Red, Gray, and Blue: American Indians in the Civil War


Thomas' Legion Scalping Yankees, from Adventures of Daniel Ellis the Union Guide 1868
Thomas’ Legion Scalping Yankees, from Adventures of Daniel Ellis the Union Guide 1868

A lot of people think that the Civil War ended in April of 1865, when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Not so – the last fight in the East was at Waynesville, North Carolina on May 6, 1865. West of the Mississippi, the battle of Palmito Ranch on May 12th is often considered to be the last engagement of the war. The very last Confederate command, that of Brigadier General Stand Watie, fought at Palmito Ranch, but did not lay down its arms until June 23rd, 1865, more than two months after Appomattox. The common thread among these last engagements: the Confederate troops were largely Native American. Even at Appomattox, the terms of surrender were drafted by Grant’s adjutant Ely Parker, a Seneca, who with Stand Watie was one of two Indians to attain the rank of general. At the McLean house, Lee shook his hand and said, “I am glad to see one real American here”, to which a conciliatory Parker replied, “We are all Americans.”

The Indians at Waynesville were North Carolina Cherokees commanded by William Holland Thomas, who had been adopted by the Cherokees as a boy and went on to become a chief of the Eastern Cherokees. As an attorney, he negotiated with the Federal government to prevent their removal to Oklahoma. In September of 1862, he raised Thomas’ Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders, a “legion” being an independent command with its own infantry, cavalry and artillery. For most of the war, the Legion defended southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee. In its first engagement, a popular Cherokee lieutenant was killed; enraged Cherokees retaliated by scalping dead or wounded Yankees. Thomas returned the scalps in a bag with his apologies.

This was not the only time scalps were taken by the Confederacy – at the battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas; Cherokees scalped and killed Federal wounded; the Federals promised no quarter to Confederate Cherokees in the future. Shortly afterward, the Confederate commander complained that Germans of Sigel’s command had executed surrendering Confederates; Sigel did not deny it and reminded his counterpart of the scalping and mutilations by the Cherokees at Pea ridge.

On their way to fight Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley in October of 1864, the approach of Thomas’ Legion interrupted Champ Ferguson’s systematic killings of Federal wounded after Saltville; Thomas and his next in command, James Love, were known to be honorable men who would not condone the partisan’s murders. The Legion joined Early’s command and participated in the battle of Cedar Creek on October 19th. The Legion returned to the mountains of North Carolina to carry on guerilla warfare once it became apparent that the Shenandoah Valley was lost. Mustering fewer than 100 in early 1865, Thomas managed to resurrect his command with 1200 recruits, of which about a third were Cherokees.

The Legion’s final accomplishment was perhaps its finest – winning the last fight in the East, in their home town, and with style. Thomas and most of his legionnaires were from Waynesville, North Carolina, a town named after “Mad Anthony” Wayne and founded by Robert Love, Thomas’ father-in-law. Thus, when the area was raided by a detachment of Unionist North Carolina mounted infantry on May 6, 1865, the Legion responded with special fury. Outnumbered four to one, the Confederates hit their opponents with a sharp volley, then scattered them with one of the war’s few documented bayonet charges. The routed Unionists took refuge inside the town. That night, the Confederates built hundreds of campfires on the surrounding ridges to hint that some horse thieves and arsonists were about to have an even worse tomorrow. The Cherokees performed blood-curdling war chants, making for a sleepless night for those trapped in the town. In the mountains of North Carolina, the partisan war was particularly ugly and atrocities were not uncommon. The troops who had been busy burning out their fellow Tar Heels the day before probably had heard about the Legion’s Cherokees scalping Yankees.  The next morning, the Confederate commander rode into Waynesville to negotiate the surrender of the trapped Federals. Learning that Joe Johnson had surrendered to Sherman, he instead surrendered to the relieved Unionists, one imagines on pretty favorable terms.

