Native Americans during the Civil War

Andrew K Frank. Civil War: People and Perspectives. Editor: Lisa Tendrich Frank. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

As the secession movement and ensuing war tore the United States apart in 1860-1861, the nation’s Indians faced a series of personal and communal struggles that threatened their existence as sovereign peoples and ultimately reshaped many of their communities in devastating ways. Although Native Americans often experienced the Civil War and its causes through unique cultural and political lenses, they quickly learned like all Americans that they could hardly ignore the crisis. Native Americans rarely waited for the war and its accompanying disruptions to come to them. Instead, they attempted to use wartime opportunities to pursue their tribal and individual ambitions. They tried to settle old scores, demonstrate their loyalty to their neighbors, secure financial stability and new trading agreements, and reshape their relationship with federal and state governments. Some saw the war as an opportunity to protect their rights to their slave property; others saw it as a way to transform the racial norms of the nation. Despite their varied and often conflicting motivations, however, Native Americans across the nation discovered the tumults and destruction of the Civil War. The difficulties for Indians often paralleled the experiences of their neighbors. Native American men enlisted as soldiers and suffered alarmingly high mortality rates; Native American refugees fled their farms and homes to avoid invading armies; and wartime shortages and inflation affected every community. Perhaps most important, the war split many Native American nations, villages, and clans. Tribal factions frequently coalesced into pro-Union and pro-Confederate divisions that had rather tenuous ties to either government or cause. In many cases, the longhouse, wigwam, earth lodge, or council house was literally divided.

A Multitude of Causes and Experiences

A singular wartime experience did not unite Native Americans, with tribal and regional distinctions creating a cacophony of causes, perspectives, decisions, and results. Most Native Americans actively participated as members of tribal nations, whose leaders forged formal treaties and alliances with the Confederacy and Union. In many cases, the decision to enter the Civil War exacerbated preexisting divisions within tribes and the resulting schisms lasted for generations. Other Native Americans, especially those in the east, participated in the war as individuals whose Native identities went largely unrecognized by wider society. These Native Americans experienced the war in ways that often paralleled the experiences of their black and white neighbors. For western tribes, often with little or no direct interest in political events to the east, the Civil War simply continued trends that began decades or centuries earlier, with additional warfare with the United States and their ultimate dispossession from their lands. Although many western Indians fought against the United States, they were hardly allied with the Confederates.

Despite the spectrum of experiences across tribes and regions, the destruction of the Civil War cut across tribal affiliations. The American Civil War often divided Indian nations in self-destructive ways. Creeks, Cherokees, and many other tribes fought bloody battles among themselves—with members of the same clan even choosing different diplomatic paths. With Native Americans of many nations and political loyalties often living in proximity to one another, the war also resulted in Native Americans frequently waging war on soldiers from other tribal nations. The results were often brutal. In 1862, for example, a mixed Unionist unit of Delaware, Shawnee, and Caddo Indians killed more than half of the Tonkawa Indians in a single raid. Even when Native Americans did not have an active role in the war, they discovered that the United States failed to live up to its earlier treaty obligations and that local militias caused tremendous upheaval. As a result, western Indians suffered some of the most horrific massacres in their history during the war. Finally, Indian reservations and communities became enveloped by the war, as homes and property were frequently destroyed or stolen. Thousands of Native Americans lost their homes, approximately 10,000 became refugees, and thousands more suffered from lack of food and other supplies.

Enlistment and the Military

From the very beginning of the war, many Native Americans joined the fight in the most formal way. An estimated 20,000 Indians joined the Union and Confederate armies, with more joining the Confederate than the Union Army. Death rates for Native Americans enlistees were similar to non-Indians, with about one-fourth of the enlisted soldiers from some tribes dying from battle wounds. Native American soldiers fought in many of the widely known battles in the east—including Second Bull Run, Antietam, the Wilderness, and Petersburg. In the trans-Mississippi western theater, fighting was virtually nonstop as Indian warriors faced each other as well as Union and Confederate soldiers in formal battles and recurring raids. Many Native Americans joined the armies as part of Indian regiments; others enlisted in colored units. Some—like the Seneca Ely Parker—became trusted aids to white officers. In Parker’s case, he served as aide-de-camp of Union general Ulysses S. Grant, and wrote the terms of surrender that formally ended the war at Appomattox Court House. Others served as guides and scouts, capitalizing on their tracking skills and knowledge of local terrain. Most Native American soldiers, however, served in the armies’ infantries where they fought in largely segregated or tribally affiliated units.

