4 July 13
The term “Manifest Destiny” had been on the lips of many Americans since Jefferson’s presidency. It represented the “superior morality” associated with pell-mell Western expansion, bringing goodness and light to vast expanses of real estate, occupied only by widely-scattered, and only rarely amalgamated, bands of Indians. Most Americans believed it was all sanctioned from on-high.
However, as is typical of American politics, “Manifest Destiny” was merely a catch-phrase, designed to appeal to the devoutly religious, but politically naive. It was a “cover story,” contrived to camouflage the real reason for a desperate national emphasis on the accelerated westward expansion of the Nation, indeed an all-out race to the Pacific Ocean.
The real reason was the firm establishment of readily-identifiable, readily-accepted, and eminently-defensible, national borders. The politically astute in America knew, all too well, that real-estate is fine; natural resources are fine; but, when they can’t be effectively defended, they’ll quickly be gobbled-up by superior powers, the moment they are developed and show promise and real value. This bitter lesson had been learned, then naively forgotten, and then piercingly re-learned, countless times in six thousand years of recorded human history, and probably many more times before that!
Thus, shrewd Americans, in and out of politics, knew and understood that we had to put vast oceans between America and power-mad, despotic tyrants in Western Europe, and across the entire Eurasian Continent, and do it fast! Otherwise, the American west and southwest would be aggressively invaded, taken over, colonized, then militarized, by nation-states in Europe and elsewhere. Nations, no matter how rich and initially successful, but without defensible borders, typically enjoy only a short and unhappy tenure on the world stage. The annexation of Texas and subsequent War with Mexico in the 1830s and 40s had been a direct result of this desperate desire for defensible borders.
For their part, Indians viewed this mostly unrestrained intrusion onto their land by white settlers and soldiers from the east as little more than an invasion of barbarians! Yet, these “barbarians” possessed an advanced, and relentlessly advancing, technological base and political sophistication, which Indians could not effectively oppose.
But, that surely didn’t stop them from trying, and inspired Indian leaders like Tecumseh, Little Turtle, Pontiac, Sitting Bull, et al adequately established their credentials as military and political leaders among the best, by any standard! However, it was the continuing “technology-gap,” combined with ecumenical expansionist philosophy, that doomed all effective, long-term resistance on the part of Indians. There are limits even to what abject bravery can accomplish. The most inspired and gallant, the bravest of the brave, cannot efficaciously oppose vastly superior firepower. That indisputable fact was being simultaneously established in North America, and in sub-Saharan Africa, during the second half of the 19th Century!
This conflict between technologies and cultures was eloquently manifested, and illustrated for us in our time, at the obscure “Battle of Four Lakes,” near present-day Spokane, WA.
On the afternoon of 1 Sept 1858 (Wednesday), Chief Kamiakin, leading a loose amalgamation of Indian warriors from a half-dozen local tribes, attacked a UA Army contingent, under Colonel George Wright, sent specifically to deal with Indians who were “harassing” local settlers. An earlier force, under Colonel Edward Steptoe, had narrowly escaped all-inclusive annihilation at the hands of Kamiakin’s forces (Battle of Rosalia), so Wright was under much pressure to “teach them a lesson.”
Kamiakin’s attack on Wright’s forces was brilliant, in surprise, in execution, and in coordination, complete with dazzling horsemanship, worthy of the finest European battlefield tacticians, and would have surely succeeded in spades, had it taken place a decade earlier!
What Kamiakin and his warriors could not possibly have known was that Wright’s troops were now armed, not with the familiar smoothbore Model 1842 musket, but with the new 1855 Rifle, shooting a French invention called the “Minie Ball.” This new technology would change military tactics forever during the subsequent War Between the States, but it was to make its military debut at this remote, and mostly forgotten, corner of the Northwest.
The upshot of this new weapons technology was to vastly increase the effective range of individual rifles. The 1855 Rifle, still a muzzle-loader, could be loaded/reloaded rapidly, like a smooth-bore musket, yet soldiers, taking advantage of its high velocity and gyro-stabilized bullet (via a rifled barrel), could be trained to use it to reliably hit human targets out to 500m (heretofore, muskets had been limited to 75m). Up until this moment in history, that kind of accuracy in a issue infantry rifle, carried by everyone, was unheard of. Kamiakin and his warriors, themselves armed with traditional weapons as well as some smoothbore muskets, didn’t have a clue, nor a chance!
In less than four hours of fighting, Kamiakin’s forces were virtually wiped-out! They died in amazement, bodies piled in stacks, before they ever got close enough to use their own weapons. Not a single one of Wright’s men were harmed. Wright had easily won as lop-sided a victory as can be imagined!
The Indians tried one more time, the following Monday, at the Battle Spokane Plain, having obviously failed to fully grasp what had just happened days earlier. This time, they fared no better. Once again, losses were lop-sided, with only one soldier slightly injured, and dozens of Indian warriors dead and wounded.
The War was over! What remained of local tribes officially surrendered. Chief Kamiakin was a truly gifted military and political leader, on par with Tecumseh, but his brilliance and bravery were insufficient to overcome his technological disadvantage.
George Wright, eventually promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, remained on the West Coast during the Civil War years, although he expressed a desire on several occasions to be sent east to where the action was. He died unexpectedly, at age sixty-one, in a shipwreck off the California Coast in the summer of 1865.
Kamiakin died sometime in 1877, of natural causes, steadfastly refusing all forms of charity, independent and defiant to the end!
The 1855 Rifle, as noted above, precipitated significant changes in infantry tactics during the Civil War. In 1873, it would in turn, be superceded by the Trap-Door Springfield, now breech-loading and using a metallic cartridge. The quest for superior technology continued.
Arizona, the final piece of the Manifest Destiny puzzle, was inducted into the Union in February of 1912.
“Who can make two ears of corn grow upon a spot of ground where only one grows now, will do more service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together”
“Yesterday’s ‘advanced weapons platform’ is today’s museum exhibit!”