"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Monday, December 20, 2010

American Indians in the Civil War?

Who's ready for five years of politicized, polarized, misinterpreted, and misinformed Civil War sesquicentennial fun?  (No, well you better get ready cause it starts on Monday!)

December 20th, 2010 marks the start of six years of anniversary celebrations for the American Civil War.  Exactly 150 years ago, the state of South Carolina voted to secede from the Union.  Within two months, the Confederate States of America were formally established, eventually growing to eleven states.

Why did they secede?  I'll let Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens do the talking.  Here is the famous excerpt from the cornerstone speech which puts it pretty bluntly (hint: slavery):

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted.

(Jefferson's) ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. ... Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner–stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

I was reminded of this ensuing anniversary thanks to an article over at National Parks Traveler:

American Indians in the Civil War? Petersburg National Battlefield is Part of the Story

Here is a brief excerpt:

The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War is nearly here and a recent event at Petersburg National Battlefield underscored a bit of history that often escapes much notice—the role of American Indians in the conflict.

Estimates of the number of American Indians who fought for either the Union or the Confederacy vary widely; several sources cite numbers ranging from about 6,000 to over 20,000 men. One example occurred at Petersburg, Virginia, and that story has recently received some renewed attention.

The article goes on to describe Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters who fought at Petersburg.  Company K consisted entirely of American Indians from Michigan who enlisted in the Union Army.

According to information from the park, "The 1st Michigan Sharpshooters fought valiantly in every major battle in the Petersburg campaign. The American Indians were a memorable presence at the Battle of the Crater, where they were noticed for their composure under adversity. A Union officer described watching a group of them pull their jackets over their faces and sing their death chant when trapped in the crater under Confederate fire. 

The Park Service realized many of the dead from Company K were buried at the local cemetery and decided to contact the "the tribes to arrange a nation to nation consultation on how to move forward with the cemetery restoration project under the provisions of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act."

Eric Hemenway, a tribal repatriation specialist who works with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, was one of several Native representatives who traveled to Petersburg.  Hemenway noted:

“We want to have Company K’s story told from our perspective... It’s been a local legend passed down in our community but outside of our community, it’s like a secret.  No one really knows about Company K...

Their rights aren’t fully recognized, yet they voluntarily go and fight.  They weren’t drafted or forced.  That’s kind of amazing.  In 1820, the United States Army tried to push them out of Michigan, but 40 years later, the men of Company K joined that same Army.  They went above and beyond the normal call of duty."

Hemenway finished saying:

“We’re just happy the park is being proactive and asking input from the tribes to tell their story.  We’re still here and we have a story to tell.”

This is a great article for several reasons:

1. It shows just how far the National Park Service has come in its relations with Indian people.  What was once a relationship of mistrust and hostility is slowly transforming into one of cooperation and understanding.

2. It reminds us that Indian people in the 1860s were not all stuck on the plains playing charades with Kevin Costner but rather lived side by side (and fought side by side) with a diverse lot of Americans from all backgrounds.

3. And despite this interaction, Indian people maintained and lived out their own culture and traditions within the bloody battlefields of the Civil War.

4. Lastly, it's a great reminder that Indian people not only fought in the Civil War but fought on both sides.  Just as brother fought brother in the Civil War so did Native brother fight Native brother.

Stand Watie, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation (1862-1866)
Confederate Brigadier General
(Source: www.scv357.org)

For more on this topic check out the corresponding Wikipedia article which also contains a photo of Company K:



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