On several occasions, officers praised Native American soldiers for their abilities. Union officer A. C. Elithorpe, for example, asserted that he had instilled in his Indian troops

a good state of military discipline. You would be surprised to see our Regt. move. They accomplish the feat of regular time step equal to any white soldier, they form in line with dispatch and with great precision … That they will make brave and ambitious soldiers I have no doubt. Our country may well feel proud that these red men have at last fell into the ranks to fight for our flag, and aid in crushing treason. (Abel 1919/1992b, 73)

Other soldiers were more skeptical of Indian soldiers. Indeed, the mixture of Native Americans in the regular army did not always go smoothly. During the Battle of Pea Ridge, drunken Confederate Cherokees, who were urged on to the battlefield with ample amounts of whiskey, directed their weapons at Union as well as a few Confederate soldiers.

An Arkansan, who had been wounded and partially scalped by one of the Cherokees is so enraged against them as to be in danger of apoplexy when their name is mentioned … He intended to kill every Indians he could find hereafter, no matter where and under what circumstances. (“Battle of Sugar Creek or Pea Ridge” 1862, 7)

Union and Confederate soldiers were equally “incensed against the savages, and talk of hunting them to death” (“Battle of Sugar Creek or Pea Ridge” 1862, 7). Indian atrocities—whether real or rumored—reinforced the stereotypes of Indians for decades to follow.

Enlisted Native Americans often fought for reasons typical of non-Indian soldiers. Sometimes their decision to join the military stemmed from the rationales that led white inhabitants in Border States to choose their loyalties. The desire of members of the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles) to protect their slave interests certainly shaped the decision of some; the desire to maintain loyalty to the United States and continue a policy of accommodation shaped the Catawbas’ and other Indians’ enlistments in the Union Army. As one Seneca Indian in the Union Army recalled, “we are all prepared to fight for our country to the last extremity” (Hauptman 1995a, 73). For others, enlistment provided a means to demonstrate beyond a shadow of doubt the loyalty of a tribe to their white neighbors—especially important in the Confederate South. Almost all eligible Catawba men in South Carolina enlisted in the Confederate Army, where they served primarily in the Fifth, Twelfth, and Seventeenth South Carolina Volunteer Infantry regiments. The Catawba, who had a long history of accommodation to local concerns and were economically dependant on white society, maintained this multigenerational survival strategy during the war. The Ojibwa—like many Indians in the Great Lakes region—similarly concluded that loyalty to the United States in the war would provide security and a better bargaining position after the war. By saving the Union, they hoped to save their homelands.

Decisions to engage in the military conflict also had their origins in Native American cultural norms and socioeconomic conditions. For many Native American men, especially in the West, enlistment allowed them to prove their manhood at a time when hunting and other forms of sanctioned violence were limited. Young Indian men could finally engage in the coming of age hunting rituals that marked their status in their communities. Others discovered that their skills as guides and scouts allowed them to gain prominence and respect. The offer of lucrative bounties further lured Native Americans into the Union and Confederate armies. In New York, one observer concluded that Indians joined for many reasons. “About twenty-five [Onondoga] Indians have been induced by bounties, whisky, and martial music, all of which they are very fond, to enlist on some of the many regiments of volunteers” (Kneeland 1864, 453). Some of the Onondogas served as guides and river pilots, leading Union troops to their desired destinations and tracking Confederate movements. Some Catawbas also may have been threatened into enlisting—with one soldiers later stating that a white neighbor declared that he “would have to enlist or the white would come down and kill them” (Hauptman 1995a, 93).

