In the bio for his active and amusing Twitter account, William Hogeland describes his beat as “dissenting history in the pop mode.” The author of four well-received books about early American history—including The Whiskey Rebellion (2006), a chronicle of the western Pennsylvania uprising (the “resistance” of its day, if you will) that then–Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton crushed with gratuitous and extraconstitutional force, and Founding Finance (2012), a collection of essays about the intermingling of capitalism, militarism, and statism in the creation of the American republic—Hogeland exhibits in his work a rare combination of smarts and accessibility. And while he’s scrupulous in his scholarship, Hogeland isn’t averse to acknowledging that he’s in the business of telling stories that have a point.
His new book, which comes out this week, is Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In elegant, authoritative prose packed with lively characters and hard-won detail, Hogeland tells the strangely unknown story of the conquest of the American Midwest in a nameless, barely successful war in the early 1790s against a confederation of indigenous peoples who had lived there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Autumn of the Black Snake is a narrative history, often a gripping and even thrilling one. Hogeland recently told me that he hoped the book would offer readers “an emotional, imaginative experience of the past.” But it also raises what he called “problematic and thorny and painful” questions about the origins and the nature of the United States. Hogeland’s adept management of both that narrative and those questions makes this his finest and most disturbing book to date.
On Tuesday, May 16, the new branch of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn’s Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood will host the official book launch for Autumn of the Black Snake. The following transcript of my conversation with Hogeland has been lightly edited and condensed.
What drew you to the story of a war that took place more than two centuries ago—a war so obscure it doesn’t even have a name?
It’s the first war this nation ever waged, so just on that basis alone, it seemed to me that its obscurity had to be unwarranted. As I began to look at it, I was startled by its importance. It’s not only the first war the nation ever fought, but also the one in which the military establishment of the United States—now the most powerful force on Earth—was born. It’s the embryonic war.
It was a war to conquer what is now known as the Midwest, which almost immediately after its conquest started to become the industrial center of the United States. And it was an Indian war, of course, because other nations held the area that the US wanted to assert sovereignty over and develop. Even its being overshadowed as an Indian war by later Indian wars against the Plains Indians seemed unwarranted, since it was the first war of conquest of indigenous land that the US engaged in. There would be a long line of others, of course, but this was the first.