While Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo are embedded far more solidly in American folklore, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin contend that Red Cloud, the relatively obscure Oglala Sioux chief, was the most cunning and effective Indian general to confront the U.S. Army during the stampede of Western expansion that followed the Civil War. Prolonged war, with specific territorial aims, had not been an Indian concept until Red Cloud united the tribes with the goal of driving out the white invaders and reclaiming native hunting grounds and sacred sites, particularly the Black Hills in what is now South Dakota.
Born in 1821, Red Cloud was the son of an alcoholic who died young, which perhaps led him to become something of an overachiever, both in the hunt for game and later on the battlefield. He learned early that America’s treaties with the Indians were empty promises, and armed resistance seemed to him the only sane recourse. The resistance was widespread, fierce and bloody. Although both sides engaged in torture and mutilation, the Indians elevated these practices to an excruciating art—in part to ensure that their luckless victims never made it into the afterlife with their bodies intact.
The authors contend that Red Cloud was the most cunning and effective Indian general to confront the U.S. Army.
In The Heart of Everything That Is, the authors focus on the series of Sioux victories between 1866 and 1868 that culminated in a treaty that closed the heavily traveled Bozeman Trail, allowed for the destruction of Army forts and ceded vast swaths of territory—including the cherished Black Hills—to Red Cloud and his people. These triumphs were pitifully short-lived, of course, but they were resounding enough to earn Red Cloud the respect of his adversaries. President Grant received him at the White House; he spoke at the Cooper Institute in Manhattan after parading down Fifth Avenue; and the New York Times lauded his intelligence and eloquence.
These virtues notwithstanding, Red Cloud’s forays into the “civilized” East effectively sapped his warring spirit. Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 and the discovery of gold in the Black Hills a few years later ended any Indian hopes of sovereignty. Red Cloud died in his sleep at the age of 88—on a reservation.