Native American Soldiers

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Native American Soldiers

An estimated 16,000 to 20,000 Native American men took part in the American Civil War in an official capacity, with the vast majority—probably three-quarters of the total—fighting on the side of the Confederacy. Native American soldiers were most prominent and important in the lightly populated Trans-Mississippi West, but Native Americans also participated in battles in the Eastern theaters of the war.

Indian Troops in the East

East of the Mississippi River, Native American membership in the Confederate military consisted primarily of a few hundred soldiers scattered among white regiments hailing from Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee. As Laurence Hauptman detailed in Between Two Fires (1995), the most prominent tribes to formally cast their lot with the Confederacy were the Catawba of South Carolina, who became particularly proficient at scouting and tracking down runaway slaves, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee, who guarded mountain passes and conducted raids against Union positions in the Smoky Mountain region. Many of these Native American soldiers eschewed the uniform worn by white Confederate soldiers. "Their faces were painted, and their long straight hair, tied in a queue, hung down behind," wrote one Confederate soldier from Missouri. "Their dress was chiefly in the Indian costume—buckskin hunting-shirts, dyed of almost every color, leggings, and moccasins of the same material, with little bells, rattles, ear-rings, and similar paraphernalia. Many of them were bareheaded and about half carried only bows and arrows, tomahawks, and war-clubs" (Davis 1991, p. 22).

Within the Union ranks, the most notable tribes to make their presence felt included members of Virginia's Pamunkey tribe, who served as river pilots for George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac in 1862 during the Peninsula campaign, and Lumbee warriors from North Carolina, who waged guerrilla campaigns in the swamp country of their native lands in the last months of the war. The pro-Union tribes most deserving of mention, however, are Michigan's Ottawa and Ojibwa tribes. Warriors from these tribes became Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, a group that distinguished itself at the bloody Battle of the Crater and several other engagements.

What motivated these Native Americans to become involved in the Civil War, which was fought for purposes that had nothing to do with them? The answer, in essence, was that their tribal leaders hoped that participation in the war would help them negotiate more favorable treaties to protect their traditional homelands from white incursion (similar motivations prompted other far-flung tribes, such as the Pequots of Connecticut and the Seneca of western New York, to assist the Federals).

Fighting in Indian Territory

In the Trans-Mississippi West, many Indian tribes avoided any involvement in the white man's war. Union forces, though, did receive the support of Delaware Indian leaders who hoped to parlay that support into a reasonable land treaty with officials in Washington. More importantly, the Cherokee became deeply involved in the Civil War. The war opened a deep schism among the Cherokee. The majority of the Cherokee nation, under the leadership of chief John Ross, tried to steer a neutral course. "I am—the Cherokees are—your friends and the friends of your people," he wrote to Confederate officials. "But we do not wish to be brought into the feuds between yourselves and your Northern Brethren. Our wish is for peace. Peace at home and Peace among you" (Moore 1862, p. 394). Over time, however, some Cherokees from Ross's group drifted into the Union camp. A sizable faction led by Stand Watie, however, joined the Confederate cause. Watie's followers became the foundation of a sizable Native American force for the Confederacy; the South ultimately raised eleven regiments and seven battalions of Indian cavalry in the region.

A Native American at Appomattox: Ely Samuel Parker (1828–1895)

Ely (pronounced E-lee) Samuel Parker was a Seneca-lroquois Indian who not only served in the Union Army during the Civil War but rose to the rank of brigadier general. Parker was born in 1828 in Indian Falls, New York, on what was then the Tonawanda reservation. His mother had been told by a tribal elder before Ely's birth that her son would become a great warrior and peacemaker. Parker's original tribal name was Hasanoanda, which means "The Reader." A gifted child, he learned English rapidly and was sent to an academy in western New York; there he won prizes for his speaking skill. His tribal leaders thought so highly of him that they sent him to Washington at the age of eighteen to represent the Iroquois and Seneca in treaty negotiations with the United States. In 1852, Parker was made the sachem (chief) of the Seneca tribe and given the name Donehogawa, which means "Keeper of the Western Door."

After graduation from the academy, Parker wished to study law but was rejected by Harvard because he was an Indian. He prepared for the New York bar examination by working for three years in a law firm, but was not allowed to take the test on the grounds that he was not an American citizen (Native Americans were not given citizenship rights until 1924). Parker then became a civil engineer; after working on the Erie Canal, he was sent west to Galena, Illinois, where he met Ulysses S. Grant. When the Civil War broke out, Parker contacted the governor of New York and offered to raise a regiment of Iroquois volunteers to fight on the Union side. His proposal was rejected.

Grant did not forget Parker, however. When Grant was promoted to major general in 1863, he gave Parker an appointment in the Union Army as a captain of engineers. Parker served under Grant at the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 and returned east with him when Grant was made commander of all Union forces in March 1864. As Grant's adjutant, Parker used his legal training to help draft the surrender document that Robert E. Lee signed at Appomattox in April 1865. The document, now in the National Archives, is in Parker's handwriting. After the war, Parker was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, his promotion being backdated to the date of Lee's surrender.

While Lee was signing the surrender papers, he apparently mistook Parker for a black man, and tried to apologize by saying, "I am glad to see one real American here." Parker is said to have replied, "We are all Americans, sir" (Armstrong 1978, p.178).

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Armstrong, William H. Warrior in Two Camps: Ely S. Parker, Union General and Seneca Chief. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1978.

Gilmore, Gerry J. "Seneca Chief Fought Greed, Injustice." U.S. Department of Defense, Armed Forces Press Service, 2002. Available from

The clashes between these forces occurred primarily in Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), which both Confederate and Union officials recognized as key to the Rebels' western defenses. White military leaders pushed the Indians into bloody confrontations with one another again and again, with little regard for the spiraling death toll. As the war progressed, Indian Territory became a notoriously bloody and savage killing ground. Stories of scalpings and other savagery were seized on by white officials and settlers who were eager to push Indians elsewhere in the West off their traditional lands.

Almost without exception, white military strategists with the Union and Confederacy treated the Native American warriors under their charge with a combination of contempt and disregard. Wages, food, clothing, and weapons that had been earmarked for the Indians were routinely diverted to white troops. Many Indians had to scavenge clothing from the field, by foraging, or make do with the rags provided from depleted commissaries. In addition, corruption and fraud remained hallmarks of government contracts for various services earmarked for the tribes as a whole. The violence in Indian Territory also roiled the internal politics and society of myriad tribes, making them even more vulnerable to the mighty tide of westward settlement rolling over their lands. The spilling over of the Civil War into Indian Territory, then, was a negative development for the Native Americans living in the region, and the conduct of both Union and Confederate leaders toward Native American soldiers marching under their banners remains one of the most shameful chapters in the entire conflict.


Berg, Gordon. "Inured to Hardships, Fleet as Deer."Civil War Times (June 2007).

Civil War Society. "Native Americans in the Civil War." Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Wings Books, 1997.

Davis, William C. Rebels and Yankees: The Fighting Men of the Civil War. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1991.

Franks, Kenny A. Stand Watie and the Agony of the Cherokee Nation. Memphis, TN: Memphis State University Press, 1979.

Hatch, Thom. The Blue, the Gray, and the Red: Indian Campaigns of the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2003.

Hauptman, Laurence M. Between Two Fires: American Indians in the Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. The Civil War in the American West. New York: Random House, 1991.

Moore, Frank, ed. Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1862.

Kevin Hillstrom

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Native American Soldiers

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Native American Soldiers