In the midst of a war fought on land that once was theirs, over a nation that denied them citizenship, Native Americans found themselves faced with a dubious decision: Whose side should they be fighting for?
In 1861 it seemed that America was coming apart. Secession, Confederate nationhood, the firing on Fort Sumter, and a mesmeric rush to combat engulfed the nation. The realities of the crisis differed for everyone as individuals examined family, community, state, and national allegiances. One hundred and fifty years after the cataclysm of the American Civil War, we still tend to think of it in terms of black-and-white: the majority white soldiers and civilians, the minority African-American slaves. But what of the indigenous peoples of America?
For many American Indians, the impending conflict created no less of a crisis than it did for the dominant society. But their experience would be primarily defined by their location in the country. Geography was everything. As the tide of non-Indian settlement swept from East to West, indigenous people became minorities within settled regions. They remained Native, but adapted various political, economic, and cultural aspects of their lives to better coexist with their new neighbors. By the time the Civil War started, Indians in settled regions experienced the conflict as members of larger communities whose movements they did not control. Indians living on the edge of incorporated states were better able to retain tribal autonomy, yet they were still strongly influenced by national and state political discourse. Those groups well beyond the white frontier in “Indian Country, ” however, generally lived with little concern for U.S. politics.
As the nation became consumed by war, few Anglos on either side of the Great Divide considered the Native Americans living among them. East of the Mississippi, tribal lands had been so diminished that most of the 30, 000 Indians in the Union did not live in powerful tribal units. Thus, as the country headed for dissolution, Eastern Indians were left to make individual choices about whether or not to engage in the conflict. The Indian minority was concerned less about the divisive issues of slavery and the preservation of the American Constitution than about their ongoing struggle to hold on to their remaining land and culture. If fighting for the Union cause brought the respect and perhaps gratitude of those in power, then it was a means to an end. Army service also brought regular pay and food, adventure, and the continuation of an honorable tradition of Native warriors.
Indians all over the North took up arms for the Union cause. Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters enlisted more than 150 Ottawa, Chippewa, Delaware, Huron, Oneida, and Potawatomi Indians. Sharpshooters received extra training, enjoyed high morale, and used their Sharps breechloaders to devastating effect. But they also experienced discrimination. Fellow soldiers often made uncomplimentary remarks, generally sticking to well-worn stereotypes of “desperate” or drunken men. Yet the Indian sharpshooters proved themselves time and time again in the grueling Virginia battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg. After the ill-fated Battle of the Crater during the seige of Petersburg, survivors recounted how a group of mortally wounded Indian soldiers chanted a traditional death song before finally succumbing, inspiring others with their valor.
Native Americans living on the ever-shifting Western frontier confronted a different situation. Most Indian nations on the periphery of the organized states sought to avoid involvement in national issues that did not seem to affect their lives. However, neutrality was not an option for those in strategic locations. Indeed, recently settled areas just west of the Mississippi would bear the full brunt of the conflict. Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) lay directly between Confederate and Union territory. Both the United States and the Confederacy eventually realized that this important buffer area between Kansas, Arkansas, and Texas would play a critical role in the war. But before the national governments organized diplomatic missions, citizens in states adjoining Indian Territory clamored for Indian involvement. They were determined to recruit the thousands of Native people on their borders for their side in the war. Arkansas offered weapons, while Texas readied men to occupy former federal forts. The Native nations found themselves facing mounting pressure to take sides.
The Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations could still be considered newcomers in Indian Territory in 1861, having arrived there at the end of the arduous journey known to history as Indian Removal two decades before. They were still putting their societies back together when the war came. Native leaders consumed with economic progress, political infighting, and societal disarray now had to choose sides in the conflict dividing the larger nation. The choice was not an easy one as the federal government provided the annuities owed to the nations for surrendering land in the East, while tribal members had strong economic, social, and religious ties to the surrounding Southern culture.