages, $28

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Battle of Little Big Horn may loom larger in popular consciousness, but it is the fray now known as St. Clair's Defeat that marks Native Americans' single largest victory over U.S. forces. In 1791, in what today is Ohio, a pan-tribal force under the direction of Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware leaders served notice to the fledgling American republic that continued incursion into Native lands would come at a dear price. In this case, that price was at least half the soldiers on the U.S. side killed—some sources suggest the number dead was far larger—and nearly 20 percent more badly wounded.

News of the rout caused President George Washington temporarily to lose his legendary cool. (More than one source reportedly heard from Washington's personal secretary, Tobias Lear, how the president raged about General Arthur St. Clair: "To suffer that army to be cut to pieces, hacked, butchered, tomahawked—by a surprise! The very thing I guarded him against! Oh God, oh God, he's worse than a murderer!") Once Washington simmered down, he embarked on a path that would define both his administration and his country: the creation of a standing national army and the pursuit of a war to secure the West for U.S. expansion.

In Autumn of the Black Snake, the independent historian William Hogeland tells the story of that war. His aim, he writes, is to fill in a "vacancy in American memory when it comes to what is perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of George Washington's career, and to the political, moral, and existential burden his career, and its national indispensability, will forever carry." The result is an imperfect but nevertheless compelling work of history.

Hogeland rescues some colorful key players from obscurity and restores them to the main narrative of the early American republic. The Black Snake himself is a case in point.

Anthony Wayne began as a Pennsylvania boy enthralled with all things military and became a war hero during the Revolution, rising to the rank of major general. But "after 1776," Hogeland writes, "Wayne never really went home." Returning to civilian life in his late 30s, he proved unfit to manage anything competently: not marriage, not fatherhood, not property, not politics.

Wayne was estranged from his family, barely one step ahead of his creditors, freshly relieved of his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (after a House committee found fraud in his election), and in a downward spiral when Washington unexpectedly placed him in command of the country's new standing army, the Legion of the United States. In that position, Wayne turned his obsessive focus toward preparing, supplying, and supporting his troops. He built forts, he instituted the first basic training for U.S. soldiers, and his tireless emphasis on discipline and preparedness earned him the nickname Mad Anthony from his men.

His "preternatural vigilance"—the man could not be surprised and seemed never to sleep—also earned Wayne the title Black Snake from his enemies in the pan-tribal Western Confederacy. Wayne ultimately vindicated Washington's trust and accomplished what the president wanted, breaking the back of Native resistance at the August 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers, and securing both Native and British retreat from the Northwest Territory in the Treaty of Greenville a year later. And he did it all while his second in command both actively undermined him and served as a spy for Spain.

Hogeland also devotes attention to the impressive leaders of "the only confederation that had a chance of obstructing the westward expansion of the United States and came close to damaging the American project in its fragile infancy." One was the charismatic and flamboyant Blue Jacket, who dreamed of reuniting his fellow Shawnees in their ancient homeland. The other was the forthright and practical Little Turtle of the Miami Nation, whose wish to halt U.S. expansion at the Ohio River was far more modest but equally unattainable. As Hogeland makes clear, these and other Native leaders have been left out of mainstream histories in much the same way that many U.S. founders chose to write them out of their visions for the future.

Alexander Hamilton's goal of creating a commercial imperial power to rival Great Britain had no place for indigenous Americans. Thomas Jefferson, pursuing his "empire of liberty," drew the borders of potential new states onto a blank map of the Northwest Territory and called the lands uninhabited, though he knew very well that they were not. It was left to Henry Knox, after resigning his position as the first U.S. secretary of war in 1795, to object. In his final report on Indian affairs before leaving office, Hogeland writes, Knox "described the years leading up to Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers as a series of unethical incursions by whites onto sovereign Indian land.…This war against Indians, doing more harm to the Native people, he said, than anything ever perpetuated by the Spanish in Mexico or Peru, could only degrade the American people themselves."

Hogeland argues that both this war of conquest and the standing army that made it possible were inevitable as long as George Washington played a leading role in guiding the growth of the infant United States. Herein lie both the greatest strength and the core weakness of the book.

On one hand, Hogeland sheds much-needed light on the troubling tactics that Washington and Co. used to persuade Congress to create the military, despite some lawmakers' deep-seated concern that a standing army posed a danger to liberty. Among these were sham efforts at peace talks with the Western Confederacy—pure political theater, set up to fail, meant to convince Congress that every option but armed conflict had been exhausted. Hogeland notes the "enviable narrative discipline" with which the administration devised its public story and kept the details straight.

Such behavior didn't merely ignore opportunities for compromise and better outcomes. These actors set precedents for consolidation of power in the executive branch and for manipulation of both the American Indian nations and Congress, manifesting the same troubling "territorial and military" urges that characterized Andrew Jackson's later policy. The system didn't break, Hogeland argues; it was broken from the start.

On the other hand, he puts too much emphasis on Washington and what he claims were the president's "two oldest precepts—nationhood needed the West; nationhood needed a regular army." He traces these convictions back to Washington's youth, working as a surveyor in the West to make an independent life for himself, learning early to blend the personal and the political, aligning his own vision for governmental policy to fit neatly with his private financial interests in land speculation. Hogeland's older Washington-as-Cincinnatus "hadn't returned to his farm, because in a sense he'd never left it: farms were commercial endeavors, and the farm of Washington's imagination and ambition was so big that it embraced the American West."

The narrow focus on Washington's and others' economic self-interest—perhaps unsurprising from the author of Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation—leaves less room for the influence of ideas, and thus gives short shrift to those contemporaries motivated by more disinterested or at least abstract convictions. Patrick Henry, for example, was a land speculator, like Washington was. Yet he fiercely opposed the idea of a standing army.

Hogeland's approach also adds an unsatisfyingly deterministic note to the narrative. It was not, in fact, a foregone conclusion that "American independence without the American West wouldn't be independence at all," or that dreams of pushing westward would lead inevitably to a standing army. The fact that Washington and his allies had to campaign and maneuver as robustly as they did to get what they wanted argues against the notion there was a national consensus on the issue. Much of the tragedy of what Hogeland calls the U.S. "founding war of conquest"—and he clearly perceives it as tragic—is that there were several points where compromise was genuinely possible. His details, in other words, argue against the tidiness of his framing theme. This story resists easy answers, including the author's.

Hogeland ends his study in the same land whose history he has traced, considering the county war memorial outside the Defiance County Courthouse in Ohio. There he contemplates the smooth expanse waiting for new names of fallen soldiers under the catch-all contemporary heading of "Global War." The empire of both Hamilton's and Jefferson's disparate dreams has come to pass, and much of the world has been remade in the image of the United States. This, Hogeland implies, is far less a triumph than a burden.