The American Civil War was a years-long battle that divided the United States into two: north versus south. The war is most often remembered for its role in the end of slavery in the South, but many other political issues affected how each side was supported. The process of taking sides in the battle split families and friendships and created conflict between once-peaceful communities. But the Civil War was especially complex for Native Americans.
Native American tribes living in warring states were forced to make choices that affected their future. Tribes understood that aligning with the losing side could eventually put their freedom at risk. They also risked losing the ancestral lands they occupied. But there was disagreement over which side was the right one to follow, and that caused Native Americans to split their support. In some cases, individual tribes split to support opposing sides, creating another layer of conflict in the already complex fight between states.
Divided interests and allegiances
In total, more than 28,000 Native Americans participated in the American Civil War. (Pictured, an unidentified Native Indian during the Civil War, photographed by Mathew Brady). In many cases, the motivations for entering the war and choosing a side depended on perspective. For example, in the Union states, Native Americans had greater latitude in deciding whether to fight or stay out of the conflict. There were incentives to get involved, such as building goodwill with the government and continuing the tradition of fierce, brave tribal warriors. Perhaps most importantly, participating in the war carried the potential to earn Native Americans increased respect and ultimately help them preserve their culture within a growing country.
The situation was a bit different in the Confederate states. Earning the good graces of their neighbors was an attractive benefit of involvement, but it wasn’t a predominate factor motivating participation. What was? Many tribes in the south also happened to be slave owners; the Choctaw alone had about 6,000 slaves at the time of the Civil War. Because a Confederate loss could jeopardize their ability to own slaves and, with that, the tribe’s economy of the time, slave-owning tribes (including Cherokee, Choctaw and the Chickasaw people) typically sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Another contributing factor for Native Americans siding with the south, particularly for the Chickasaw people, was a general and growing distrust of the Federal government who had forced tribes off their ancestral lands into an area that another tribe claimed and then failed to protect them against that tribe. Part of Confederate recruitment included suggestions of an Indian state in the Confederate States of America as well as full citizenship and government representation. These were appealing offers for many Native Americans.
Growing involvement in the war effort
In some parts of the country, Native Americans were not highly sought out by the Union and Confederate states — particularly in the early years of the war; this was especially so in U.S. territories that had aligned themselves with a certain side. But as the war dragged on and each side needed more soldiers, Native Americans became increasingly important. And operating in their respective armies, Native American soldiers had plenty to be proud of.
One Native American, Ely S. Parker (pictured), shot up through the military ranks and was present for the official Confederate surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant, who would later become a U.S. president. Parker was one of just two Native Americans to be named a general during the Civil War, although many other Native American soldiers put forth brave efforts in fighting for their chosen side.
Unfortunately, the long-term benefits of Civil War involvement were minimal for Native Americans. Their own communities were wounded by the losses of battle, and the earned respect desired at the war’s outset provided very little material gain. While the Native Americans have their heroes, the conflict was ultimately one that inflicted lasting damage and pain, just as it did for the rest of the people living in the United States at that time.
See also Emily’s article on Native Americans: Major Players in the French and Indian War.