Book Review: American Indians and the Civil War

American Indians and the Civil War: Official National Park Service Handbook, edited by Robert K. Sutton and John Latschar, Eastern National, Fort Washington, Pa., 2013, $9.95 at

This compendium of essays deals with aspects of American Indian participation in the Civil War—in which some 20,000 Indians fought on both sides—including the parallel hostilities between whites and the unsettled Indian nations, and the war’s ultimate, almost invariably negative effect on Indian history. Most Civil War histories treat events west of the Mississippi River as a minor sideshow. Here, however, the Indian perspective extends from New York, where Seneca enlistees included Lt. Col. Ely Parker (a member of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s staff who drew up the articles of surrender at Appomattox), to Arizona (then part of New Mexico Territory), where war broke out between the U.S. Army and the Chiricahua Apaches two months before Fort Sumter.

Indian motives for taking part in the whites’ nation-dividing war varied with the tribe and even the individual, but most often the reason was to prove their loyalty and, in so doing, hold on to what lands they had—a hope that all too often proved in vain. In the case of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indian Territory (later to be Oklahoma), factional differences prompted a civil war within the Civil War among the Cherokees and Creeks. Their battles included Honey Springs, on July 17, 1863, the only major battle of the war in which whites were in the minority on both sides (the Confederate force incorporating Choctaws and Chickasaws, while the Union force included Seminole, Shawnee, Delaware, Keechi, Caddo, Kickapoo and Osage warriors).

From the Indians’ perspective the trans-Mississippi Civil War was no sideshow to the bloodshed in the East, given their steep casualties in battle and in the massacres at Bear River (here recounted by the Northwestern Shoshone granddaughter of survivor Mae Timbimboo Parry) and Sand Creek, as well as such forced resettlements as the Navajos’ “Long Walk.” The 1862 Homestead Act, favored by President Abraham Lincoln, would bring many new settlers to Indian country, while the westward progression of the telegraph and the railroad lay the groundwork for the final white conquest of the lands between the Mississippi and the Pacific Coast.

American Indians and the Civil War does not end on a downbeat, however. Instead, its authors note that in spite of all the devastation and displacement, the Indians survived, adapted, preserved their spirit and offered a philosophy on man’s relationship to the environment that would inform other cultures. Above all, the book reminds readers of Indian contributions to combatant armies in the “Late Unpleasantness” and that real Indians remain with us.

Jon Guttman

One Response

  1. bud johnston

    I think real interesting! another piece of unknown history, our Tribal folks always signed up for military way above national average by race


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