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A Brief Look at the Native Americans in the Civil War

A Brief Look at the Native Americans in the Civil War

Native Americans in the Civil War

In 1861 it seemed that America was coming apart. Secession, Confederate nationhood, the firing on Fort Sumter, and a mesmeric rush to combat engulfed the nation. The realities of the crisis differed for everyone as individuals examined family, community, state, and national allegiances. One hundred and fifty years after the cataclysm of the American Civil War, we still tend to think of it in terms of black-and-white: the majority white soldiers and civilians, the minority African-American slaves. But what of the indigenous peoples of America?

For many American Indians, the impending conflict created no less of a crisis than it did for the dominant society. But their experience would be primarily defined by their location in the country. Geography was everything. As the tide of non-Indian settlement swept from East to West, indigenous people became minorities within settled regions. They remained Native, but adapted various political, economic, and cultural aspects of their lives to better coexist with their new neighbors. By the time the Civil War started, Indians in settled regions experienced the conflict as members of larger communities whose movements they did not control. Indians living on the edge of incorporated states were better able to retain tribal autonomy, yet they were still strongly influenced by national and state political discourse. Those groups well beyond the white frontier in “Indian Country,” however, generally lived with little concern for U.S. politics.

As the nation became consumed by war, few Anglos on either side of the Great Divide considered the Native Americans living among them. East of the Mississippi, tribal lands had been so diminished that most of the 30,000 Indians in the Union did not live in powerful tribal units. Thus, as the country headed for dissolution, Eastern Indians were left to make individual choices about whether or not to engage in the conflict. The Indian minority was concerned less about the divisive issues of slavery and the preservation of the American Constitution than about their ongoing struggle to hold on to their remaining land and culture. If fighting for the Union cause brought the respect and perhaps gratitude of those in power, then it was a means to an end. Army service also brought regular pay and food, adventure, and the continuation of an honorable tradition of Native warriors.

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Credit : Dr. Clarissa W. Confer for | Photo : Artist Robert Lindneux

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