The Five “Civilized” Tribes

The experiences of the Five Civilized Tribes epitomized the divisiveness and disruptions of the war. Located in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), these tribes were among the most active participants in the Civil War. As slaveholding and market-oriented communities, these five nations all struggled to maintain their cohesiveness when the war began. As Cherokee leader Thomas Pegg explained, “Our wisest men knew not what to do” (McLoughlin 1993, 201). Indecision, however, did not last long and many chiefs advocated forging formal allegiances with the Confederacy. At the same time, however, many Native Americans expressed concerns about the dangers of entering the conflict. Cherokee chief John Ross said, “We do not wish our homes to become battlegrounds between the states and our soil to be rendered desolate and miserable by the horrors of civil war” (Confer 2007, 42). As support for the Confederacy in Indian Territory became stronger, thousands of Native Americans fled from their homes and their Confederate opposition took notice.

In November 1861, Confederate soldiers marched to the Deep Fork River in the Creek Nation, where Opothleyoholo had created a haven of neutrality for about 8,000 Native American men, women, and children as well as for hundreds of Indian-owned African slaves. Opothleyoholo, an elderly leader who fought in a devastating civil war among the Creek Indians decades earlier, personally experienced the tragedies of war and optimistically hoped Native Americans could avoid the horrors of another war. Loyalty to the Union, he optimistically decided, would ensure that various treaties would remain intact with the United States and that Union soldiers would continue to protect their communities from squatters and other intruders. Opothleyoholo’s call for neutrality, however, quickly became the minority position in Indian Territory. Native Americans, who frequently worried that the Republican Party’s free soil ideology would lead to the further opening of the west, increasingly cast their lot with their slaveholding chiefs and the Confederate cause. Their fears were exacerbated by party leaders like William H. Seward, who announced in 1860 that the lands “south of Kansas must be vacated by the Indian” (Bailey 2006, 32). Within a few months, even John Ross, the Cherokees’ elder statesmen, deviated from his early neutrality and supported the Confederacy. Much of Indian Territory, in essence, became part of the Confederacy.

Opothleyoholo, however, did not stand alone in his opposition to the war and the Indian alliance with the Confederacy. With the support of thousands of like-minded Native Americans, he maintained his stance and appealed to President Abraham Lincoln to continue the federal protection of Indian lands. “Keep off the intruder,” he demanded of the new president, “and make our homes again happy as they used to be” (Warde 1999, 59). Lincoln could hardly give Opothleyoholo and his followers his full attention, and Confederate Indians used and threatened armed force to forge a united Indian front. Rather than acquiesce, Opothleyoholo and thousands of other Indians took flight to Kansas. His multitribal group of exiles came from across Indian Territory and included Caddos, Creeks, Seminoles, Cherokees, Osages, Wichitas, Quapaws, and various African Americans. His defiance was hardly seen as an act of neutrality, and he was quickly branded a traitor and Unionist. As Creek Confederate David McIntosh noted, “It is now certain that he has combined with his party all the surrounding wild tribes and has openly declared himself the enemy of the South. Negroes are fleeing to him from all quarters” (McLoughlin 1993, 192). In the ensuing battles at Round Mountain and Chusto Talasah, Opothleyoholo and his allied Native Americans soldiers repelled the Confederate Indian Calvary. Confederate reinforcement came in December, encircled the camp, and captured most of the supplies, livestock, and wagons of the refugees. Opothleyoholo’s refugees scattered and many of the survivors regrouped in Kansas. With a stance of neutrality no longer desirable or possible, they reformed as the 1st and 2nd Indian Union Brigades and marched back for retribution against their Confederate enemies.

As much as Native Americans suffered from engagements with Union and Confederate soldiers, the intertribal warfare may have been more devastating. For example, Stand Watie, a Confederate Cherokee, obtained a reputation for waging a hard and brutal war against his Indian enemies. As Agent Justin Harlin explained, “In the rebel Indian raids, everything which could be found, and which could be eaten by an Indian—every article of clothing that could be worn by men, women and children, and every article of bedding and blankets—was eagerly seized upon and carried away by them.” Farming almost ceased in the nation, and most Unionists fled their homes. He continued, “From being the once proud, intelligent, and wealthy tribe of Indian, the Cherokees are now stripped of nearly all…. This is a sad picture, not overdrawn, and which no good man can see and not feel real sorry for their condition” (McLoughlin 1993, 211). Even Watie’s wife recognized the tremendous damage that Watie’s raids caused to the tribe. “This war—it will ruin a great many good people,” she feared. “They will not only lose all their property but a great many will lose their character, which is [of] more value than all their property…. I am almost ashamed of my tribe” (McLoughlin 1993, 215). In many ways, General William T. Sherman and other practitioners of hard war may have learned this strategy from watching affairs in the west.

