The Nez Perce War of 1877 was fought over a four-month period between the U.S. Army and various bands of Nez Perce Indians along a zigzagging, 1,200-mile course through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and into Montana almost to the Canadian border. Neither side wanted the war, but both were relentless in its prosecution and equally given to committing atrocities. Ironically, the conflict's leaders—General Oliver Otis Howard and Chief Joseph—would, in the years afterward, become close, if wary, acquaintances and crucial to the heightening of each other's national reputation.
Sharfstein, a professor of law and history at Vanderbilt, begins his panoramic narrative with Howard losing his right arm to Confederate gunfire in the early days of the Civil War. Still, Howard continued to lead his troops and achieve rank. After the war, he was appointed head of the Freedmen's Bureau and charged with integrating the newly freed slaves into full citizenship. In that capacity, he established the university that still bears his name. But the resistance of white Southerners and their political allies stifled his most ambitious aims and contributed to his growing tendency to rationalize his failures, both bureaucratically and on the battle field.
Chief Joseph, as Sharfstein explains, was less a war leader than a diplomat. Long before and after the 1877 war, he argued incessantly for his tribe to be allowed to occupy its Oregon homeland rather than be harried to a reservation. However, the waves of settlers seeking to open up the resource-rich Northwest simply washed over him. Sharfstein paints his pictures of this beautiful and terrifying region on a canvas that stretches from daunting inland mountains to bustling seacoast towns.
Deftly woven into the story are portraits of such fascinating figures as Charles Erskine Scott Wood, who served as Howard's aide and later became a political radical, and the fierce warrior Yellow Wolf, whose remembered accounts of battle provide Sharfstein with some of his most chilling descriptions.