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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 716

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This is the grave of Nelson Miles.

Born in 1839 in Westminster, Massachusetts, Miles moved to Boston as a young man, working as a clerk in a crockery store. When the Civil War began, he was an eager volunteer for the army. He had received some military training from a former French military officer before this. He raised money to start a regiment (common at the time) and was elected captain of it. He rose extremely rapidly for a young volunteer, becoming a lieutenant colonel of the 61st New York Volunteers in May 1862. Not bad for 22 years old. He reached full colonel after Antietam. He and the troops under him fought in many of the major battles of the Civil War, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Petersburg. He received several wounds during his many battles but never suffered the kind of serious injury or death that someone who fought this much probably should have, despite taking a rifle shot to the throat at Fredericksburg.

Miles was promoted to major general of volunteers in October 1865 and sent to command Fort Monroe in Virginia when Jefferson Davis was imprisoned there. One can already see the roots of the nation being unwilling to reckon with the Confederacy when Miles had to deal with all sorts of accusations that Davis wasn’t being treated well enough, as if anything short of hanging was too harsh. At first, Davis was confined to his cell and even shackled to the wall, but really, who cares. Later, Miles worked under O.O. Howard in the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Howard then went to the West, where he would command troops in the genocidal wars to suppress Native peoples. This included being involved in the wars to defeat the Comanche in the 1870s (which was really starving them out since the Army never could defeat them in battle), the Lakota and Cheyenne after the Little Bighorn, and the Nez Perce on their flight to Canada. In fact, it was Miles, rushing troops across Montana, that quelled the Nez Perce when Howard couldn’t handle it. Against the Lakota, Miles had attempted to convince Sitting Bull to give up. When Sitting Bull escaped to Canada, Miles led to the troops roaming the border trying to undermine Lakota support, arresting Métis on the Medicine Line he believed were potentially selling them weapons or supplies. He then advocated that the military ignore the border with Canada, as it had done with the war against the Kickapoo when it crossed the Mexican boundary. But Canada was not Mexico and this idea was rejected.

None of this meant he was particularly competent. In 1886, he replaced George Crook as the head of troops attempting to capture Geronimo and end Apache resistance. Crook was an awful racist, but he was pretty good at his job. But Miles’ own contempt for Native peoples got in the way of actually defeating the Apache, because he replaced all the Indian scouts Crook had hired with white scouts. But the white scouts were basically useless, not knowing the land at all. He engaged in a 3,000 mile wild goose chase around southern Arizona chasing Geronimo. Finally, a lieutenant who actually understood the Apache tricked Geronimo into a surrender.

Throughout this whole period, Miles, who had huge political ambitions, was trying to undermine his fellow generals and talking about how he personally had ended the war against the Lakota, which he did not. Early in his career, Miles had made his reputation as a brave man. But as time went on, his incredibly vainglorious braggart self took over and reshaped his reputation among his fellow officers. He would constantly plant stories in the press either promoting himself or providing digs against his rivals. He was nothing if not a political animal as general. Miles, like George Armstrong Custer, was notorious for constantly lobbying senior officers for promotion.He had actually married the niece of William Tecumseh Sherman but Sherman kept Miles at arm’s length, evidently and rightfully not trusting him. Sherman wrote his wife that Miles and others “count the days til age will compel the Retirement of all above them that they may be in chief command.”

This scheming slowed Miles’ rise in the Army. It was rumored that Miles had forced General Edward Ord to retire in 1880 so he could step in and become brigadier general. I don’t know whether this is true, but certainly many other officers thought it was and were disgusted by it In 1886, when two positions for major general arose due to retirements, Phil Sheridan, who now was commander, did support Miles for one, but he was so hated by his fellow generals that they went to O.O. Howard and Alfred Terry instead. Yet still, Miles continued to rise in the Army, being promoted to major general in 1890, I think after Terry died.

This meant Miles was nearby when the horrific massacre of the Lakota at Wounded Knee took place. He initially wanted to deal with the Ghost Dance peacefully and he was genuinely horrified by the massacre that subordinate officers had led. He wrote to his wife two days later, calling it “the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children.” But of course the buck does stop at the top. He did lobby for federal compensation for survivors. However, this interpretation of his behavior, which is the usual popular story, belies the fact that his own ambitions and his belief that the military and not civilians should control Indian affairs had led him in the run-up to the killings to demand more troops in order to stop the “hungry, wild, mad horde of savages” from engaging in fanatical war against whites all across the West. Miles’ public statements thus created greater panic among regional whites and precipitated the massacre, whatever he might have stated about it later. Moreover, his own befuddled leadership precipitated the murder of Sitting Bull. Miles got Sitting Bull’s gun and it was a family heirloom until 1929 when his descendants gave it to the Museum of the American Indian.

Miles was moved to the East in 1894, just in time to lead troops to crush the Pullman Strike. Miles hated strikers. He thought Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union were communists set to overthrow American civilization. In the aftermath, he wrote an article in the North American Review saying that good Americans should be grateful for his actions, as the strikers were engaging in a “war against civilization.” He literally thought of Grover Cleveland, Richard Olney, and himself as pure good against Eugene Debs and the workers who he saw as pure evil. He called Debs a “dictator” who threatened to “blow down the beautiful arch of our sovereignty–the hope of humanity, the citadel of liberty, independence, the temple of happiness for all mankind.” Is that all?

Miles was rewarded for this by being named commanding general of the Army in 1895. He led troops in Cuba and then the invasion of Puerto Rico, heading the military government there. In 1900, he was promoted to lieutenant general for this. A difficult, vain, and ridiculous man–Theodore Roosevelt called him a “brave peacock–Miles felt the need to prove himself as he aged by riding 90 miles from Fort Sill to Fort Reno in Oklahoma on a 90 degree sunny day, just before he turned 64 years old. He did this in part so he could stay in the Army. But there was a mandatory retirement age of 64 and Roosevelt wasn’t going to make an exception for him. He hoped to get his revenge by being the 1904 Democratic candidate for president but only received a few delegates on the first ballot. In 1917, he volunteered to lead troops at age 77, but Woodrow Wilson turned him down. He died in 1925, having a heart attack while at the circus. He was 85 years old.

Nelson Miles is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit other generals of the genocidal wars of the West, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. George Armstrong Custer is at West Point and Alfred Terry is in New Haven, Connecticut. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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