When the war ended, Opothleyoholo and other Unionist Indians were hardly rewarded for their loyalty. Although the federal government discussed granting them just compensation for their service and reimbursement for the damage done to their property on account of their loyalty, the Unionist Indians were sorely disappointed. Despite frequent rhetoric to the contrary, Native American soldiers received less than their white counterparts and Native American families did not receive reparations for their destroyed property. As in the past, divisions within Native American communities were ignored and residents of Indian Territory were uniformly punished as conquered enemies. The United States took retribution through a series of postwar treaties that paid little attention to the variety of experiences and loyalties within Native North America. Several tribes were compelled to sell their lands far below their value, while other tribes had their lands reallocated for reservations designated for other culturally diverse Indian nations. In addition to its disastrous diplomatic effects, the Civil War also brought high mortality rates and widespread physical destruction to many Native American communities. These social costs of the war would shape Indian society for decades to follow. As a result, Native Americans were among the biggest losers of the Civil War.

The war caused more than political and physical destruction; it also reshaped cultural institutions within their communities. The Presbyterian Church among the Seminoles in the Indian Territory saw its influence wane in the early part of the war, especially as it was associated with abolitionism in a nation that largely sided with the Confederacy. As Unionists fled to Kansas, the Baptist Church and its less-defined stance on slavery became the prominent form of Seminole Christianity. Other Native American groups experienced renewals in more traditional forms of religion, with the use of sweat baths, black drink, and various war dances. Among the Delawares, for example, many Baptists returned to the ceremonial cycle of the Big House religion. As one leader proclaimed, “We wish to live together as a Nation according to our former customs” (Hauptman 1995a, 31).

The Tribes of the Southeast

Native Americans who lived in the Confederate states faced a series of disruptions and threats during the Civil War. On the eve of secession, approximately 25,000 Indians lived in the 11 Confederate states. With its population drastically reduced by generations of disease and warfare and a policy of forced removal, the Indians who remained in the southeast lived in a rather precarious position. They were, not surprisingly, also split into Unionist and Confederate camps. Part of the issue resulted from various forms of intermixture and alliances with Maroons and free black people. Those whose fates were closely linked with the concerns of free blacks typically risked either formal support for the Union or waged an informal war of resistance to Confederate interests.

Most Indians in the South did not have the luxury of choosing whether they would be a part of the war. Instead, they became involved when soldiers marched through their territory and their homes became battlefields. The Pamunkey Indians in Virginia, for example, suffered at the hands of both Union and Confederate troops whose supply lines cut across their reservation. As their lives and livelihoods were disrupted by the confiscation of valuables, the Pamunkeys were also forced into becoming active participants in the war. Local Confederate recruiters and officers who passed through their territory tried to impress as manual laborers many Pamunkeys, who they conflated with all “people of color” in the region. These threats convinced many Indians in Virginia to become refugees. Many found temporary homes in the Union states of Maryland and Delaware. Others went even farther, where they found permanent homes among the Great Lakes Indians.

The Choctaws of Mississippi had a similar experience. For much of the war, for example, the relatively small Choctaw tribe in Mississippi went largely ignored. For a while, their peculiar social standing as free people of color and social isolation allowed them to escape conscription and direct confrontation with invading Union soldiers. Even then, however, the Choctaws faced challenges that were created by the war. Most important, they suffered from a shortage of trade goods and basic supplies, and they struggled as the federal government failed to issue the bond payments that were due to them on account of earlier treaties. As demands for manpower increased, they cast their lot with the Confederates and formed the First Battalion of Choctaw Indians. Formed in early 1863, the unit saw limited action. A few soldiers were killed and others captured. Most of their action was local, in Louisiana and Mississippi. They also gained notoriety when they served as search and rescue workers when a Confederate troop train derailed into the Chunky River in Mississippi. They rescued 23 people and retrieved about 90 bodies.

