Thursday, June 23, 2016

AMC “The American West” TV Series Goes Beyond Myth

Listen up, Cowboys and Cowgirls...
There's more to those tall tales of the Old West than you know. So I'm finding out as I took a look at the new AMC TV series produced by Robert Redford.  As you know, Redford gets things pretty straight when it comes to matters of Native Americans and figures of the Wild West.
Tom Selleck and  Mark Harmon and Kiefer Sutherland are identifiable presences on  the first episode of this series detailing the American expansion after the Civil War.  Other lesser known experts and historians of the American west figure prominently too in the series. Viewers of historical tales will recognize them as they recount details of interest to history lovers and people who long for the grandeur of the west, it’s big sky and wide open areas.

There were vast unsettled tracts of the American continent that lured people west in the pursuit of happiness. Very often the new settlers found not happiness, but the opposite.

One of the first and greatest impacts of western expansion was the building of the railroads to the western coast. Native Americans watched over this migration with a jaundiced eye. Over the course of a mere thirty years, more than 430 million acres of land would be settled.

But there were winners and losers. Among the losers were southerners who had lost everything except their lives and were determined to get something back.  More than a few of these became outlaws and resisted the occupation of southern lands by union soldiers and the carpetbaggers who moved in to capitalize on the northern Army’s victory.

Among the outlaw rebels was Jesse James, at the end of the Civil War a member of a fringe Confederate military group known as Quantrell’s Raiders. The year is 1865. Not part of the regular Confederate Army, Quantrell’s Raiders were guerilla fighters who made up their own rules. Their targets were not always military targets, nor were their motives always strictly patriotic.

In the ambush and killing of two union soldiers, Jesse James was shot and captured by the Union Army. Forced to pledge allegiance to the union cause, the outlaw was still in prison four years later when the Civil War ended.

Going back home to Missouri, he found destruction and bitterness. Missouri was split in terms of its allegiances. Jesse James found a third path – that of the outlaw. Teaming up with his brother Frank, he formed an outlaw gang that would become legendary, focusing its first heists  on the supplies of the union troops he found oppressive. There were many such small rebellions reported in newspapers of the era, but the James Gang struck the high notes that attracted attention throughout the country.

I started watching the documentary, produced by the estimable Robert Redford, with the perception that each episode would focus on a single individual or event. It was soon apparent, however, that Redford’s intent was to present a coherent overview which gathers seeming separate stories into a whole.

The Native Americans who migrated thousands of years ago across the land bridge that linked Siberia with Alaska is brought in with a sweeping image of natural beauty. By the time the railroads were pushing westward, Native Americans living in the west numbered to an estimated 300,000. Among these was the brilliant military commander Crazy Horse, then a young warrior who watched the incursion into lands that had belonged to his people for centuries.

In 1866, Crazy Horse carried out a vast military campaign that terrorized the new settlers in Wyoming Territory. In a span six months, says a narrator, dozens of settlers were killed, seriously restricting movement through the territory. President Ulysses S. Grant and General William Sherman received this news with a great deal of displeasure. Grant wants the nation to know that he won’t tolerate chaos on the frontier, threatening his plan of unifying the U.S. from coast to coast in the establishment of a single nation.  He orders Sherman, commander of America’s western Army divisions to do battle with Crazy Horse. Late in 1866, a thousand new U.S. troops poured into Lakota territory.

Crazy Horse faces a challenge of numbers, technology, and superior firepower as he follows a vision which sustained him as a youth – that he couldn’t be killed and that bullets of the enemy would not find him in battle. He comes up with a plan to lure the U.S. Army from Fort Kearney, Wyoming Territory, into open plains where he can conduct an inspired  assault. When the troops follow him to the field, he rides his pony horizontally across the field of fire, just out of range of their fusillades. At the moment the soldiers are reloading the muskets, they are attacked by Crazy Horse’s warriors. Almost one hundred soldiers are killed in what became known as the “Battle of 100 Slain.”

 The Crazy Horse legend grew as President Grant paced the White House and agonized over the defeat. Grant therefore had to deal with two crises, the rebellions of the recently defeated south, and the rising up of the Sioux nation  to stop migration to the west. To deal with the Sioux in the west, Grant picks one of his best Civil War generals, the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer.

Everyone knows of ‘Custer’s Last Stand,’ one of the most ignominious defeats of the U.S. Army in battle. Did this episode of “The American West,” have anything interesting or peculiar to add? That Custer graduated last in his class at West Point Military Academy perhaps? That he distinguished himself for his aggressiveness and success in the Civil War is probably better known.  But when he was given command of the crack 7th Army in the west, his fate was sealed.

Interesting Facts:

Jesse James father had gone west on the Gold Rush and died there. His mother was a single parent.

Until Jesse James robbed banks in Missouri, not a single bank in the U.S. had ever had an armed robbery.

175 million acres of land were deeded to railroad companies as part  of President’s Lincoln’s plan to move people westward from the overly-developed east and from the devastated southern regions. This was more land than the entire state of Texas. The railroads then sold land to settlers moving in from the east.

By 1865, an estimated  300,000 Native Americans had migrated over the land bridge from Siberia to the American West.  Among these the most populous and powerful peoples living in the west were the Lakota Sioux.

The distinguished General George Armstrong  Custer graduated last in his class at West Point Military Academy. Yet he distinguished himself for his aggressiveness and success in the Civil War.

No comments: