“The Praze of Evry true Patriot”: Native Americans in the Civil War

by James Brookes


anonymous, ‘Swearing-In Native American Civil War Recruits.’, 1861, Taycheedah, Wisconsin, Wisconsin Historical Images (Wisconsin Historical Society), http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/quiner/id/22775

There are significant subjects of Civil War study, such as the contributions of ethnic groups other than native-born white Euro-Americans, which for many years following the conflict had remained relatively unexamined by academics. In the South, the collective historical memory of the conflict excluded what did not fit into the “accepted stereotype”, making it not unusual for various ethnic groups to be overlooked in the writings of post-war and early twentieth-century historians.[1] There exists a variety of archives that, once suitably explored and compiled, allow us to gather a clearer picture of the participation of Native Americans in the Civil War. The documents that make up this archive have a tremendous variety (and must do, considering their comparative scantiness to those of Euro-Americans), and can range from names such as Crying Bear, Spring Water and Flying Bird on Confederate muster rolls to fleeting recollections of white soldiers as they recounted both the heroic and peculiar actions of Native Americans within their ranks. What follows is a brief exploration of some of the sources that attempt to present the contributions and roles of the twenty-five thousand (or more) Native Americans soldiers that served during the Civil War.

One of the first and foremost archives to consider are the remarks of contemporary observers to the Civil War who either served with or were themselves enlisted Native Americans in either of the two  armies. These are manifested in letters, diaries and the post-war memoirs of the enlisted soldiers and officers, and although they are often riddled with discriminatory assumptions and ignorance, they tell much about public opinion towards Native Americans. A member of the First Missouri Brigade described a group of Cherokees in March, 1862, writing that “Their dress was chiefly in the Indian costume… about half carried only bows and arrows, tomahawks, and war-clubs… They were… straight, active, and sinewy in their persons and movements – fine looking specimens of the red man.”[2] Although this observer regards the event as something of a spectacle, there is a measure of respect is evident in his writing. A Union officer, Freeman S. Bowley, wrote of several Native Americans in Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, who performed “splendid work” during the horrendous Battle of the Crater in 1864, with one Ottowan deliberately drawing the fire of the enemy in order to allow his comrades to escape. One Confederate company, noted for having “one of the most brilliant records of any in the war”, contained many Catawba Natives.[3] Evidently, there is a recognition of the honourable conduct of Native Americans through the medium of contemporary observations.

However, there were those who clearly held low opinions of Native Americans and their actions. Some soldiers deemed Native Americans cowardly for their use of guerrilla tactics, and the Cherokee were particularly susceptible to discouragement and defection. Following the Battle of Pea Ridge, newspapers noted that several Native Americans reverted to the primitive practice of mutilating the dead. Both Native American and white officials condemned this act.[4] Some white soldiers drew upon the perceived culture of Native Americans in order to acculturate their own identities with those of men they regarded as savages, allowing them to cope with the stress of battle and the killing of fellow human beings. Several accounts exist in letters and diaries of soldiers “playing at being Indians – imitating war whoops, painting their faces with mud or soot from cartridges in what they saw as Indian style – when going into battle.”[5] Although this latter sample does not concern the action of an “authentic” Native American, it surely provides an interesting example of how supposed Native American culture could manifest itself during the conflict, contributing a new dimension to the concept of archive in examining the Native American influence in the war.

The muster rolls and regimental records from the war illustrate that many Native Americans who served were not merely amalgamated with white servicemen and dispersed throughout the military system. Instead, many were able to form their own units and retain a measure of cultural autonomy. In the early stages of the war, the Federal government organized a “brigade of red men… for service in the Indian country” and “the Indian Home Guard” became their title.[6] To this day, the Oklahoma Historical Society preserves the muster rolls of this unit and when one reads through, culturally distinctive names such as Captain Spring Frog, Big Mush Dirt Eater, Warkiller Hogshooter and Soup assert themselves. Company F of the Third Indian Regiment kept a regimental history of their service in the conflict, providing vignettes and descriptions of significant events that illustrate the trials and obstacles that Native American soldiers faced. An example of this concerns the murder of one of their sergeants as he slept in his tent in 1864, and although the literacy of the writer is questionable, his sentiments and those of his comrades are certainly not: “Sergt Benge deserves the praze of Evry true Patriot and good soldiers for his fadelity honesty & Valor.”[7] What is also evident in this short excerpt is that obviously the members of the unit deemed their comrade a patriotic serviceman, worthy of the respect of every Unionist, regardless of the colour of his skin. Records such as these allow us to see the that Native Americans were able to retain their cultural identity in some units through naming and tribal solidarity and to record their own history of the war, thus providing historians with a valuable tool to compare with the official histories recorded by figures of authority.

It is evident that Native Americans clearly had an impact on the Civil War through their service and, in many cases, their honourable and recognized actions. The misconception that “Indians were simply hostiles resisting American progress in the nineteenth century” is obviously discredited by the evidential nature of Native American service.[8] It is unfortunate that, as in the Civil War itself, Native Americans have been disregarded and pushed into a second-class position by white Americans. Wiley provides alludes to this, as he writes “in general [Natives] were more often dealt with as stepchildren of the Great White Father than as fighting sons supporting the cause of Union and freedom.” Conversely, he himself concluded that the Native American contribution to the war “was admittedly significant.”[9] The Native American has been understudied by Civil War historians, especially considering the potential volume of archival evidence and secondary sources that relate to it (one can expand the archive to encompass photographs, newspaper accounts, even gravestones). As well as this, the overshadowing of the Native American by African-American emancipation has meant that even texts that deal specifically with race or ethnicity in the war often only contain brief mentions of the Native experience. However, those who have explored the historical archive have accomplished a feat in their ability to find evidence, varying in form and meaning, which help to counter the long-standing and outdated notions that the conflict was solely the business of white men.

[1] Bailey, Anne J., Invisible Southerners: Ethnicity in the Civil War, (University of Georgia Press: Athens, 2006), p. XIII

[2] Wiley, Bell I., The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy, (Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1993), p. 325

[3] Hauptman, Laurence M., Tribes & Tribulations: Misconceptions about American Indians and their Histories, (University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, 1995), p. 54

[4] Cunningham, Frank, General Stand Watie’s Confederate Indians (The Naylor Company Publishers: San Antonio, 1959), p. 60

[5] Livermore, Thomas, in McPherson, James M., Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (Oxford University Press: New York, 2002), p. 123

[6] Wiley, Bell I., The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, (The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers: Indianapolis, 1951), p. 316

[7] Oklahoma Historical Society, Muster-out Rolls, Co. C, Second Indian Regt. And Co. B, Third Indian Regt., manuscripts

[8] Ibid., p. 51

[9] Wiley, Bell I., The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, (The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers: Indianapolis, 1951), p. 318, p. 327