The eastern band of Cherokees, who inhabited the mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, were some of the most ardent Native American supporters of the Confederacy east of the Mississippi. Like other tribes, the eastern Cherokee were divided by the war, but only 30 joined the Union Army. In comparison, more than 400 eastern Cherokees enlisted in the Confederate Army where one Confederate colonel concluded they did “good work and service to the South” (Mooney 1900, 170). The eastern Cherokees also served as home guards, helping suppress Unionist activities in the region. Cherokees who did not support the Confederacy fell out of favor with their community, even getting blamed for the onset of smallpox and other problems that plagued the community in later years. According to anthropologist James Mooney, “their tribesmen [were] so bitterly incensed against them that for some times their lives were in danger” (Mooney 1900, 171). The Cherokees also worked to limit Unionist or antiwar sentiment in eastern Tennessee.

The eastern Cherokees, like many Native Americans, fought the Civil War according to the culture and traditions that guided their behavior. They performed war dances before marching off to battle, wore traditional paints and feathers during some battles, and participated in highly ritualized ball games while deployed. Their taking of scalps as war trophies incensed Union soldiers, who utilized these acts of “barbarity” to rally support for the war in the North. On several occasions, Northerners condemned Confederate soldiers who “butchered [Unionists]in cold blood …, hunted them with Indians, and permitted scalping” (The Friend, a Religious and Literary Journal 1863, 282E).

A Race War

As the Civil War threatened the region’s racial hierarchy, Native Americans in the American South frequently became the victims of race-based violence and of the general chaos that characterized the region. Most notably, the Lumbee Indians in Robeson County, North Carolina, fought a long guerilla war with white supremacists in the area. Without a reservation land of their own and surrounded by a general population that denied their Indian identities and treated them as free blacks, the Lumbees and other North Carolina Indians faced constant threats to their lives and livelihoods from their white neighbors. The need for labor in Southern society added to the Lumbees’ general lack of security, especially as Confederates conscripted local Indians to build a network of earthen works and forts around Wilmington.

The Lumbees did not passively watch the war destroy their sense of security. Many Native Americans found refuge in local swamps. There, they united with a motley group of African Americans, poor whites, and Union soldiers who escaped from Confederate prisons. Henry Berry Lowry, who became a folk hero among the Lumbees, led these men to wage a retaliatory war against the Confederacy. His men raided neighboring areas, stealing food and supplies from their prominent and more affluent neighbors. Lowry’s Gang became local heroes, especially as they obtained a reputation for sharing the spoils of their raids with others who needed it and targeting those with surplus supplies. Lowry was captured on several occasions, but always found a way to escape. North Carolina’s Home Guard took matters into its own hands and raided the home of Lowry’s father in early 1865. They stole whatever they could from the house, and then arrested him, his wife, and several other family members and friends. When Lowry’s father and uncle tried to escape, a 12-man firing squad executed them. The home guard also captured other Indians suspected of aiding the Unionist cause and causing unrest in the area. Lowry and the Lumbees continued to cause havoc until the end of the war. When William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union troops arrived in the area in early 1865, local Indians guided them and their heavy artillery through the swamps. As was too often the case, North Carolina Indians were hardly compensated for their assistance. Instead, they discovered that Sherman’s bummers often took the Indians’ mules, horses, and supplies for their own use (Oakley 2005, 19-21).

New England

In New England, matters were even more individualized and complex. There, Native American communities were believed to have disappeared, but instead they had eluded detection by outsiders and had intermixed with Africans on the margins of society. Often poor members of fishing and whaling communities, the Indians of New England suffered from the economic turmoil of the war. As shipbuilding turned to the needs of the Union Navy and private owners sold their boats to the navy, the seafaring community suffered. Without sufficient land to provide a self-sufficient existence, New England’s Native Americans suffered. As a result, many desperate Native Americans were lured into the army to receive enlistment bounties and wages.

Without widely recognized tribes or nations, these Indians participated in the war in ways that were comparable to their African American neighbors. Native Americans in New England, for example, enlisted as individuals and usually in colored regiments. As a result, their presence in the war effort has often been overlooked. In 1863 and 1864, for example, several Mohegans and Mashpees enlisted in Connecticut’s two colored Union regiments. Several Pequot soldiers also enlisted in segregated Union regiments. As in the South, the racial ambiguity of the Indians complicated the participation of Indians in the North. They received “colored” wages that were typically half of what white soldiers received, and they often were relegated to manual labor. They guarded important wagon trains and railroads, built trenches, and otherwise performed support tasks behind the front lines. As time passed, however, Native Americans saw extensive action on the front lines of the war, as the role of colored units expanded.

