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Volume 16, Number 1
The Feds versus the Indians
by Thomas J. DiLorenzo
History books and the popular culture are full of stories
about how "the white man" brutally mistreated the
American Indians during the latter half of the nineteenth
century. Greedy capitalists are
usually portrayed as the villains, killing Indians by the
thousands to make way for the
railroads in particular and economic development of the West in
But it was neither all white men nor all capitalists who
American Indians. The dispossession of the Indians--culminating
in the late 1880s
with the surviving tribes of the West being herded onto
reservations--was the result of a corrupt and
immoral relationship between certain Northern industrialists,
government-subsidized railroads, and the federal politicians
whose careers they financed
The eradication of the Plains Indians by the Union army was an
form of corporate welfare for politically connected railroad
companies who enlisted the
coercive powers of the central state to steal Indian property
while engaging in a
genocidal policy. Like many citizens today, the Indians were
victims of governmental
power, not of capitalism or European culture, as today's
In July 1865, barely three months after Robert E. Lee's
Appomattox, General William Tecumseh Sherman was put in charge of
the Military Division of
the Missouri, which included everything west of the Mississippi.
Many historians have
sugarcoated Sherman's actions during this period by writing that
his assignment was
to help the U.S. achieve its long sought-after "Manifest
In reality, Sherman's assignment was to provide a segment of
railroad industry, which heavily bankrolled the Republican party,
with veiled corporate
welfare in the form of eradicating the Indians of the West. In
Sherman's own words: "We are not going to let a few
thieving, ragged Indians check and stop the progress of the
railroads.... I regard the
railroad as the most important element now in progress to
facilitate the military
interests of our Frontier."
must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux," Sherman
wrote to Ulysses S.
Grant (commanding general of the federal army) in 1866, "even to
men, women and children." The Sioux must "feel the superior power
of the Government." Sherman vowed to remain in the
West" till the
Indians are all killed or taken to a country where they can be
an assault," he
instructed his troops, "the soldiers cannot pause to distinguish
between male and female, or even
discriminate as to age." He chillingly referred to this policy in
an 1867 letter to Grant as "the final solution to the Indian
problem," a phrase
Hitler invoked some 70 years later.
Sherman viewed the Indians, writes biographer John F.
Marszalek, "as he viewed recalcitrant
Southerners during the war and newly freed people after:
resisters to the legitimate
forces of an ordered society." Many other Union officers "such as
Philip Sheridan, George Armstrong Custer, John Pope, Benjamin
Grierson, and others" helped
Sherman achieve his "final solution" by the late 1880s.
The great triumvirate of the Civil War," biographer Michael
writes, referring to Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, "applied their
ruthlessness, born of their Civil War experiences, against a
people all three despised."
Marszalek writes that in the Fall of 1868 Sherman instructed
Sheridan to "act with all the vigor he had
shown in the Shenandoah Valley during the final months of the
Civil War," and he did. The two men
popularized the phrase "a good Indian is a dead Indian," and
Sherman promised to lead interference with the press if there was
talk of "atrocities."
Such talk would certainly have been appropriate, for the
"final solution" was accomplished by hundreds of
sneak attacks on Indian villages filled with women and children,
which were wiped out by
massive artillery and rifle fire. These "campaigns" were
especially frequent in the winter months, when Indian families
It was also official government policy to slaughter as many
possible as a means of eventually starving out the Indians. It
was not just the "tragedy of the commons" that was responsible
near extinction of the American buffalo; it was official U.S.
Ironically, ex-slaves were recruited into the federal army to
cleanse the American West. Movies have been made and books have
been written in recent
years celebrating these black "buffalo soldiers" by people who
are apparently unaware (one hopes) that the black soldiers
were taking part in genocide.
Sherman's ultimate objective "which he did not quite achieve"
was murder of the entire Indian
population. Just before his death in 1891 he bitterly complained
in a letter to his son
that if it were not for "civilian interference" by various
government officials, he and his armies would have "gotten rid of
Sherman's (and Lincoln's) close friend and former business
associate, Grenville Dodge, was in charge of building the
transcontinental railroads that were "protected" by Sherman's
armies, and he did so in a thoroughly corrupt and
Per-mile subsidies provided incentives for bilking the
building winding, circuitous routes. Dodge even laid track on top
of several feet of snow
in the winter months, and then rebuilt them after the spring
thaw, collecting twice the
subsidies. The entire enterprise was so marred by corruption,
inefficiency, and fraud that
at one point (1893) all of the government-subsidized railroads
In his rush to collect subsidies Dodge invaded private farms,
owners to defend their property with rifles. When Indians acted
in a similar way to
protect their property, the army was called in.
Yet the great railroad entrepreneur James J. Hill built the
Railroad without a dime's worth of subsidies and no land grants.
"Our own line in the North was
built without any government aid," Hill boasted proudly in 1893.
Unburdened by government regulation (in
contrast to his subsidized competitors), Hill chose the best
routes, built the sturdiest
tracks, and paid the Indians and other landowners free-market
prices for rights-of-way
across their property.
But Hill was in the minority. The government-business
established had turned its attention to the West after conquering
the South, employing "the great triumvirate of the
Civil War" for
ethnic cleansing on behalf of government power and its corrupt
Thomas DiLorenzo teaches at Loyola College.
FURTHER READING: S.L.A. Marshall, Crimsoned Prairie: The
(New York: Plenum, 1972); John F. Marszalek, Sherman: A
Soldier's Passion for
Order (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), esp. chap. 17; and Roy
Morris, Jr., Sheridan:
The Life and War of General Phil Sheridan (New York: Vintage
Books, 1992), esp. chaps. 9-10.