Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas

By Norton, Richard | Naval War College Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview
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Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas


Norton, Richard, Naval War College Review


Mullis, Tony R. Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri, 2004. 273pp. $40.50

Tony Mullis, a serving officer in the U.S. Air Force, takes a close look at a time when approximately 10 percent of the U.S. Army was intimately involved in one of the most challenging and politically charged assignments ever given to the U.S. military. Assigned occupation duties in a land where tribal loyalties had been the primary form of government, Army officers, in cooperation with diplomats appointed by the president, were tasked to assist a fledgling democracy attain statehood while avoiding incipient civil war. The task was complicated by the infusion of ideologically motivated outsiders, most of them heavily armed. The two main local factions committed a variety of atrocities, including the massacre of innocent civilians. Elections, new to the area, were viewed with open suspicion by most of the population. Local militias were often little more than muscle for political leaders. Many of the thornier underlying political issues had religious and economic overtones. Several Army officers assigned to these duties were involved in scandals, and at least one associated court-martial received national attention. Meanwhile, powerful individuals in Washington disagreed, sometimes publicly, over tactics, strategy, and policy in the affected region. To make matters worse, ingrained organizational barriers and an inherent resistance to change prevented promising new technologies from being used with maximum effectiveness. Finally, while the Army may have portrayed its role as one of neutral professionalism, both Democrats and Republicans were using the results of the occupation as a key component of their respective strategies for the next presidential election. The year was 1854, and the theater of operations was the Kansas Territory.

Peacekeeping on the Plains clearly began life as a doctoral dissertation. In its introduction Mullis lays out his basic premise. Debunking the perhaps popular conception that the United States has but recently come to experience peace operations, Mullis shows that the U.S. Army has been involved in missions of this type since the first days of the Republic-though this historical involvement has long been overlooked and underanalyzed. Mullis seeks to begin correcting this omission by examining in some detail the 1855 punitive expedition against the Lakota (of the Great Sioux Nation) as an example of the Army's efforts to keep peace in "Bleeding Kansas." Chapter 1 gives an overview of the U.S. Army's involvement in peace operations, and chapter 2 provides background information on the issue of slavery and the creation of the state of Kansas. Chapters 3 and 4 take a detailed look at the 1855 punitive expedition led by General William S. Harney. Chapters 5 through 8 deal with Army operations supporting civil actions in Kansas from 1854 to 1857. A conclusion and epilogue complete the work.

As was often demonstrated during the 1990s, the line between peace enforcement and war is often difficult to determine. This was no less true in 1855. The U.S. Army used deadly force against the Lakota, took hostages, and committed various acts that would, by the standards of today, be judged illegal. Yet, as Mullis points out, these operations were carried out with a political objective in mind, and, in the main, they were effective. Furthermore, Harney's success did have a positive impact, in that they influenced other tribes to remain peaceful.

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