The Far West

The Civil War hardly provided a respite from the recurrent warfare that had plagued the Southwest and Plains in the 1850s. Instead, the Indian wars of the antebellum era continued “while public attention has been completely absorbed with the Rebellion” (“The Sioux War” 1863, 695). There, the formal and informal wars waged by the United States and its citizens on Native Americans had little to do with the central issues that elsewhere defined the era of the Civil War. Instead, recurring acts of reciprocal violence resulted as American ranchers, miners, and settlers intruded on Native American territory. The onslaught of new settlers to California and the west in 1849, after the discovery of gold, brought untold disruptions to Native American societies who suffered as western settlers looted their way through their lands and coerced others into providing labor or supplies. In 1866, the Apache leader Cochise remarked that When I was young I walked all over this country, east and west, and saw no other people than the Apaches. After many summers I walked again and found another race of people had come to take it. How is it? Why is it that the Apaches wait to die—that they carry their lives on their finger nails? (Calloway 2008, 311)

Although most Americans were preoccupied by events to the east, several of the worst massacres took place in the west. In 1863, California Volunteers used the pretext of the war and depredations committed against recent settlers to attack a Shoshoni-Bannock village in Idaho. They killed about 200 men, women, and children. In 1864, the Cheyennes discovered that the war would not ease the pressure they felt from the onslaught of settlers who coveted the gold on their lands. While under the protection of the U.S. government, Colonel J. M. Chivington and the 3rd Colorado Calvary attacked a camp at Sand Creek. Black Kettle raised white and American flags, but they were to no avail. More than 270 Indians were killed, many of them “mutilated in the most horrible way” (Calloway 2008, 303). Chivington’s actions were widely condemned, but the damage was done. The Sand Creek Massacre, as it became known, devastated the Cheyenne, who saw one-fifth of their council and many of their most vocal spokesmen for accommodation killed. The Navajo similarly suffered during the war. In 1864, responding to retaliatory raids between the Navajos and recent settlers in New Mexico, Christopher (Kit) Carson, his California Volunteers, and some Ute allies burned villages and orchards, killed livestock, and otherwise ravaged their communities. The Navajos then suffered the “Long Walk”—a brutal journal to the Bosque Redondo reservation in the southeastern part of New Mexico.

The Dakota Uprising

During the American Civil War, Native Americans also dealt with longstanding frustrations with the United States. This was abundantly clear in the 1862 Dakota Uprising. Big Eagle, a Dakota warrior who later converted to Christianity, recalled that there were many causes of the war. The struggle and anger over acculturation policies epitomized much of the problems. “Then the whites were always trying to make the Indians give up their life and live like white men—and the Indians did not know how to do that, and did not want to anyway.” Their anger, he explained, was natural.

If the Indians had tried to make the whites live like them, the whites would have resisted … The Indians wanted to live as they did before the treaty of Traverse de Sioux—go where they pleased and when they pleased, hunt game wherever they could find it, sell their furs to the traders and live as they could. (Nichols 2003, 23)

Indeed the Dakota uprising had many causes. In addition to anger over mistreatment by government officials, a general failure to live up to treaty agreements helped lead the Dakotas to reservations in Minnesota. The Dakotas never received adequate schools, and the food and supplies they should have received as allotments were frequently sold in stores at inflated prices. A poor 1861 harvest and harsh winter ensured that hunger was a reality for many Dakotas—they lived on roots. Matters worsened with the indifference of the Indian agents and traders, one of whom stated that if the Indians were “hungry let them eat grass or their own dung” (Nichols 2003, 134). Indifferent Indian agents and acculturation programs that divided Native Americans further magnified the internal tensions within Dakota society. In July 1862, even as the Dakotas hoped for a better forthcoming harvest, they decided that the time was ripe to retain their ancestral lands and otherwise restore their sovereignty. The Dakotas may have been further emboldened by the relative lack of white men in the region, as they were fighting the war in the east.

