November is Native American Heritage Month. Across the United States, many historical museums, research libraries, and organizations take this opportunity to highlight the culture and experiences of Native Americans in a particular region or era of history. Looking through the ECW archives, we found a lack of articles about the Native Americans who sided with either the Union or the Confederacy, their motivations, and the battles or skirmishes where they fought. That absence on the blog is about to change with an impromptu, short series! We hope you’ll enjoy this new angle on military history.
During the Civil War over 26,000 Native Americans fought and that number includes both sides. Some tribes sided with the Federals, others saw the war as an opportunity to “get back” at a government that had taken lands and broken treaties. Some Native American leaders saw the war as an opportunity to prove their loyalty to the United States – similar to immigrant motivations – and gain leverage for enforcement of treaties and better treatment for their tribes. Unfortunately, those hopes did not come to pass on the large scale, though some commanders and individuals certainly gained a better appreciation and respect for these warriors.
Tragically, while the Civil War raged in the east, the so-called Indian Wars continued in the west with major incidents in Minnesota and Colorado. Social and political pressures, broken promises, and fear created massacres and retaliations, continuing a trend of fighting that lasted well beyond the Civil War.
For Native Americans, the Civil War opened a new fight and raised difficulty questions of loyalty from aspects that did not factor into other soldiers’ decisions. Which side would respect their rights? Which side would offer them honesty?
Julius Folsom, a Chickasaw, tried to explain his tribe’s dilemma this way in an 1891 letter:
Up to this time, our protection was in the United States troops stationed at Fort Washita, under the command of Colonel Emory. But he, as soon as the Confederate troops had entered our country, at once abandoned us and the Fort; and, to make his flight more expeditious and his escape more sure, employed Black Beaver, a Shawnee Indian, under a promise to him of five thousand dollars, to pilot him and his troops out of the Indian country safely without a collision with the Texas Confederates; which Black Beaver accomplished. By this act the United States abandoned the Choctaws and Chickasaws….Then, there being no other alternative by which to save their country and property, they, as the less of the two evils that confronted them, went with the Southern Confederacy.
In the end, neither Union nor Confederates respected the rights and promises made to the tribes. But the saga of Native American choices, their courage in combat, and their “forgotten” part in Civil War history are worth re-examining.