The Western Cherokees also backed the Confederacy, though not at first. Their principal chief John Ross counseled neutrality, but succumbed to pressure to sign a treaty with the Confederacy. He was sidelined when captured and interned by Federal troops. He was succeeded by Stand Watie, a Confederate loyalist, who raised levies of Cherokee troops, including two regiments of cavalry. These troops served with the 1st Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles and 1st Creek Regiment. They were described by their white commander as “entirely undisciplined, mounted chiefly on ponies, and armed very indifferently with common rifles and shotguns”.  But they showed up, and they fought, even though Indians would not become citizens until 1924, while former slaves were affirmed as citizens in 1868.

Of course not all Indians fought for the Confederacy. Here in Virginia, the Pumunkeys and Powhatans served as river pilots and spies for the invaders. In eastern North Carolina, the Lumbees were conscripted to build Fort Fisher near Wilmington. Many objected and hid out in the swamps to avoid service. Most famous of these were the Lowrie brothers, who formed the Lowrie gang of guerillas or outlaws, depending upon one’s point of view. They committed robberies and murders throughout the war and well into Reconstruction, the effort to capture the gang being called the “Lowry war.”

Some Indians fought in the Union ranks under the category of United States Colored Troops. Early in the war sachem Ely Parker had attempted to raise a regiment of Iroquois, but his offer was rejected by the governor of New York; initially he could not himself enlist, even though he was an experienced engineer. But in some cases the Indians were integrated into white regiments, such as the famous Company K of the Michigan Sharpshooters. They performed well, capturing around 600 Confederates in one skirmish near Petersburg. Soon after, they were slaughtered in the Crater, singing their death songs.

Out West, while the Confederacy courted the Indians as allies, it was business as usual for the Federal government. Following the battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico, Colorado home guards under John Chivington occupied themselves with an undeclared war against the Cheyenne. As part of the peace treaty “ending” this war, the Indians were to camp near Fort Lyon in Colorado. A group under Black Kettle camped at Sand Creek, flying an American flag to demonstrate they were not hostile. There, Chivington’s troops cut down over 150 Cheyenne, mostly women and children. Chivington justified his murder of children with the infamous maxim: “Nits grow into lice.” Many Cheyenne were scalped. Women were mutilated in especially horrible ways – one soldier displayed a fetus impaled on a stick. Women’s privates were scalped or cut out to stretch over saddle horns. Chief White Antelope’s scrotum became a tobacco pouch. Not all of the troops participated in the attack and a subsequent investigation censured Chivington. The massacre in James Michener’s Centennial is based on Sand Creek.

In 1862 in Minnesota, the Dakota Sioux rose to drive white settlers out of their territory, killing about 800 men, women and children. Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion gives some credence to the theory that Confederate agents incited the uprising, but also acknowledges that Federal Indian agents had defrauded the Sioux, and that the Sioux saw an opportunity to take back their land while the whites were preoccupied with killing each other. The Federals eventually sent in the army to reinforce local militia and after several months the Dakotas surrendered. Over 1,000 of their men were jailed; 303 were tried without counsel, convicted of rape or murder, and sentenced to death. Lincoln, appalled at the prospect of 303 executions, reviewed the records and culled the kill list down to 38. These 38 were hanged in a single day; their bodies were exhumed for dissection as medical cadavers. Those whose sentences were commuted went to prison; the remainder of the tribe was exiled to Nebraska and South Dakota.

Of course the U.S. government’s war on the Indian tribes continued long after the Civil War was over, culminating at Wounded Knee in 1890. All in all, it is not hard to see why many Indians favored the Confederacy over the Federal government.

Sources: Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion; Cherokees at Pea Ridge, Earl J. Hess, http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/pearidge/pea-ridge-history-articles/cherokeespearidge.html; William Trotter, Bushwhackers: The Civil War in North Carolina; 1862 Dakota War, http://exploringoffthebeatenpath.com/Battlefields/DakotaWar/index.html; Jefferson Curie, American Indians and the Civil War, http://www.ncdcr.gov/Portals/7/Collateral/database/F00.american.indians.pdf; Tony Horowitz, The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/horrific-sand-creek-massacre-will-be-forgotten-no-more-180953403/?no-ist; We are all Americans – Native Americans in the Civil War, http://alexandriava.gov/historic/fortward/default.aspx?id=40164

Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.

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