Native American Dilemma – Which Side To Choose (Article 63)

“I am glad to see one real American here.”  – Said Confederate General Robert E. Lee, graciously nodding to Union Army Colonel Ely S. Parker, a member of the Seneca tribe, when surrendering at Appomattox.

“We are all Americans here.” – Said Colonel Parker, in an equally courteous reply to General Lee.

There are thousands of stories about the Civil War and those who fought for either the Union or the Confederacy and the vast majority tell of the exploits of White men (and women) who chose to serve one side or the other. There are also numerous accounts of the service of Black soldiers, most of whom fought for the Union, but there were some who served Confederate forces.

On the other hand, the service of Native Americans in the Great War, whether for the Union or the Confederacy, has not been as extensively covered. It is estimated that nearly 30,000 members of various Tribes and Nations served in the war, over 20,000 for the Union. (The Union Army records were more thorough than those of the Confederate Army, but, still not very complete, so the exact numbers will never be known). Further, it is likely that over 2,500 Native Americans died in combat, or later from wounds, during the Civil War. Some of the battles in which they participated are famous and familiar, because they involved thousands of troops; such as Antietam, Pea Ridge, Cold Harbor, Second Manassas, and the Battle of the Crater. Others fought in smaller, lesser known engagements; such as Cabin Creek, the battle for Wichita Agency, and the battle of Round Mountain. However, the size of the battle meant little to those individuals who fought close to their enemy, often in hand to hand combat; for death visited the soldiers whether the engagement was large or small and whether it was historically significant or not.

Almost all Native American Tribes and Nations, especially those whose ancestral lands were in the East, had some type of parliamentary process where representatives debated before voting on significant matters involving their people. While some tribes were able to remain neutral throughout the war, many chose one side or the other. Their reasons varied and, because there were sovereignty and existing treaty issues at stake, their choices carried great risk.  Also, mirroring the dilemma faced by many other northern and southern families, several tribes had members who fought for opposite sides; a tragedy of epic proportions for societies in which familial loyalty was so important.

In any event, their choices had severe consequences. So, what factors led certain Tribes to choose to support the Union, and others to support the Confederacy; and, in the case of one major Native Nation, to split their allegiance?

In early 1861, when the Indian Tribes and Nations were deliberating whether to align with one side or the other, or remain neutral, their decisions were not made in a vacuum of information. Every Tribe had at least a few members who were English speaking and who were knowledgeable about the customs, mannerisms, governmental policies, and especially the prejudices, of the White majorities in the North and the South.

In some instances, regional loyalties and familiarities played a part, as certain northern tribes joined the Union Army and other southern tribes fought for the Confederacy.  Also, as in all wars, enlistment into an army was an alternative to poverty; but the Union Army usually offered better, and more reliable, pay. However, there were other reasons. Some tribes chose the Confederacy because that “new” government, unlike the United States, carried no negative legacy of mistreatment of Indian communities or broken treaties. Also, several former “southern” Native Nations were slave-holders, including the Cherokee who held more Black slaves than any other Tribe/Nation, and they believed a victorious Confederacy would protect their “property” after the war.

But, certainly, in all cases, each tribe initially believed that they had chosen the winning side, and if they fought valiantly, they would be rewarded with better living conditions, increased representation, and some, who had been “relocated” to Indian Territory, hoped that they could return to ancestral lands.

The Seneca Nation, still living in New England, unanimously sided with the Union and a significant number of their young men joined the U.S. Army, including the Parker brothers, Ely and Newton. Both men, who were educated as lawyers, became officers, with Ely eventually assigned to General Grant’s staff. It was in his role as Grant’s secretary/adjutant that Colonel Parker assisted with the Articles of Surrender at Appomattox and was in the right place to have his famous exchange with Robert E. Lee. Parker was subsequently promoted to Brigadier General.

