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American Indians in the Civil War? Petersburg National Battlefield is Part of the Story


Union soldiers in the trenches at Petersburg. Image from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War is nearly here and a recent event at Petersburg National Battlefield underscored a bit of history that often escapes much notice—the role of American Indians in the conflict.

Estimates of the number of American Indians who fought for either the Union or the Confederacy vary widely; several sources cite numbers ranging from about 6,000 to over 20,000 men. One example occurred at Petersburg, Virginia, and that story has recently received some renewed attention.

Earlier this month, descendents of Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters returned to the park to meet with Superintendent Lewis Rogers and his staff and pay homage to their ancestors. Company K consisted entirely of American Indians from Michigan who enlisted in the Union Army.

According to information from the park, "The 1st Michigan Sharpshooters fought valiantly in every major battle in the Petersburg campaign. The American Indians were a memorable presence at the Battle of the Crater, where they were noticed for their composure under adversity. A Union officer described watching a group of them pull their jackets over their faces and sing their death chant when trapped in the crater under Confederate fire. When Petersburg fell in April, 1865, after a nine and half month siege, the First Michigan raised the first United States flag above the city."

It's not hard to see how specific details about individual units get lost in the history of the Civil War, and even just at Petersburg. A park publication notes that 800 regiments of nearly 160,000 soldiers served on both sides at Petersburg. That's a lot of history waiting to be told.

The story of the men of Company K attracted the attention of the park staff as a result of a project at Poplar Grove National Cemetery, which is maintained by Petersburg National Battlefield. The cemetery is the final resting place of over 6,000 Union Civil War soldiers, and the tombstones lie flat on the ground. The park is in the planning stages of a project to replace the stones with new, upright markers that match the original Civil War design, along with other work to rehabilitate the cultural landscape. Studies for the project revealed that some of the men of Company K were buried at Poplar Grove.

“So far, five named Indian graves have been identified, but there are probably more unnamed individuals that have not yet been identified as Indians buried here,” explained Julia Steele, the battlefield’s cultural resources manager. “Of all the amazing stories that occurred here during the war, this is one of the most striking. When we started to research the role of Company K, we were touched by how deeply they were involved in the whole campaign.”

When the park realized there were American Indians buried at Poplar Grove, Steele said “we contacted the tribes to arrange a nation to nation consultation on how to move forward with the cemetery restoration project under the provisions of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.”

On December 1st and 2nd, representatives from those tribes visited to pay respects to the men who died here in 1864 and 1865 and to consult on the project. The group included several descendents of Jacko Penaswonquot, one of the Indians buried at Poplar Grove, whose son also fought at Petersburg.

Eric Hemenway, a tribal repatriation specialist who works with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, is one of those tribal representatives. He thinks the communication related to the graves will usher in a partnership between the Park Service and the Odawa (Ottawa), Ojibwe (Chippewa), and Potawatomi tribes, the three main groups in Michigan.

The tribes will be consulted when work occurs on known Indian graves and will also provide information for further interpretive efforts. Hemenway would like to see an interpretive display at the cemetery mentioning the Indian graves and the contribution of the Indian soldiers to the war: “We want to have Company K’s story told from our perspective.”

Hemenway notes that this is a story that's not widely known outside of Indian communities in Michigan. "It’s been a local legend passed down in our community,” he said, “but outside of our community, it’s like a secret. No one really knows about Company K.”

Some people are surprised to find that Indians fought for either side, given their position in society at the time. “Their rights aren’t fully recognized, yet they voluntarily go and fight,” said Hemenway. “They weren’t drafted or forced...That’s kind of amazing. In 1820, the United States Army tried to push them out of Michigan, but 40 years later, the men of Company K joined that same Army. They went above and beyond the normal call of duty,” he added.

What did persuade these men to fight for a nation that did not fully recognize them? Hemenway thinks it was the “warrior culture within our tribe. These men had a long lineage of fighting for their homeland and rights.”

Hemenway said, "there was also a fear that if the Confederacy won, American Indians would join African Americans in slavery. Mingled with that fear was the hope that, if they fought for the United States, they would gain the same rights white citizens enjoyed."

The recent visit to Petersburg was a moving experience for the participants. “To me, this is great. "To me, there is no greater honor that to come here and shake hands with our ancestors in this way,” said Earl Meshigaud from the Potawatomi tribe. “They brought honor to their families and tribes.”

He described putting tobacco on the graves of the Indian men. “My thoughts, my prayers, my feelings, everything I have goes into that...that’s our good-will offering to that person.” Meshigaud said the experience brought tears to his eyes. “We heal together. Through tears is another way of healing, but a lot of people equate that with sadness,” he said. “They know we’re here,” he added of the spirits of the men buried in Poplar Grove.

Chuck Smythe, the ethnography program manager for the NPS Northeast Region, is assisting the park with the consultation, as is Margo Brooks, cultural resource specialist at Denver Service Center. “We’ve reunited them with ancestors who are here, who we just learned about,” he said walking amongst the graves. “We hope it will be the beginning of new connections.”

