Native Americans in the Civil War


Native Americans in the Civil War

Cherokee ConfederatesDuring the Civil War, almost 30,000 native Americans fought in the Union and the Confederate armies. Some tribes had members on both sides, while others were united and fought for one side or the other. They fought despite jeopardizing their  their freedom, unique cultures, and ancestral lands if they ended up on the losing side of the Civil War.

Many Native American tribes fought in the war. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Catawba, and Creek tribes were the only tribes to fight on the Confederate side.

In January 1862, three regiments of  Indian Home Guards were recruited from the Five Civilized Tribes of Indian Territory to support the Union during the war. Two regiments were formed in Kansas, while the third was mustered in Missouri. Originally the tribal leaders had signed a treaty to support the Confederacy. However, “loyal” Indians volunteered for the Union Army. They fought mostly in Indian Territory and Arkansas. They were able to retain their lands because of their loyalty.

The Creeks are an excellent example of a tribe that fought for both sides. At the start of the war, their chief Opothle Yahola, who had fought against the United States Army during the Seminole Wars, declared his loyalty to the Union. However, a greater portion of the tribe, led by ex-chief McIntosh, sided with the Confederacy.

Opothle Yahola led his portion of the tribe to Kansas, fighting three pitched battles along the way. Promised supplies and shelter by the Federal government, they arrived to find inadequate medical facilities and supplies. Between the battles and the harsh conditions, they suffered 2,000 dead out of their total of 9,000. Opothle Yahola was among the eventual fatalities.

The Cherokee Nation had a fierce internal struggle. The Nation divided with Principal Chief John Ross, who wished to remain neutral while Stand General Stand WatieWatie pressed for the Nation to support the Confederacy. Watie was an intelligent man who had learned to read and write at the Moravian Mission in what is now Georgia. He was able to convince the majority of the Cherokee Nation to follow him.

In October 1861, he was commissioned as a colonel of the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles by the Confederacy. His troops not only fought Union troops but also engaged other Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles and other Indians who supported the Union. At the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, on March 6–8, 1862, Watie’s troops captured Union artillery positions and covered the retreat of Confederate forces from the battlefield after the Union took control.

Watie was promoted to brigadier general by General Samuel Bell Maxey, commander of the Army of Trans-Mississippi, and given command of the First Indian Brigade, composed of two regiments of Mounted Rifles and three battalions of Cherokee, Seminole and Osage infantry. It has been said the Watie’s unit fought in more battles west of the Mississippi than any other unit. They fought at what are considered the most famous Confederate victories in Indian Territory at the First and Second Battles Cabin Creek (July 1-2, 1863 and September 19, 1864).

Eventually, Watie moved with his brigade and their families to the safety of Texas where he was the last Confederate general to surrender on June 23, 1865 following the Battle of Doaksville in Indian Territory.

A number of small units fought on the Union side in the Eastern Theater, including Company K of the 1st Kansas Sharpshooters. This unit included Ottawa, Delaware, Huron Oneida, Potawami and Ojibwa. The were assigned to the Army of the Potomac and fought at  Battle of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, and captured 600 Confederate troops at Shand House east of Petersburg.   Their final military engagement was at the Battle of the Crater, Petersburg, Virginia where they took devastating casualties.

Grant's staff with Parker on the leftThe highest ranking officer on the Union side was Brig. Gen. Ely S. Parker, a member of the Seneca tribe. Parker was a trained attorney who was not admitted to the bar because Indians until 1924 were not considered American citizens. He later studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. He worked as a civil engineer until the start of the American Civil War.

Parker first met Ulysses Grant when he was working on civil engineering projects in Grant’s hometown of Galena, Illinois. After being turned down twice for a commission as an engineer, he turned to his friend Grant who commissioned him as a captain in May, 1863 and ordered him to report to Brig. Gen. John Eugene Smith. Smith appointed Parker as the chief engineer of his 7th Division during the siege of Vicksburg.

Parker was Grant’s adjutant during the Chattanooga campaign. He was subsequently transferred with Grant as the adjutant of the U.S. Army headquarters and served Grant through the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg. At Petersburg, Parker was appointed as the military secretary to Grant, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He wrote much of Grant’s correspondence.

Parker was present at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865 when Lee surrendered. He helped draft the surrender documents, which are in his handwriting. At the time of surrender, General Lee mistook Parker for a black man, but apologized saying, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker was said to respond, “We are all Americans, sir.” Parker was brevetted brigadier general of volunteers on April 9, 1865.

If you would like to read more about Native Americans during the Civil War, here are some additional resource:

The American Indian in the Civil War, 1862-1865 by Annie Heloise Abel

BETWEEN TWO FIRES: American Indians in the Civil War by Laurence M. Hauptman

Civil War in the Indian Territory by Steve Cottrell

General Stand Watie’s Confederate Indians by Frank Cunningham

Warrior in Two Camps: Ely S. Parker, Union General and Seneca Chief (Iroquois and Their Neighbors) by William H. Armstrong


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