Last Sunday, I went walking along Burnside Drive in Spotsylvania National Battlefield. I started at the Michigan Marker and one of the regiments listed there was the main reason I came to this location to walk and think about Native Americans who fought for the Union during the Civil War. In this area, Ojibwa, Odawa, and Potawatomi warriors enlisted in Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters fought with Grant’s army.
The Federal line, advancing with a cheer met the charging enemy in a dense thicket of pines, and in the hand to hand struggle that followed, the Union forces were slowly driven back. On a little rise of ground the Fourteenth New York battery supported by the Second and Twenty-Seventh Michigan Infantry and the First Michigan Sharpshooters, was doing its best to hold the ground. Every now and then the Confederates would fight their way up to the battery and lay hold of the cannon to turn them upon the Union forces. But to touch one of those guns meant instant death at the hands of the sharpshooters. In this desperate encounter, the little band of Indians was commanded by Lieutenant Graveraet…. Under a perfect storm of lead their number seemed to melt away, but there was no sign of faltering. Sheltering behind trees, they poured volley after volley at the zealous foe, and above the din of battle their war-whoop rang out with every volley. At dusk the ammunition gave out, but with the others the Indians ran forward at the shout of “Give them steel boys!” from the twice wounded but still plucky Colonel Deland. When darkness came to end the bloody day, Lieutenant Graverat was among the one hundred and seventeen wounded sharpshooters, and a few months later he died of his wounds.
The 1st Michigan Sharpshooters formed in 1863, organizing in Kalamazoo and Dearborn and mustering in on July 7. The Native Americans creating Company K of the unit won a social victory by enlisting. Many of them had wanted and tried to enlist in 1861, but faced rejection similar to African Americans who wished to serve also. By 1863, Native Americans could officially enlist, and these men quickly volunteered and served until the end of the conflict. Company K saw combat for the first time at the Battle of the Wilderness, then a few days later, they fought at Spotsylvania.
In addition to accounts of their bravery under fire, the Sharpshooters’ culture was noted on the battlefield. A Bible translated into the Ojibwa language was found on the forest floor. A soldier with the 14th North Carolina also remembered:
“As we drove them back one Indian took refuge behind a tree. We saw him and supposed he would surrender. As we moved on he shot our color bearer. T.J. Watkins picked up a satchel with beautiful figured work thereon, made with various colored beads.”
During the battle on May 12, Company K lost about seventeen men. The wounded were taken to nearby field hospitals or to the more permanent medical facilities in Fredericksburg. On May 20, William H. Reed with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, reported on the wounded he found at Brompton. He noted that four of the Native Americans from Company K waited there:
“In a group of four Indian sharpshooters, each with the loss of a limb, of an arm at the shoulder, of a leg at the knee, or with an amputation of the thigh, never was patience more finely illustrated. They neither spoke nor moaned, but suffered and died, making a mute appeal to our sympathy, and expressing both in look and manner their gratitude for our care.”
This information can be filled out with a list found in a history of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters which has a list of the wounded of that unit at Spotsylvania: Sergeant Louis Genereau – gunshot, left leg; David L. George – head; Thomas Ke-chi-ti-go – shell, left foream, fracture; Simon Keji-kowe – gunshot, left side, severe; Edward Misisaius – right hand; George W. Mogage – left hand, amputated third finger; Daniel Mwa-ke-wenah – right arm, face, and left hand; Mark Pe-she-kee – gunshot, shoulder; Joseph Shaw-au-ase – left hand, index finger; Joseph Shaw-au-os-sang – gunshot, left leg. Matthew Brady took photos of medical scenes and he took an image at Brompton. He labeled it that “wounded Indians” were in the photograph and closer examine shows the striking facial features of this natives from Michigan.
Ten men are listed wounded which means probably seven were left dead in the woods of Spotsylvania. Perhaps they are now buried in Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
I thought about this military company as I walked at Spotsylvania. They were not the only Native Americans to fight at Spotsylvania, but by focusing on their story, I felt like I could better focus my musings. Native Americans had been moved from their lands and faced injustices and broken treaties. Some of their tribes had spent decades resisting forced moves by the government. But these men from the Great Lakes region decided to fight for the Union. In fact, they had volunteered and had tried to enlist even earlier in the war. It’s a story of fighting for a homeland, trying to secure justice, and wanting to prove loyalty. It’s a lot to think about…
I thought about the ones who survived and lived on to face more injustices as the century continued. I thought about the ones who died in the tangle of trees near Spotsylvania. The Civil War is filled with stories of heroes, and as I consider the history of the Sharpshooters of Company K, I see a different kind of courage. A courage that volunteered to fight for a united nation and to keep in place a government that had been trying to remove their families for decades. It is a special kind of bravery that decides to volunteer for such a cause, for such a side. But they had the courage to hope for a better future, and, if fighting loyally on a battlefield could secure that, they were dedicated.
Here, at Spotsylvania, at least seven men from the 1st Michigan died. I thought about them and wondered what their names were as I walked through the now silent woods. The autumn leaves fell. The squirrels played on the fallen logs. The breeze whispered in the trees. Shawnee warrior Tecumseh legendarily told his men, “When you die—sing your death song and die like a hero going home.” He didn’t say that to the native men from Michigan who fought at Spotsylvania, but perhaps his words offer the benediction to them and a heroic salute for these men who chose to fight for homeland, equality, and Union.
Source: Historical Collections Vol. XXVIII– Annual Meeting 1898 By Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, Michigan State Historical Society, Michigan Historical Commission Published 1900 Starting page 446. Referenced from: https://blogs.lib.msu.edu/red-tape/2018/may/may-9-1864-company-k-faces-action-battle-spotsylvania-court-house/
W.A. Smith, The Anson Guards – Company C, Fourteenth Regiment North Carolina Volunteers 1861-1865 (Charlotte, N.C. 1914) p. 235. Referenced from: https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/indians-at-brompton/
William H. Reed, Hospital Life in the Army of the Potomac (Boston, Mass., 1866) p. 27. Referenced from: https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/indians-at-brompton/