John Gibbon was a career infantry commander who found himself repeatedly on the battlelines that helped shape American history.
Gibbon was born in Pennsylvania but spent much of his childhood in North Carolina. After a troubled time at West Point, he first saw action in the decades-long struggle to subdue the Florida Seminoles and force them westward onto Indian Territory. By 1855 he was an artillery instructor at West Point, where he authored an influential artillery textbook. Then, in 1859, he was sent to Utah Territory as part of the force intended to maintain federal authority at the conclusion of the misdirected "Mormon War."
The secession of the South posed a deep personal dilemma for Gibbon. His parents were Democrats and slaveholders, and his three brothers had enlisted in the Confederate army. Nevertheless, Gibbon chose to fight for the Union. He saw action at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, where he was severely injured. At the war's end, he served as one of the three Union surrender commissioners at Appomatox.
After the Civil War, Gibbon went west as part of the force sent to guard Union Pacific railroad workers from Indian attack. By 1876, he was in command of the infantry during the campaign to drive Sitting Bull and his followers back onto their reservations, and in June of that year, he was paired with George Armstrong Custer in a coordinated attack designed to drive the Lakota from their encampment on the Little Bighorn River. Custer's Seventh Cavalry advanced too quickly, however, and met with destruction two days before Gibbon's slower-moving infantry could reach the battlefield.
The next year Gibbon was again involved in a critical battle when, on August 9, 1877, his forces attacked Chief Joseph's unsuspecting camp at Big Hole, Montana. Although the Nez Percé fought him off and were able to make a successful retreat, Gibbon¹s troops had inflicted massive casualties.
In 1885, Gibbon was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and assumed command of the Army in the Pacific Northwest. His last brush with history came in 1886 when he put Seattle under martial law to restore order after violent anti-Chinese riots. Gibbon retired from the Army in 1891 and died in 1896.
Although never more than a supporting player in the historical drama unfolding around him, John Gibbon built a military career that is almost a catalog of key episodes in that drama. Through him, we can follow the steady advance of federal authority across the latter nineteenth century, compelling rebellious forces to accept the rule of law.
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