In August 1862, the Dakotas attacked the Redwood Indian Agency and the surrounding white settlements. Much of the fighting was particularly brutal, as towns were largely burned, several hundred settlers were killed, an unknown number of women were raped, and a few hundred whites were taken captive. The actions of the Dakotas were widely condemned in the United States and calls for vengeance were common. An article in Harper’s Weekly, for example, declared that “It will be long before the frontiers of Minnesota will recover from this tragedy, and many of the sufferers will seek justice with their ready rifles, and will range the vast plains west to the Missouri until they have hunted every Indian into the mountains” (“The Indian Murderers in Minnesota” 1862, 807).

When the bloody uprising was finally put down, a hasty trial condemned 303 to death. Lincoln ordered the execution of 39 participants, singling out those who were known to be murderers or rapists. An accused Dakota warrior received a reprieve from the sentence, but 38 hanged together for their actions. The rest remained captive for four years, during which time about one-third of them died. As a nation, the Dakotas also suffered for the rebellion—their reservation was abolished, their treaties declared null and void, and they were confined to an internment camp at Pike Island near Fort Snelling in Minnesota. The United States offered a $25 bounty for the scalp of any Dakota Indian found in the state and out of the camp. In May 1863 the survivors were removed from the disease-stricken camp and shipped to Crow Creek in the Dakota Territory and then in 1866 moved again to the Santee Reservation in Nebraska.

The Western Delaware

The western territories also included Indians who were long-standing residents as well as recent migrants. Most of these newcomers were forced there by government policies and were still adjusting to their new homes when the Civil War began. For these Native Americans, the war ironically provided opportunities to secure a semblance of stability. The Delaware Indians in Kansas and the Indian Territory saw supporting the Union as the means to their survival as a people. At the beginning of the war, several chiefs sent

their Grandchildren of other Nations their friendship, and ask of them not to quarrel and shed blood about the condition of the country. Let none of the Tribes war against the Union … If there should be any division in any Nation, and any part of a Tribe attempt to assail and war against the others because they are for the preservation of the Union. (“The Missouri Imbroglio” 1861, 671)

They pledged “to lead the whole power of the Nation to aid and protect such Tribes as may be invaded.” Their pledge was not merely an offer to support potential allies, but also a warning to “our Creek Friends, and to all other Nations, that we will stand and die by the Great Father” (“The Missouri Imbroglio” 1861, 671).

The Delaware Indians lived up to their rhetoric as loyal Unionists. Delaware men served as scouts and home guards, protecting the area from incursions by other Indians and Confederate sympathizers. Enlistment rates for the Delawares were remarkable, with 170 of the eligible 210 men volunteering for service by 1862. The Delaware Indians did more than volunteer. Black Beaver, for example, used his decades of experience as a guide and a scout when the war broke out. Black Beaver helped with diplomatic negotiations with various Indian tribes and helped on the battlefield. He provided advance scouting of Confederate troops and led a dangerous expedition to Kansas, in which several hundred Union troops and their Confederate prisoners traveled 500 miles unscathed through dangerous terrain. Black Beaver received the ire of Confederates who razed his ranch at the Wichita Agency, causing an estimated $5,000 in damage.

The interest of the Delaware Indians in the war, however, was entirely local. Supporting the Union, they believed, allowed them to achieve “the interests of his own tribe” (Hauptman 1995a, 23). As elsewhere, the Delawares’ strategy did not work out as planned. Just as Black Beaver’s efforts to get compensation for his losses from the federal government failed, the Delawares hardly survived the war unscathed. Land speculators, railroadmen, squatters, and non-Delaware Indians who were fleeing Indian Territory all overran the Delawares’ tribal lands. Disease killed many of those who survived exposure to the elements and endured the lack of food and other supplies. Confederate troops also created widespread damage and chaos, as William Quantrill and his raiders ransacked Indian and other towns, destroying property, stealing horses, and killing civilians. As one Indian agent explained, “the Delawares are affected by the unsettled condition of the country. Many of them are in the army. Their families are consequently left without male assistance. The large children are withdrawn to labor at home” (Hauptman 1995a, 36). According to their claim for compensation from the federal government, white raiders caused $17,588.25 in damage.

