If I were recommending this book, I’d recommend it to sixth graders or middle-school teachers with students interested in American and/or Native history. There’s nothing wrong with the book’s content but the writing is so simplistic (amateurish in spots) and the analysis so shallow as to make it useless as a serious history of the period. As a narrative of events, though, it’s perfectly adequate. And as I have no great familiarity with the time or its actors, the book was revelatory in that respect but also disappointing. There’s little discussion of the social and political background that engendered the war or the relationships between the whites and Native tribes.
It would have been a much better adult
history if Hatch could have elaborated on the Seminoles and their origins, or the machinations in both Congress and in the military regarding Indian policy, or the drives that made it expedient to thoroughly cleanse Florida of Natives. Though what he does touch upon is depressing enough. It is no comfort to realize that our military’s tradition of invading countries without learning about the environment the army will be fighting in or the people we’re killing has a long history. The first expedition to tame the Seminoles ended in ignominious defeat; and when Winfield Scott assumed command, he also assumed he would be fighting a conventional enemy using conventional strategies. What he got, and what he bequeathed to his successor commanders, was a situation not dissimilar to Viet Nam, Iraq or Afghanistan. The Second Seminole War (1835-1842) was the longest and costliest of the Indian wars and – like war in general – utterly pointless. The Seminoles didn’t want it and, recognizing that they couldn’t escape US domination, were willing enough to adjust to white settlement in Florida but they faced the limitless greed of the settlers, the animosity of the increasingly hysterical slaveholders (many Seminoles were escaped slaves), and the implacable enmity of the federal government under Andrew Jackson and his protégés.
As disappointing as the shallowness and superficiality of the writing was Hatch’s unfortunate tendency to ascribe motives and thoughts to people without any evident source. All too often, he writes “X must have felt…” or “We can assume Y was thinking…”. How does he know this? Why is this a reasonable assumption? There’s an extensive bibliography with what appear to be oral histories and personal memoirs but the footnoting is execrable. Is it so hard to indicate that “X writes in his diary that he felt…” or “In his memoirs, Z writes that Y told him…”? Or indicate the primary source you’re relying on in a note?
Apparently, the answer is “yes.”
If I were 13, this would be a great book, full of interesting characters on both sides and (from a 13-year old’s POV) well told (in fact – from an adult POV – the writing improves as Hatch gets more engaged with the course of the war). If I had been able to read this 30 years ago, it may have redirected my historical interests. As it was, the interesting books I read tended toward medieval and ancient histories – c’est la vie. So I will recommend this for my young adult/middle-school-age following and their parents but I can’t comfortably recommend it to older readers interested in American history.
A final note, there are two plusses about this book. One is the already mentioned bibliography, which has a wealth of books and articles for interested readers (though a lot are probably only accessible via a university library). The second plus is that Hatch reproduces three treaties between the federal government and the Seminoles that give the reader a chance to read some primary sources in their entirety. A rare opportunity in popular histories.