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Native Americans – Their Role in the US Civil War

Few people today understand the role that Native Americans have played alongside other Americans in armed conflicts, both in the USA and worldwide. From the renowned Navajo Code Talkers of WWII to the Native American Scouts in the Vietnam War, our American Indian people have played a critical part, serving with distinction and honor.

This dates to the US Civil War of the 1860s.

People in America at that time, regardless of their race or origin, found themselves forced to face the crisis and consider their allegiances. It was as much a crisis for Native Americans as anyone else, and location within the country determined which side the tribal nations supported. Many tribes experienced the conflict as members of larger communities, and not as their tribe alone.

Did You Know?

  • 20,000 Native Americans served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War of 1861-1865. They participated and fought valiantly in many battles, including Antietam, Pea Ridge, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Second Manassas, and assaults on Petersburg.
  • Why did they serve? By supporting the war effort, the American Indians hoped to garner the favor of the prevailing government. By fighting alongside the white men, they also sought to put an end to the discrimination against their nations and end the forced relocation from their traditional lands to the west. Service in the army also delivered regular food, pay, an adventure for those who sought it, and an opportunity to participate in the honored tradition of being a Native warrior.
  • The Delaware Nation, which had a long allegiance to the US government before the 1860s, proclaimed support for the Union in October 1861, and 85% of their men volunteered to serve with the Union Army. They came armed with rifles, tomahawks, and knives.
  • The 1st and 2nd Indian Home Guard were established in January 1862. These included men from the Delaware, Creek, Kickapoo, Seneca, Seminole, Shawnee, Chocktaw, Chickasaw, and Osage Nations. They were intrinsic to the Union victory of the sacking of the Wichita Agency in October 1862.

The East

  • Many Nations east of the Mississippi no longer had powerful tribal units by 1861, and they were thus able to individually choose whether or not to engage in the conflict and which side to support.
  • 200 eastern Cherokee formed the Junaluska Zouaves, fighting for the Union.
  • Almost all Catawba adult men who served with distinction in the South Carolina Volunteer Infantry.
  • The Pamunkey served as civilian and naval pilots for Union warships.
  • The Lumbee were Union guerillas.
  • The Iroquois joined the Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry for the Union.
  • The Powhatan were river pilots, land guides, and spies for the Army of the Potomac.
  • Many New England Pequot served in the US Colored Troops, alongside African Americans for the Union Army.

The West

  • Most Nations to the west preferred neutrality, however, this was not an option as their geographic locations were strategically important. Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma) lay between Union and Confederate territory, and this was critical in the war’s outcome. Thousands of Native Americans were recruited and entire tribes were forced to take sides.
  • The leaders of the five southeastern nations (Cherokee, Chocktaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole) initially independently elected to support the Confederacy. Most tribal members, however, did not, and they later volunteered for Union duty as members of the Indian Home Guard reginemts.
  • Of all Native American Nations, the Cherokee was most negatively impacted by the Civil War, losing almost 30% of its total population.

In 1861, the Cherokee Nation was in the middle of its own internal civil war. Union and Confederate states bordered each other on Cherokee lands. The Cherokee tribal leader decreed that they support the Union, however, all the bordering Native American Nations supported the Confederate side, and some Cherokee ultimately swore Confederate allegiance in return for guaranteed food rations, livestock, tools, and protection. The Cherokee, in turn, agreed to provide ten mounted companies and enable road and military post construction within the Cherokee Nation lands. They were not required to fight outside their own territory.

Ultimately, however, all Cherokee men between ages 18 and 50 were drafted into Confederate service.

  • The most renowned unit of Native American soldiers in the Union Army was 1st Michigan Sharpshooters – Company K, the majority of whom were Ojibwa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Huron Oneida, and Delaware. They were highly trained and had high levels of morale. Assigned to the Army of the Potomac, they were involved in the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Shand House, and Battle of the Crater. A group of mortally wounded soldiers in this final battle reportedly chanted a traditional death song before dying, and they inspired others with their courage.
  • General Ely S. Parker was a Seneca tribesman and a trained attorney. After initially being rejected for service due to his race, he ultimately served as General Ulysses S. Grant’s military secretary during the Civil War. In 1865, General Parker drew up the articles of surrender which General Robert E. Lee signed on April 9, 1865.

Lee is reported to have said to Parker, “I am glad to see a real American here”. Parker’s reply was, “We are all Americans”.

Native American art and jewelry are popular worldwide, for their designs and as a representation of a truly fascinating, diverse, and majestic race of people. When you purchase something like an authentic Native American bracelet or blanket, consider the history of the people who have brought it to you – the original Americans: people with a rich culture, a captivating history, and much pride.