Arguably the most famous Native American military unit was Company K of the 1st Michigan regiment which included members of the Ottawa, Huron, Delaware, Oneida, and Potawami tribes, and was quickly labeled the “Sharpshooters” by their officers. The unit was fearless in battle and were known for standing together and laying series after series of clustered fire at Confederate positions. Despite heavy and concentrated return fire usually directed at them, they would not break. In July, 1864, after one such engagement at the Battle of the Crater near Petersburg, Virginia, an officer observing the “Sharpshooters” wrote in his battle report; “The men did splendid work. They were nearly surrounded, receiving forceful fire from Confederates, but never wavered. Some of them were mortally wounded, and, drawing their blouses over their faces, they chanted a death song and died – four of them in a group” And in another report, wrote “Those living, maintained return fire, until too wounded or until they were out of ammunition. Their position was held. It was bravery by all.” The Michigan Sharpshooters lost so many men in that battle, that they were kept out of further combat through the war’s end.

Other tribes which sided with the Union included the Lumbee, Iroquois, Pamunkey, and the Ojibwa.

The Confederate States of America also attracted several Tribes. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, realized the potential value of Native Americans to supplement Confederate manpower west of the Mississippi River, mainly in Oklahoma, but also in Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. Davis appointed an envoy to the various tribes and granted him almost unlimited authority to reach treaties, including recognition of Indian sovereignty, representation in the Confederate Congress, and even potential citizenship. These offers enticed the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole tribes to commit their allegiance to the Confederacy.

However, perhaps the Cherokee Nation, residing in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), which split into several factions over the Civil War, suffered more than any other Native American group, both during and after the War. Although once one of the largest Native Nations, the Cherokee only had about 22,000 members (and about 2,000 slaves) when the Civil War began. Many had died during the “Trail of Tears” forced relocation in the 1830s from Georgia and nearby states to Oklahoma Territory; and by the war’s end in 1865, fewer than 15,000 remained. While many non-combatants, women, children, and elderly died of malnutrition and disease in Indian Territory during the four-year Civil War, the Cherokee also lost nearly 1,000 young men as casualties of the War.

The Cherokee Nation had initially voted to side with the new Southern government, against the advice of their elected Chief and President, John Ross; however, various smaller groups, although still loyal to the Confederacy, soon divided into factions, each with their own military leaders. The largest of these break-away groups was led by Stand Watie, who was appointed as a Colonel in the Confederate Army, later promoted to Brigadier General, and who led his forces in a series of successful raids over the next four years. However, a year into the War, Chief John Ross, who had originally argued for the Cherokee Nation to remain neutral and still led the largest contingent of members, was captured by Union troops and, in exchange for a pardon, pledged his loyalty, and the loyalty of the people he represented, to the United States. Ross kept his word and worked tirelessly for the Union cause in Eastern States and in Washington DC. There, Ross became a confidant of Abraham Lincoln and had every right to expect that, after the Union won the War, the Cherokee Nation would be rewarded by the “Great President” he had come to know.

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated near the end of the war, Chief John Ross’s influence in Washington ended, as the new President, Andrew Johnson, had little interest in Indian affairs. Further, the split in loyalties between the Watie and Ross factions caused many other Northern political leaders to mistrust the Cherokee Nation; and even Chief Ross, who championed the Union cause, could not marshal any federal assistance for his impoverished people.

When tribes made their decision to serve either the Union or the Confederacy, they certainly believed that they were backing the side that would win; and they expected (or hoped) for improved conditions for their people.  Unfortunately, whether they chose the Union or the Confederacy, those hopes were not realized. In defeat, the Confederates could offer no solace to their former allies; and the treaties those tribes signed with the South were not only worthless, but the documents labeled them as traitors to most people in the North. For the Native Americans who served the victorious Union, the U.S. government gave only token recognition, and almost no tangible rewards; a tragic disappointment for those who chose the “winning” side.

That makes their sacrifices even more poignant.

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General Lincoln? (Article 62)

“General, I have just received your dispatch about sore tongued and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”  –  Abraham Lincoln to General George McClellan after the General said he could not advance that day because his horses were too tired.