The Costs of War

The human costs of the war devastated many Native American communities. During the war, for example, the Cherokees’ western population declined from about 21,000 to 13,566. An estimated 1,500 Creeks lost their lives during the war. Mortality rates only tell part of the story. The physical upheaval of the war also left many communities divided and geographically dispersed. At the end of the war, for example, there were about 2,000 Native American refugees in Kansas and another 7,000 at Fort Gibson in Indian Territory. During the war, the U.S. government estimated that there were almost 14,000 Indian refugees. They included an estimated 2,906 Cherokees at Tishomingo, 574 Seminoles near Fort Washita, and about 5,200 Choctaws and Chickasaws who were scattered in Indian Territory. One-quarter of the nation’s Indian children were technically orphans. Rebuilding Native American communities, like other communities elsewhere in the war-torn nation, also proved difficult, especially as the Indian Territory was virtually overrun by deserters near the end of the war. Gangs of lawless soldiers—from the Union and Confederate armies and from Indian and non-Indian backgrounds—indiscriminately looted, burning homes, barns, and stores and stealing cattle and other assets. The property of many Native Americans was destroyed or looted, there was little in the way of wartime harvests, and approximately 300,000 head of cattle were killed or stolen from their Native American owners. One Creek Indian commented that their land was all they had left “and that was because, of all Creek property, only the land was immovable” (Bailey 2006, 45).

The Costs of Victory and Defeat

At the end of the war, many Native Americans pleaded for a return to normality. In early 1866, John Cupco, principal chief of the Unionist Seminoles, wrote that “we asked [our] Southern brethren to return to homes and live again in peace and we wished some laws to govern us as before the war” (Micco 2006, 132). These pleas went largely unheeded as the United States treated the Indian nations in Indian Territory—regardless of their internal divisions—as conquered enemies. Tensions within the Native American communities, those that predated the war and those that were caused by it, also remained.

As the war progressed and ended, Indians increasingly felt the long arm of the American government and its policies. Central to this was emancipation and Reconstruction. Socially and culturally, emancipation provided one of the most notable changes in Native American society, especially among the southeastern tribes. Through a series of treaties between the United States and the Five Civilized Tribes in 1865 and 1866, for example, African slaves were emancipated and obtained citizenship in their respective tribes. Despite these gains, African Americans in Indian Territory received many of the same mixed messages that were communicated elsewhere. Although Reconstruction would take a different form in Indian Territory, slaves in Indian communities frequently complained that they enjoyed “few, if any of the benefits of freedom.” Instead, they were in a “helpless condition” and suffering “many ills and outrages, even to the loss of many a life” (Krauthamer 2006, 112).

Diplomatically, the Civil War also resulted in a new landscape for Native American peoples. Even Unionists could hardly enjoy the fruits of victory. The United States punished tribes—even if they were divided during the war—for rebellious behavior. The Seminole Nation, for example, was required to sell its reservation at $0.15 an acre and buy new land from the Creeks at $0.50 an acre. Other tribes were compelled to cede half their territory in the Indian Territory. This land would become reservations for the Arapahos, Caddos, Cheyennes, Commanches, Iowas, Kaws, Kickapoos, Pawnees, Potawatomis, Sauk and Foxes, and Shawnees. Adding insult to injury, the United States also saw to it that the postwar treaties would ensure that Indian nations would allow railroads and western settlers to cut across their lands.


The American Civil War had disastrous results for most Native Americans. Just as secession divided the United States, the war tore Indian nations apart. As much as Indian tribes attempted to use the Civil War to pursue their own ambitions, few tribes achieved their diplomatic ambitions. Instead, the war exacerbated internal divisions in most Indian communities, physically destroyed their homes, fields, and herds, and limited the ability of most Indians to control their own borders and communities. Slaveholding Indians saw their property rights ignored, while enslaved black Indians often discovered that their freedom would not be protected. The United States forced many recognized tribes—whether Unionist or Confederate allies—to cede lands and authority in the postwar world. Individual Indian soldiers, who suffered heavy mortality rates and served at many important battles, similarly saw themselves treated as marginal players and second-class soldiers. Perhaps most important, the tensions over land, power, and culture that predated the war continued in the postbellum era as the United States turned its military and unified attention to conquering the Indians of the West.