In which I finally finish reading The Three-Cornered War

My last blog post was pulled from the History in the Margins archives: a piece on the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, an early event in the wars between the United States government and the Plains Indian nations that ended at the Battle of Wounded Knee. In the course of reviewing the piece before I posted it, I realized something I had not noticed before: the Sand Creek Massacre occurred during the American Civil War and could, in fact, be seen as an incident in the often overlooked “westernmost” theater in that war.

Those thoughts led me back to a book that was sitting unfinished on my reading pile: Megan Kate Nelson’s The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West.*   I received a review copy in February, 2020 and galloped through the first 180 pages. Then Covid hit, the world went crazy, and my brain shut down for a couple of weeks. And then, just as I was regaining my ability to focus,  I signed a contract to write my book about Sigrid Schultz, which changed my non-fiction reading priorities. When I picked it up The Three-Cornered War last week, I realized I only had about fifty pages left to read and settled down to finish it. If anything, reading those last pages through the lens of my recent exposure to the history of the American West made them even more compelling.

Using the stories of nine people, chosen to represent different viewpoints, Nelson draws connections between the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and the United States’ western expansion, presenting them as three parts—three-corners—of one national conflict. She gives the reader an up-close look at the the efforts of the United States to remove native peoples from their homeland in order to allow white expansion into the west as seen from the perspective of both the Union soldier who engineered the campaigns against the Navajos and Apaches and an Apache chief who resisted that expansion. (Getting into the head of something who believed fervently in the need to control if not exterminate the Native American nations makes the familiar story even uglier.) She unfolds the far less familiar story of the conflicts of the Union and Confederate armies over control of New Mexico and Arizona, setting them within the larger framework of the war. (I don’t know about you, but I had no idea that the Confederate Territory of Arizona existed.) And by drawing connections between events that are often presented as entirely separate, she makes the surprising (to me, if not to you) point that the emancipation of enslaved people in the American South and the attempted elimination of indigenous peoples in the American West were contemporaneous events. (As seems to be a theme around here lately, the answer to “who’s missing from the story?” sometimes gives you a very different picture.)

The result is a complex, well-written account of the Civil War that re-frames our collective past.

*The fact that I let it sit was a comment on my life, not on the quality of the book.


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