“If the General is not going to use his army, I wonder if I might borrow it.”  –  Abraham Lincoln in a staff meeting, talking about General George McClellan.

“Had McClellan followed his advice, he would have taken Richmond. Had Hooker acted in accordance with his suggestions, Chancellorsville would have been a victory for the nation. Had Meade obeyed his explicit commands, he would have destroyed Lee’s army before it could have re-crossed the Potomac.” And, continuing: “The War would have ended two years earlier, President Lincoln would have served his second term, and the nation would be healed.”  – William A. Croffut, Civil War soldier, journalist, and author, writing in 1875.

As the new Commander-in-Chief, Abraham Lincoln was constantly frustrated with his Generals. He had given them the largest standing Army in the history of the United States and provided them with the equipment and munitions they requested. But still, no significant progress had been made against the smaller and lesser equipped Confederate Army. But, because he had hardly any military experience himself, he was reluctant to give specific direction to the Generals who had made a career in the Army. After all, his only experience in the military was as an Illinois militia Captain in the 1832 Black Hawk War; thirty years before he became the Commander-in-Chief. He never engaged in any direct action in that short war, and even made fun of his experience saying (paraphrased), “I fought many bloody battles with mosquitoes, I was no hero.”

Later, as a young Congressman in 1847, he had argued against the war with Mexico and showed little interest in the tactics of the Generals who carried out President Polk’s invasion plans. He simply thought the war was a “land grab” by Polk’s administration and opposed the overall mission.

Now, however, as President, he was ultimately responsible for the progress, and the outcome, of the largest military engagement in United States history. And, he was not confident that the senior commanders he had appointed were leading the nation toward a victory and preservation of the Union. Even worse, one commanding General, George B. McClellan, failed to even acknowledge the Commander-in-Chief ’s requests for definitive reports on strategic plans. In fact, McClellan had such disrespect for the President, that he once refused to see Lincoln when he called at the General’s home.

On the other side, when war broke out, the Confederates had attracted about one-third of the officers who had been in the United States Army, and that included many of most experienced and able Generals. Lincoln noted after several early military set-backs, “We were out-generaled!”

In the first year of the Civil War, Lincoln usually deferred to the plans of his generals; even when he noted to others that he disagreed with some of their strategies. Lincoln was a highly intelligent man and was prone to utilize careful logic (and an occasional metaphoric yarn) when presenting his opinion, whether about political issues or military affairs. He recognized his lack of military knowledge, including lessons which might be learned from the study of historic engagements, so he read books on battlefield tactics and strategies and conferred with other Generals. As a result, over time, he gained confidence in his own ability to understand the various military situations.

Only then, did he begin to more forcefully influence the war effort.

His primary concerns were that the Generals were hesitant to take the battle to enemy forces and that they were obsessed with “place”, which meant gaining and holding territory, even if that location held little strategic importance. (The old, “take that hill” military mentality.) And often, satisfied with their occupation of a place, they would wait for long periods before moving to another engagement. Lincoln, on the other hand, felt there were only a few strategic locations worth fighting for and defending; and he wanted the Union army to focus on overcoming rebel forces wherever they were encountered and to pursue them until they were too weakened to resist. He believed that the Union forces held such numerical advantage, in both men and supplies, that a “pursue and conquer” strategy would be successful.

One of his early attempts at directing battlefield strategy was in January 1862, when he suggested that Generals Halleck and Buell merge their two armies which were both operating around Tennessee. Urging cooperation, Lincoln wrote (in part): “We have the greater numbers. We must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an over-match for his; and that can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points at the same time. And if he weakens one to strengthen the other, seize the weakened one.” Lincoln thought his “overwhelming force strategy” could also prevent the Confederates from re-taking a place they had lost, if the Union would pursue the enemy rather than holding the place until rebels counter-attacked. The two Generals simply ignored the President’s request.

