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Saturday, 25 April 2009

Blood on Thunder by Hampton Sides

Blood on Thunder
Hampton Sides
Abacus £9.99

As a western writer I have a large collection of non fiction works on the period known as The Old West - in fact I've pretty much got the entire early history of the country covered from the first Spanish exploration of the WEST, to the Lewis and Clark explorations after the Louisiana purchase from the French, to the Old West of Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and Jessie James, to the dawning of the modern age in the early 20th century. America may still be an infant country in comparison to other, much older countries, but its' history is none the less interesting.

The 11th President of the United States, James Polk, rarely merits a mention in the history of his country.He rose to power by defeating Henry Clay in the election of 1844. Polk had made a campaign promise that he would serve only for four years and he was true to his word. Yet what occurred during his time in office was arguably as significant as anything experienced during the administrations of any president before or since.

The America that Polk presided over was a confident nation. Independence from Britain had been secured just over half a century earlier and the Louisiana Purchase from the French in 1803 revealed a country growing in stature and territory.

Blood and Thunder traces the path that US forces trod to fulfill this yearning. The West would not be secured without conflict with the Mexicans, who also had designs on the adjoining territories, and the native Indians, who had lived there for several hundred years and would see their ancient way of life destroyed forever by the Westward expansion which was the manifest destiny of the United States.

In 1845, Texas was annexed and a year later, Polk declared war on Mexico. Three years later, with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico had been halved in size and California, Nevada and Utah, as well as parts of New Mexico and Arizona, added to the USA.

The problems were only beginning. As Hampton Sides explains, the Americans were confronted with the tensions that occupying forces have faced down the ages: 'The longer [they] stayed, the more the people resented them - not only for the central fact of their conquest, but for the thousand little insults and daily humiliations committed by the foreign invaders.

Their predicament was doubly difficult since they not only had to contend with attacks from those over whom they claimed dominion, but also to resolve the bitter hatreds between the Mexicans and the Indians, most notably the Navajo tribe.

The Navajos proved the more difficult to accommodate. It was not that they did not want peace with the invaders - they were curious to meet them. Rather, they had no understanding of the terms that the new arrivals wished to impose. Agreements would be reached, only for the Navajos blithely to revert to stealing horses and cattle from the locals.

The Americans adopted a scorched-earth policy to drive them into reservations, which they judged the best means to control and 'civilize' them. Contact with American soldiers ensured that diseases, such as syphilis, spread quickly.

The lone hero in all this is Christopher "Kit" Carson. A frontiersman who became a myth in his own lifetime, Carson was involved at every key stage in the American advance. His skills as a tracker singled him out first as a guide for the early expeditions through California, second as a messenger and, finally, as a military leader in New Mexico. A reluctant warrior, he lacked his countrymen's instinctive antipathy towards the Mexicans and Indians. His motivation in abetting the US army was to deliver stability to the region.

Romanticism attaches itself to Carson alone. Scalping, lynching, rape and other forms of butchery were practiced by all factions. If his narrative sometimes appears haphazard and messy, it is because the conquest of the West was just that. This was manifest destiny in a brutal and bloody form.

This book offers a truly epic look at the myth and reality surrounding Kit Carson, a man who has become an American icon. The frontiersman may have had sympathy with the indigenous Indian tribes but he could also be a cold blooded killer in the name of patriotism. And the author presents all this matter of factly and doesn't sit in judgment as some books looking at this particularly violent era do; he understands that it was the times that defined the men who moved through the vicious landscape and into the pages of history.


Bill Crider said...

I bought this one a few months ago on the recommendation of a friend. I really need to get around to reading it.


Bill - it's a very good book - written with an eye for detail. The various maps showing the developing country are also very interesting.

Laurie Powers said...

I'm with Bill - it's on my bookshelf. I started it several months ago but put it down for some reason I've forgotten now. Will have to try it again.

Anita said...

This is a clear-headed, even-handed book about a man who was both glorified and vilified. Sides does neither. This epic is full of reality and the raw truth about the man. He was remarkable. It is a mark of this author not to romanticize or demonize the men he writes about. Another thing Hampton Sides delivers is a well written and interesting story, every time.