American Indians And The Civil War

It would prove to be one of the harshest ironies: American Indians lining up to serve both the Union and Confederate sides in the Civil War, only to have their homelands invaded and taken away in the years following the war.

American Indians and the Civil War ($9.95) is a rich new book examining a unique aspect of the Civil War, that of Indians and their role in the conflict. Created through a partnership between the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, the American Indian Alaskan Native Tourism Association, and Eastern National, the 216-page book addresses an oft-overlooked, and shocking, chapter of American history.


The Battle of Honey Springs (July 17, 1863) was unique, but not because it was a major decisive battle. It was important, but not decisive. Nor was the engagement significant for the loss of life -- 79 Union solders and 181 (probably more) Confederates. Honey Springs was unique as the largest and perhaps only Civil War battle in which white soldiers on both sides were in the minority.

American Indians fought on both sides of the Battle of Honey Springs. Cherokees fought Cherokees; Creeks lined up against Creeks. Cherokees and Creeks made up the majority of American Indian soldiers on the Confederate side; Choctaws and Chickasaws fought beside them. The Cherokees and Creeks who fought on the Union side were joined by companies from the Seminole, Shawnee, Delaware, Keechi, Caddo, Kickapoo, and Osage tribes, as well as by solders from other tribes. In addition, African-American soldiers from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry fought on the Union side.

In the preface written by Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar, both of the National Park Service, it's made clear that, for the most part, tribes in the Far West didn't participate in the Civil War. Eastern tribe members who enlisted did so in part with hopes of a better life after the conflict.

"For most, their hopes and dreams were dashed," the two write. "The American Indian people in Indian Territory eventually lost land and autonomy with the establishment of the Oklahoma Territory and later the State of Oklahoma. Further west, in the post-Civil War 'Indian War' era, American Indians fought the U.S. Army.

"Although the western tribes and nations won stunning victories at places such as Little Big Horn and although they showed remarkable military skill in many other conflicts, ultimately they were relegated to reservations that were only fractions of their earlier lands."

The book doesn't tell all the stories associated with Indians and the Civil War. That would be a tall order and require many more pages to address. However, its chapters provide a solid rooting in a diverse cross-section of the topic. We learn of:

* A company of soldiers comprised of Odawa/Ottawa, Ojibway/Chippewa, Potawatomi, and other Great Lakes tribes that was renowned for its sharpshooters: Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, which "was the largest all-Indian regiment in the Union Army east of the Mississippi River."

* How the Civil War played out in Indian Territory. After Union troops on the frontier were recalled to the East, Confederate troops moved in to negotiate treaties with such tribes as the Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole.

* Even darker sides of the Civil War era are addressed, in chapters that address the Bear River Massacre, in which 250-400 Indians were slaughtered by California Volunteers in their winter camp along the Bear River in present-day Idaho, and the Sand Creek Massacre, which saw an estimated 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho massacred in southeastern Colorado at a site today as a national historic site.

And once the Civil War ended, the federal government turned its military power to the West, where the soldiers' mission was to beat down the tribes and drive them onto reservations.

"Ideally tribes would agree to the treaties assigning their reservations, but virtually all resisted, many violently, and when they did, the military's job was to subdue them and to enforce the government's demands," writes Elliott West, alumni distinguished professor at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville.

American Indians and the Civil War is an excellent primer on this topic, and can be a worthy backgrounder as you tour Native American sites in the National Park System, and to have on hand after the end of the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War and we begin to look back on the American Indian Wars.