“We’re just happy the park is being proactive and asking input from the tribes to tell their story,” Hemenway said. Despite the intervening century and a half, the tribes the men buried here belonged to are still very much alive. “We’re still here and we have a story to tell,” Hemenway concluded.

The park website includes podcasts on the Battle of the Crater and Poplar Grove National Cemetery.

Petersburg National Battlefield Park and Poplar Grove National Cemetery are located in south-central Virginia, about 25 miles south of Richmond, Virginia. You'll find driving directions and other information to help plan a visit on the park website.

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Is there any primary document on the this?

I am seeing almost exclusively in this discussion the participation of the northern tribes in the civil war. This is great for me, because most of my research in this regard has been on my southern connections, and it gives me information on the Native Americans that fought for the Union. I can only assume that the scanty information about the participation of the southern tribes in the war is respective of what the contributors have been exposed to the most. As a mixed blood Cherokee, and member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and one who is also eligible for Eastern Band membership, I can tell you that there is much out there about the participation of the southern Indians in the war. There were few families that were not touched in some way. If they were not volunteers, they were eventually conscripted, and if they refused to serve or deserted after tasting the bitter conditions, then they became "outlyers" or bushwhackers who hid in the hills and lived off the land or by taking what they needed illicitly. Their situation was a little different than the northern Indian volunteers in that their homes and land were caught between the two sides, and their land valuable in every way to both for what it could produce and it's strategic location.

To complicate matters, tribal land was sovereign to the tribes respectively, and not subject to the same rules as the north or south, so it was not as simple as just showing up for duty one day. They had to come to concensus as to whether or not to choose sides (most wanted to remain neutral, but were not allowed to). Furthermore, many tribes were critically divided as to which side to allie themselves with, and it had terrible effect. An example is the fight between Stand Watie and John Ross, which was carried over from removal days, and was a factor in Watie burning the home of Ross during the war.

My GG Grandfather was Captain Stephen Whitaker of Walker's Battalion, Thomas's Legion of Indians and Highlanders. He himself was a white man, but married to a mixed blood Cherokee woman. (Thomas was a white raised by the Cherokees, who was the only white chief of a Native American tribe.) Whitaker enlisted at the age of 47, and was paroled after the last "battle" of the civil war in North Carolina, at the age of 51.

There are many sites which have great information about the Native Americans in the civil war. My favorite is, which is now considered an "e-book" by the History Channel because it has so much information. Most of the five civilized tribes were represented in CSA services, but there were many instances where it was truly "brother against brother" both in the Native American societies and among white communities. Furthermore, it was not unknown for soldiers to switch their allegiance after becoming a prisoner of war, or as a result of persuasion by others if the situation was conducive, and the animosity that arose from such actions was carried on long after the war, particularly in what once had been close knit communities..

   While many Native Americans fought in the civil war, on both sides, their motivations must be reviewed within the context of each individual bands perception of their still evolving status in the white world.    

   Whereas this article was relatively specific in regards to company K, 1MSS, considerations of motivation for the Odawa and Ojibwe members must take into account not only the tenants of the 'true path to the good life' which include learning the value of life by demonstrating courage as one looks into the face of death, but understanding the cultural change that was underway in the native world at that time.

 Between the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819 and the Treaties of Detroit in 1854 the Odawa and Ojibwe bands had become acutely aware of their erroding way of life, their relative power, and were  concerned with retaining what forms of sovereignty they could rope off -- land, resources, cultural autonomy, including their own schools.   Their multiple relationships with various missions came not from an urge to suddenly become subservient Christians;  it was about political alliances and cultural autonomy.   There was a growing sentiment among the tribes that as good neighbors they should be afforded "equal rights" as citizens of the State.   Those hopes were dashed when the second Michigan Constitution was approved in 1850, offering Michigan citizenship only for those who would renounce their tribal membership.  Few Indians opted for this avenue to citizenship, but when the opportunity to demonstrate their fidelity to the State came in 1863 there was a renewed hope that Article 7, section 1 of the Constitution might be opened to revision.   As neighbors to the whites, they recognized a kinship that like NATO,  carried obligations,  including mutual defense.

There is no one document that gives adequate coverage to Co. K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. I have created a QuickTopic page to put links I have found most useful, here:
Anyone who subscribes to it will be notified by email of new postings.

My Great, Great Grandfather (of Cherokee & Shawnee descent) fought in Lee's army for the duration of the Civil War. The story is that he was no great fan of the US probably due to the family's forced removal to Indian Territory in the 1830s. I don't know whether he was born in what is now Oklahoma or was born after they returned to Georgia. I do know that the family had a branch of the tree under which Lee informally surrendered prior to the formal surrender. This I saw along with his canteen and a Bible that he brought back from a battlefield.

Good day.

Thank you for the article. I am a genealogist and it has been shared with me that I have American Indians that served in the Civil War (on both sides). I am still searching for them and the article has been informative in my research strategy. Thank you for sharing!

Good morning,

This is a great article. I am a genealogist and have been told that my American Indian Ancestors served in the Civil War (on both sides). The information was most informative. Thank you!

The book "These Men Have Seen Hard Service" is previewed at the Google Books website, here
There are substantial excerpts from the book at that website.

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