Not many people can claim a 234-year losing streak. One of the few who can is Col. William Crawford, an 18th-century American surveyor and citizen soldier who plays a supporting role in "Autumn of the Black Snake," historian William Hogeland's colorful, occasionally melodramatic account of the defining little war that set the infant American republic on course to become a vast, transcontinental power.
America won the war but Col. Crawford was an early, unlucky, collateral casualty. After serving with distinction in the Revolutionary War, he was captured by Indian warriors who had allied themselves with the British and continued fighting after the British defeat.
Crawford had been assigned to "lend a steadying hand" on the frontier where atrocities had been committed by both sides, including a brutal massacre of Moravian Delaware tribesmen by out-of-control American militiamen: "William Crawford hadn't been at the Moravian massacre. He'd joined this unit only in hopes of providing order and preventing similar atrocities. And yet before he died, he was ritually tortured in many hours of beating, burning, shooting, and mutilation [by his Indian captors]."
Fast forward from 1783 to 2017. The unfortunate Col. Crawford has been subjected to torture all over again, this time it was at the hands of the Statue Nazis who have been desecrating Confederate war memorials across the country. In late August, under cover of darkness, one of these modern-day Vandals descended on Ohio's Crawford County Court House and decapitated the statue of the poor old Col. Crawford, the county's namesake. This despite the fact that Crawford died 73 years before the Civil War started and therefore had nothing whatsoever to with the Confederacy.
The struggle in which Col. Crawford was a preliminary casualty came to a head nearly a decade after his death in 1791 when a ragtag, mainly militia force of Americans was routed with heavy casualties by a tribal alliance that may have been the last chance for Native Americans to stem the westward drive that, in a few more generations, would reach all the way to the Pacific.
President George Washington chose one of his best Revolutionary War subordinates, Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne, to raise and train a crack regular force - it would come to be known as Wayne's Legion - to restore order on the frontier. Wayne, a difficult and not very successful man in private life, was the perfect pick for the job, a fiery, fearless battlefield commander who was also a master of detailed planning and logistics. On Aug. 20, 1794, at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, he inflicted a crushing defeat on the fragile Indian alliance. The fight lasted little longer than an hour, but its consequences were far-reaching.
"Anthony Wayne believed two things happened at Fallen Timbers," Mr. Hogeland concludes. "Each had to do less with change of ground than with change of belief. The Indian confederation came to believe the United States enjoyed military superiority. U.S. troops came to believe they could prevail in battle. Regardless of all the competing stories and judgments, those results made Wayne's victory strategically, politically, and historically decisive." Good news for what would grow into the America we know and love today; bad news for those who were unfortunate enough to stand in its way.
William Hogeland writes about it all with the same verve, color and occasional dramatic overstatement that made his 2010 book "Declaration," an account of the events leading up to America's declaring its independence from Britain in 1776 (which I had the pleasure of reviewing in The Wall Street Journal) such a good read.
While the author's narrative can sometimes be erratic - his patchwork quilt approach rapidly shifts time and place on the way to its resolution - he is at his best in bringing alive a colorful cast of characters, many of them quite nuanced and conflicted on the issues of westward expansion, treatment of Native Americans, and the establishment of a regular standing army.
It includes Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, the infamous, absurd Gen. James Wilkinson (a dithering, treasonous opium addict who would seem hopelessly implausible as a character in a novel), and two complex and sympathetic Indian leaders, Blue Jacket and Little Turtle.
Like the headless statue of Col. Crawford, Blue Jacket and Little Turtle mean little or nothing to an American people increasingly ignorant of their own history. Mr. Hogeland deserves credit for bringing them back to life in "Autumn of the Black Snake."
• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.
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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, $28 447 pages