Perhaps his only excursion into a battlefield area to actually give commands, rather than to just counsel and/or observe, occurred in May 1862 when Lincoln felt that General McClellan should reduce his forces around Yorktown in order to send more troops to re-take the nearby Norfolk Naval facilities. Lincoln felt strongly that Norfolk was one on those “places” worth taking and keeping. The Confederates were using Norfolk not only to repair and supply their ships, but also as a staging area for the ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) which endangered Union shipping. Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton went to the area and, leaving McClellan out of the discussion, directed a dual assault against Norfolk, one from gunboats sent up the James River and the other a coordinated ground attack by troops from Fort Monroe. The Confederates quickly abandoned Norfolk and scuttled the famous ironclad.  As was his style, Lincoln did not take credit for the mission’s success; but, General McClellan and his senior staff were still outraged by the interference in their battle plans.

While Lincoln readily conceded that McClellan had created and trained a great army, the President believed he had failed to lead his mass of troops consistently, and aggressively, against Confederate forces. And, eventually, he began to appoint successors.

Some were more aggressive than McClellan, but each was “out-generaled” in Lincoln’s view.

For one, there was General Joseph Hooker, who Lincoln knew would fight, but soon learned that Hooker might not choose the best battleground. When both Hooker and Lincoln realized that General Robert E. Lee was moving a large Confederate army north into Maryland and Pennsylvania, Hooker planned to circle behind and attack Richmond, the South’s Capital city. Lincoln disagreed with Hooker’s plan and gave Hooker different orders. Lincoln said, “Lee’s Army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point. Follow on his flank, shortening your (supply) lines while he lengthens his. Fight him when the opportunity offers.” Then a week later, Lincoln told Hooker, “This invasion gives you back the chance that I thought McClellan lost to cripple Lee’s army far from its base.” To Lincoln’s astonishment, Hooker replied that he would be outnumbered, which Lincoln knew to be untrue, and Hooker would not commit to attack Lee’s army. Hooker then made a devastating tactical error and chose to fight a large Confederate army at Chancellorsville; where he lost the battle and his command.

Lincoln replaced Hooker with General George Meade, and was at first elated when Meade led Union forces to the victory at Gettysburg, but then saw Meade, as had McClellan and Hooker (and others), fail to pursue and destroy Lee’s army; instead Meade allowed a retreat by Confederate forces back into Virginia. Lincoln realized that the Union forces would now be fighting in that battle-weary area between Washington and Richmond, and said, “To attempt to fight the enemy back to his entrenchments in Richmond, is an idea I have been trying to repudiate for quite a year.” While he respected General Meade, Lincoln again looked for another General who would “Chase the Rebels without let-up.”

For the first three years of the War, Lincoln was constantly either unsure if he had the right Generals in place, or absolutely certain he did not.

Until he appointed General Ulysses S. Grant! He had finally found his General.

So, with all of his earlier dissatisfaction with the various Generals before settling on Grant as the Commanding General, why did Lincoln not take an even more direct role in battlefield strategy? There were three primary reasons and all relate to Lincoln’s logical thought process, which usually included trying to anticipate options he might need if an opponent, whether legal, political or military, did the unexpected.

First, he was a master politician and knew there was an advantage to having a barrier (the Generals) between himself and the public. Lincoln did not want to be either a hero, who became Dictator/Emperor (like Napoleon) because he “won” the war, nor a scapegoat if the war were prolonged or eventually lost. But, he also believed in the Constitution’s requirement that the elected civilian President would have authority to over-see the military leadership. To Lincoln, the roles of Commander-in Chief and Commanding Generals were separate, and the Country needed both.

Second, he knew he was a persuasive leader. Lincoln realized that his lack of military credentials would always, at first, elicit skepticism so, with few exceptions, he counseled with his generals, rather than give firm orders. He did a lot of ranting to members of his cabinet, and his two dedicated secretaries, but he was usually restrained when meeting with, or writing to, his Generals.

Third, and perhaps most important, with his limited military experience, he was not always sure he was right! For example, in a telegram, Lincoln admitted to General Grant that he had been wrong to doubt Grant’s plan to invade deep into Mississippi. As usual, with Lincoln, self-doubt almost always resulted in self-control.

