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.

Contact the author at gadorris2@gmail.com