Tony Mullis. Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004. xvii + 278 pp. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8262-1535-2.
Reviewed by Richard Cooley (History Department, Grand Valley State University)
Published on H-CivWar (April, 2005)
Mullis's work, Peacekeeping on the Plains is a well-researched study of Army operations in Kansas in the latter years of the 1850s. The book looks at the military's involvement with keeping the peace between white settlers and the Native Americans, and its attempts to prevent and contain the civil unrest between pro-slavery and abolitionist forces in and around the state.
Mullis considers James McPherson's work, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) as a starting point. He considers the chapter on Bleeding Kansas one of the best works on the period thus far. From that starting point, the author makes a careful study of records, including the collected papers of the major participants in the events, relevant government documents, official papers from the United States House and Senate, many of the newspapers of the time, and many books, including Durwood Ball's Army Regulars on the Western Frontier, 1848-1861, Craig Miner and William Unrau's The End of Indian Kansas: A Study of Cultural Revolution, 1854-1871, Francis Prucha's Broadax and Bayonet: The Role of the United States Army in the Development of the Northwest, 1815-1860, and James Rawley's Race and Politics--"Bleeding Kansas" and the Coming of the Civil War to represent the thoughts and actions of those officers involved. This research shows extreme thoroughness. The interpretations of these officers' motivations are well founded and not out of line with previous historical works. The author's various discussions concerning "command and control" issues are also well researched. He makes it plain that messages traveling from Washington, D.C. to Leavenworth, and later, Fort Riley, Kansas followed a demanding route and that delays in communication could and did cause problems. These difficulties with communications forced the officers to make independent decisions at times that were under constant scrutiny, after the fact, by the civilian leadership, both on the scene and back in Washington, D.C. The focus of the book is on the military leaders in detail and discusses the poor position these officers were put in by the political leaders in the West and the East.
Tony Mullis is a member of the International Security and Military Studies Department at the United States Air Force, Air University, Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama and an adjunct professor of history at Auburn and Troy State Universities. The author's writings on the matter may serve to provide much needed foundational work on the use of the United States' military in various peacekeeping roles. Mullis comments repeatedly about the professionalism of the officers assigned to commands within Kansas: "Despite the command and control problems associated with the use of federal troops as peacekeepers, most officers attempted to perform their duties in the strictest neutrality" (p. 25). "Ogden," for example, "handled his vast responsibilities well. His bookkeeping was extraordinary. The assistant quartermaster had dispersed more than $1,750,000 in public moneys since 1849 and Ogden had accounted for every penny" (p. 27). Mullis spends several pages explaining the careful and professional analysis of the Native American situation by Colonel William Hoffman (pp. 70-76). In chapter six, the author also goes into great detail explaining the difficult situation that Colonel Edwin Sumner faced in maintaining peace in "Bleeding Kansas" and the skill and ability he displayed in almost impossible political circumstances.
The underlying question of military interpretation of civilian leadership and orders resonates throughout U.S. history, from Douglas MacArthur and the Korean War to the Iraq crisis and Abu Grhaib. The problem that many writers and students of history have is the application of past events to the present. Does the use of a federal force in domestic civil unrest and policing and land controversy issues with Native populations have direct application to the use of United States' military forces in overseas operations, with populations of different cultures, economic, and political motivations? Mullis certainly implies this application in his epilogue: "Nonetheless, the army's experience in Kansas foreshadowed the types of occupation operations and policing activities the federal government and the American people would expect it to perform in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries" (p. 246). It would be difficult to make a specific application of the situation faced by the officers of the 1850s throughout the globe in the 21st century. Certain characteristics of military/civilian relations may be universal to time and place, such as the ease or difficulty of communication and the "tightness" of the language of orders and the orders' openness to interpretation by people in the field. However, to relate the reaction of officers to all peacekeeping operations across place and time would be problematic. The specifics of each case must be taken into account and are not easily applied using a template or procedural manual.
Even within the domestic sphere of experience, in a close time-frame with "Bleeding Kansas," the author takes issue with one unnamed "notable historian" when that historian claims that the United States' military was "ill-prepared for the task" of occupying the South during Reconstruction. Serving in a conquered territory after four years of the bloodiest warfare in United States' history is not akin to the types of work the Army was charged with or trained for, such as keeping the peace between the settlers and speculators and the Plains Indians of the 1850s, and the abolitionist and pro-slavery forces in Kansas after the issuance of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Although there are some similar base issues, one should be wary of developing a procedural manual based on what transpired during peacekeeping by the U.S. military in 1850s Kansas.
The author creates a detailed picture of the difficulties faced in peacekeeping by military forces in the particular place and time--Kansas. As for the details of the peacekeeping duties being "overlooked," Mullis's careful research and predominantly cautious interpretation does shed some new light on the happenings of the time period. The author mined the official records and reexamined past historical works in a meticulous manner. Mullis has well-developed explanatory footnotes and endnotes and a thorough bibliography. While the work adds to the record and might change some past findings, it does more to fill in gaps and refine the picture of the times rather than reveal nuggets of lost or overlooked treasure. This book should be read by all those seeking insight into what went on in Kansas between the military, the Native American tribes, and both sides of the slavery issue in the decade prior to the Civil War.
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Richard Cooley. Review of Mullis, Tony, Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas.
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