President Abraham Lincoln was, however, absolutely convinced that he was right to make one bold strategic military decision.

While not technically a tactical battlefield event, Lincoln’s most significant military directive may have been the inclusion of Black troops into the U.S. Army. He certainly risked the resistance of many Union military leaders, and alienation of those in the North who were opposed to making the war about freedom for slaves.  Lincoln re-enforced his decision with the Emancipation Proclamation, which he declared was a “military necessity.” He then brought thousands of willing (and soon to be proven, able) Black soldiers into the Union Army and that was, by any rationale, a direct intervention by the President in military strategy.

Throughout the Civil War, with few exceptions, Abraham Lincoln did not interfere with battlefield plans or overall military objectives; therefore, in the strictest sense of the phrase, he never really became “General Lincoln.”

But, he certainly asserted himself as “The” Commander-in-Chief.

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Christmas at the Lincoln White House (Article 61)

No Tree. No Cards. And, the President worked all day. Not unusual at all during the Civil War.

Some historians suggest that Abraham Lincoln was concerned with his public image and did not want to appear frivolous while a war was going on. Others have written that he lacked interest in Christmas and rejected religious rituals, and some even claim that he used work as an excuse to get away from his difficult wife. Actually, these are all unfair criticisms of the man, disguised as historical explanations, by those who want to chip away at his image.

So why then, was the Lincoln White House so stark on Christmas? Foremost, Abraham Lincoln wore the heavy duty of Presidential responsibility like a leaden cloak; it enveloped him and he could only rarely take it off. However, this was self-imposed, not due to any concerns about perceptions by his critics. To him, there was a destructive war tearing the country apart, young men were dying, and there were daily decisions to be made; and, ultimately, he was the one in charge.

However, there were also practical reasons the Lincoln White House did not have a tree, or send cards, for Christmas. First, the placement of large Christmas trees in homes and public places was not a universal custom in the United States during the mid-1800s; more likely found in the northeastern regions and in settlements with a significant German or Scandinavian presence. In fact, there had never been a Christmas tree in the White House; although some false narratives claim that Franklin Pearce had one in 1853. Even if a tree were desired by Lincoln or any of his predecessors, it would not have lasted very long. The White House was more open to the public (and relatively unguarded) in those days and a large Christmas tree in the White house would have been stripped by souvenir seekers; who were already notorious for cutting snips from curtains and carpets and stealing any small trinkets. Also, the concept of sending and receiving Christmas cards was not yet wide-spread, and any Christmas sentiment was usually in the form of personal notes to close friends and family. However, both the customs of decorated trees and pre-printed Christmas cards were already gaining favor in England; in part due to the success of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” published in 1843. Dickens’s book promoted more of a family festival to accompany the solemn religious practices which had been prominent for centuries. The European influences gradually took hold in America and decorated trees, Christmas cards, and gifts for children became the accepted norm later in the century.

But, in the 1840s and 1850s, in Illinois, there were few Christmas trees, holiday cards, or elaborate gifts for children; however, it was a day celebrated by most families, including Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary, and their sons.

Before he became President, previous Christmas holidays were happier, but still restrained, in the Lincoln family home; which, in many ways, reflected the regional customs.  Those who lived in, or were from, the New England and the southern states, celebrated a more robust Christmas season than did most of those on the frontier, which included, at the time, Illinois. Abraham and Mary Lincoln never participated in the relatively new trend of sending out Christmas cards nor did they have a decorated tree; as not very many people in Illinois followed either custom. The Lincolns did give small Christmas gifts to their children, usually fruit and nuts and possibly a book; certainly nothing excessive, but enough to satisfy young boys back then. Mrs. Lincoln, who appreciated the formalities of a prescribed religious service, insisted the family, including her husband, attend a local church. While Lincoln was a very spiritual man, who studied the Bible throughout his life, he never joined any church or espoused a specific religious creed. He once said; “If any church will inscribe over its altar, as the sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement, ‘Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself ’– that church will I join.” However, Lincoln enjoyed Christmas activities with his family and he relished sharing time with friends. He was a popular lawyer and politician, and he and Mary participated in various social functions during the Christmas period in their home and at the homes of friends and political acquaintances. We do not know if Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln exchanged gifts, but, all in all, Christmas at the Lincoln’s Springfield home was quite normal for that period, and in that place.

