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Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War

Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War

by Daniel J. Sharfstein


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The epic clash of two American legends—their brutal war and a battle of ideas that defined America after Reconstruction.

Oliver Otis Howard thought he was a man of destiny. Chosen to lead the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War, the Union Army general was entrusted with the era’s most crucial task: helping millions of former slaves claim the rights of citizens. He was energized by the belief that abolition and Reconstruction, the country’s great struggles for liberty and equality, were God’s plan for himself and the nation. To honor his righteous commitment to a new American freedom, Howard University was named for him.

But as the nation’s politics curdled in the 1870s, General Howard exiled himself from Washington, D.C., rejoined the army, and was sent across the continent to command forces in the Pacific Northwest. Shattered by Reconstruction’s collapse, he assumed a new mission: forcing Native Americans to become Christian farmers on government reservations.

Howard’s plans for redemption in the West ran headlong into the resistance of Chief Joseph, a young Nez Perce leader in northeastern Oregon who refused to leave his ancestral land. Claiming equal rights for Native Americans, Joseph was determined to find his way to the center of American power and convince the government to acknowledge his people’s humanity and capacity for citizenship. Although his words echoed the very ideas about liberty and equality that Howard had championed during Reconstruction, in the summer of 1877 the general and his troops ruthlessly pursued hundreds of Nez Perce families through the stark and unforgiving Northern Rockies. An odyssey and a tragedy, their devastating war transfixed the nation and immortalized Chief Joseph as a hero to generations of Americans.

Recreating the Nez Perce War through the voices of its survivors, Daniel J. Sharfstein’s visionary history of the West casts Howard’s turn away from civil rights alongside the nation’s rejection of racial equality and embrace of empire. The conflict becomes a pivotal struggle over who gets to claim the American dream: a battle of ideas about the meaning of freedom and equality, the mechanics of American power, and the limits of what the government can and should do for its people. The war that Howard and Joseph fought is one that Americans continue to fight today.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393239416
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Pages: 640
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

Daniel J. Sharfstein is a professor of law and history at Vanderbilt University and a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow. His first book, The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America, received the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. He lives in Nashville.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xiii

Overview Maps xviii

Prologue: The Dreamers 1

Part I

Chapter 1 A Willing Exile 17

Chapter 2 New Beginnings 45

Chapter 3 Quite Good Friends 66

Chapter 4 Winding Waters 79

Chapter 5 The Wilderness of American Power 93

Chapter 6 Adonis in Blue 115

Chapter 7 Wind Blowing 136

Chapter 8 A Sharp-Sighted Heart 150

Part II

Chapter 9 Aloft 179

Chapter 10 Split Rocks 201

Chapter 11 Fait Accompli 221

Chapter 12 A Perfect Panic 233

Chapter 13 Death in Ghastly Forms 247

Chapter 14 Bullets Singing Like Bees 264

Chapter 15 Heart of the Monster 282

Chapter 16 Lightning All Around 306

Chapter 17 Fury 323

Chapter 18 A World of Our Own 345

Chapter 19 Through the Veil 365

Chapter 20 Where the Sun Now Stands 382

Part III

Chapter 21 The Best Indian 405

Chapter 22 Red Moon 427

Chapter 23 A Glorious Era 447

Chapter 24 Swing Low 467

Epilogue: Acts of Remembering 484

Battle Maps 499

Acknowledgments 503

Notes 509

Illustration Credits 593

Index 595

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