Circle of fire is a monograph that describes the war between the plains Indians and the American government in 1865. The book gives very descriptive explanations on the expeditions through the Indian Territory in 1865 and is also highly detailed when informing the reader about the movement of the American army in the battles between the two nations, and in some cases it also describes the route the Indians traveled, when such material has been available.
The first chapter in the book describes how a division of the army had killed almost a whole tribe of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at sand creek in 1864, (McDermott,2003:13) this act was the starting point to the war in 1865. The Indians sought revenge and raided small stations, wagon trains and farms, the government sent out different divisions of the army to stop the attacks.
The massacre on the tribe in 1864 as mentioned above was not the only reason as to why the Indians attacked the white settlers, they felt that they were being pushed out of their land by the white settlers, their game was about to vanish and the white gold seekers had found gold in the mountains beyond the plains, and on their way there they killed and destroyed the game that the Indians depended upon to survive. They wanted to protect themselves and their way of living. (McDermott,2003:2)
The book is divided up into thirteen chapters, each chapter dealing with a significant event during the war. The chapters are chronologically built up.
McDermott’s description of the events begins in January when the first battles start. He describes how the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux Indians together with the trader George Bent and his sons attack Julesburg, a home station for the overland stage line, which is the first battle in the war of vengeance.
During 1865 there are many battles between the army and the plains Indians, the Indians succeeds in capturing a lot of horses and cattle. There are casualties on both sides, the whites are horrified as to how the Indians mutilate their enemies and they see the Indians as savages. But in the end of the year neither side has gained the victory, and as winter sets in the battles are less frequent. For the army the lack of supplies and weapons was a big disadvantage, they would easily have won the war had they had better equipment. (McDermott,2003:159). The army had more soldiers and their weapons were generally better than the Indians’. The civil war had just ended and the men were eager to go home to their homes and the moral was not very high, on the other side the Indians were fighting for their culture and lives. McDermott also describes how the officers in charge behaved, using material from army archives, going into details on whether they were brave or cowards.
McDermott describes very detailed who participated in the battles, providing the reader with names of the officers and which cavalry that participated in the single battles, how big the units were on both sides, and what kind of weapons the different units carried “the 11th Kansas had Smith single-shot, breech-loading carbines, while the 11th Ohio troops had seven-shot repeating Spencers and the 3rd infantry had Springfield muskets”. (McDermott,2003:88) Furthermore he provides us with information about who has been killed and wounded in each battle “killed on the battlefield were Pvts. George W. McDonald and Sebastian Nehring of Company 1. Wounded were Sgt. Adolph Hankammer, Clp. Henry Grimm and Pvts. Henry W. Hill all from Company 1” (McDermott,2003:93). Also he writes what kind of provision the Indians stole from the warehouses when they were raiding the different towns and ranches and what the value of the goods was.
To each chapter there is a map so one can see where the different towns and forts are located, (McDermott,2993:19) for a person that already knows something about the area these maps are very helpful and one can follow the routes the army marched along and keep track on the very detailed descriptions of the events McDermott writes about. For a person with none or very little knowledge to the region the maps are not very useful, he mentions in which states the battles are fought but for a person without knowledge to the geography of the specific area it is somewhat confusing.
The book is written for people interested in U.S history and the American west. It could be historians, students and teachers that seek a very detailed description of these events. The book is too descriptive and detailed for the general public; there are too many places in the book where one gets confused about all the names, places and numbers that he mentions. McDermott has used so many books and records as sources to write this book that it would be a good idea to already know something about the history beforehand, and know some of the material he refers to in his notes. (McDermott,2003:249)
The book does not contain much action and it is easy to be distracted when reading it, but for historically interested people this book is very good especially because it is so detailed. McDermott has used many primary sources to write this book for example: newspapers from back then, biographies from those people that witnessed or were a part of the battles on each side, national archives records, manuscripts, articles and books, being both primary and secondary literature. McDermott describes the battles from both sides but he has primarily used materials from the army records because there is not so much written material available that describes the movement and casualties on the Indian side.
It seems as though the author has used much time on extensive research writing this book, I conclude this on the basis of all the sources he has used. The book is full of names and places that for some people are very interesting.
I would only recommend this book for historians and other people that already know something about this subject and who want to know something about it in more details. For anybody else this book is too descriptive and not interesting enough.
In the conclusion McDermott sums up the whole war and particularly events in a few pages, it was very useful, especially for those that have been lost in all the details, such as me. (McDermott,2003:158)
In the epilogue (McDermott,2003:171) he writes what happened to the key figures in the book after the war, it being both Indians and Americans. It is a good way to end the book, he has described these people very detailed during the book and it is a good idea to tell the reader what happened to them in the following years.
The strength of the book is the effort the author has put into details in describing the different events during the war, but it is also the book’s weakness, it depends on who is reading the book.
McDermott is a very objective writer, I did not get the feeling that he favors one side above the other, we never hear about his emotions toward the events, he only describes what happened. He has used materials describing the conditions from both sides. The author’s reason as to why he has written this book is to give the reader new information about the events in 1865, some of the secondary material he uses is written as late as 1999. (McDermott,2003:266)
He wishes to give the reader an opportunity to use this book instead of going through tons of articles and other materials at different libraries.