During the Christmas holiday in 1860, the family was still living at their Springfield home. Lincoln had won the national election to become the sixteenth President of the United States, but would not be inaugurated until the following March. Civil War was being discussed and South Carolina had already declared secession from the Union, with several other southern states expected to follow; however, there was still hope that outright war could somehow be avoided. Mrs. Lincoln held a Christmas Eve reception and many of their friends and political acquaintances stopped by the home, including one of Lincoln’s oldest friends and confidants, Congressman Edward Baker, who Lincoln had asked to introduce him at the coming Inauguration.

Abraham Lincoln did become the President of the United States in March 1861, and about one month later, the Civil War, which he dreaded so much, began; and his Christmases would never again be the same.

December 25, 1861, was the Lincoln family’s first Christmas in the White House. Since that last Christmas in Illinois, war had indeed struck the country and his close friend, Edward Baker, the former Congressman from back home, was now dead, just one of the many casualties of the Civil War. Therefore, it was a solemn White House, even with two young boys, Willy and Tad, who would run through the halls, and engage in other rambunctiousness; and who probably longed for a happier day. Social activities were almost non-existent since Mrs. Lincoln did not have many friends in Washington, as both she and her husband were considered outsiders by the long-entrenched Senators, Representatives, Judges and career bureaucrats who comprised the Washington elite. (Some things never change).

A White House employee later wrote; “We did not have many doings in those days, there were too many grave things going on.”

December 25, 1862, was the second Christmas the Lincoln family spent in the White House, but this year may have been the saddest of all. Young Willy had died and Mrs. Lincoln could not seem to recover. Further, the war had become a stagnated mess of death and destruction, with some Union victories, but with a devastating defeat at Fredericksburg just before Christmas. Lincoln had announced the Emancipation Proclamation to be effective January first, and the public was split on the unilateral move the President had made. If there had been a presidential poll back then, his approval rating would have been very low. On Christmas afternoon, after a morning cabinet meeting, the President and Mrs. Lincoln visited wounded soldiers at several Washington hospitals.

December 25, 1863, was their third Christmas in the White House. Mrs. Lincoln was again receiving visitors and Tad had found some new friends, however, the President was still subdued. Although the war news was better, with several major victories for the Union armies, casualties continued to mount and the President still worked through the day.

December 25, 1864, was their fourth Christmas in the Presidential Mansion and the mood was different. President Lincoln knew that the war would not last much longer, that the Union would be preserved, and slavery would soon be outlawed. (The Senate had passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and he was prepared to press the House of Representatives on the issue.) Also, he had just been re-elected to a second four-year term by a wide margin of both voters and the Electoral College. He even received a welcome telegram from General William Tecumseh Sherman, announcing that Savanah, Georgia was now in Union hands, it read “Mr. President, I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah.” Tad, the President’s young son, who still lived in the White house, invited a group of newsboys who sold papers around the area to follow him home for dinner; without telling his parents. He knew his father would not mind, but he must have been at least a little concerned about his mother’s reaction; as she could be difficult at times. Over the holidays, President and Mrs. Lincoln held several receptions for Union military leaders, politicians, and foreign emissaries. This was probably the closest to a “normal” Christmas in the Lincoln White House.

Unfortunately, it would be the last. The President was assassinated less than four months later.

Abraham Lincoln had enjoyed traditional Christmas customs back home in Springfield with family and friends; but, for four years, in the White House, he could not. Instead, he put his country, and his responsibilities as President, first.

For that, he deserves our admiration and gratitude, not criticism.

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