Brutal battles between the U.S. Army and Indians were not considered part of the “real war.”

The Civil War witnessed numerous clashes between Indians and the U.S. Army and territorial military units. Three of the most notable involved the Sioux in Minnesota in 1862-1863, the Navajo in Arizona and New Mexico in 1863-1864, and a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek, Colorado Territory, in 1864. In his multiple-prize-winning Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek (2013), Ari Kelman usefully addresses whether these kinds of events should be considered part of, or largely separate from, the Civil War. He quotes an Indiana soldier writing from Petersburg in 1865 who, in Kelman’s words, considered Sand Creek “an aberration, a fit of frontier brutality that threatened to diminish glorious achievements hard won during a terrible but ultimately just war.” For Indians looking eastward, in contrast, Sand Creek fit into a Civil War waged for “empire, a contest to control expansion into the West.” Kelman’s own measured view is that Sand Creek “should be recalled as part of both the Civil War and the Indian Wars, a bloody link between interrelated chapters of the nation’s history.”

If asked to address this question, most residents of the United States likely would have pronounced encounters between U.S. military forces and Native Americans tangential to the fundamental issues of the Civil War. The more than 2,000,000 citizen-soldiers who shouldered muskets, as well as the civilian population, overwhelmingly waged a war to restore the Union sundered by secessionist slaveholders. Although people in the United States sometimes thought about the West, the nation’s political and military focus remained firmly fixed much farther east.

General John Pope’s reassignment from Virginia to Minnesota in September 1862 is instructive. Exiled to a military backwater, Pope put on a stoic face. “I could tell a sad story to you tonight, of recent events,” he told a gathering in Chicago while en route to Minnesota, “but it is wiser and better that I should not tell it.” Pope soon learned the relative importance of dealing with the Sioux and of commanding forces, as he had earlier, in the Western and Eastern Theaters. On September 23, from St. Paul, he informed superiors in Washington that he lacked wagons, mules, and men. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton replied that Pope should not “detain in your department any more troops than are absolutely necessary for protection from the Indians.” General in Chief Henry W. Halleck also weighed in, acidly observing that “organization of a large force for an Indian campaign is not approved by the War Department, because it is not deemed necessary.”

Like Pope, many soldiers serving against Indians nourished disappointment at being so far from what they considered the real war. Early in 1862, an Iowan affirmed that deployment in Dakota Territory “is not the height of our ambition. We are anxious to take an active part in this struggle for national existence, and distinguish ourselves . . . in maintaining our country’s rights and restoring peace and harmony to its now torn and distracted States.” Similarly, a member of the Fourth Minnesota Infantry, a unit initially assigned to garrison duty on the frontier, recalled how “intimation that the Fourth would be home guards” provoked “a good deal of fun” directed “at the expense of those who enlisted in the regiment.” The enlistees, however, held out hope for a chance to help save the nation: “Our men believed that the war would be a long one, and that they would have the opportunity to see all the fighting that they would desire.” Unlike Pope, who never returned to a major theater, the Fourth saw action in Mississippi and Tennessee later in the war.

Evidence from inside Lincoln’s cabinet, including the papers of Gideon Welles, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, John G. Nicolay, and John Hay, underscores how little attention top policymakers accorded hostile Indians. The fighting in Minnesota in August and September 1862, the toll for which included more than 500 dead white civilians (almost certainly a higher number than Confederate civilians killed during all of Sherman’s campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas), and the well-known mass hanging of 38 Sioux at Mankato later that year received only passing mention. Indeed, the best known aspect of the Minnesota drama related to Lincoln’s commuting death sentences of more than 250 Indians.

I believe it is most useful to interpret wartime struggles between Indians and the United States as utterly predictable. These kinds of incidents would have occurred, at some place and in some fashion, in the absence of the four-year slaughter triggered by sectional wrangling. They fit within a framework that connects innumerable episodes from the Tidewater and Pequot wars of the 17th century to the conflicts between Native Americans and the U.S. Army during the post-Appomattox decades.

A few examples illustrate continuities. In New Mexico, Kit Carson received orders to “lay waste the prairie with fire,” a variation on attempts to deny Indians food and shelter that went back to “feed fights” of the colonial era or, nearer the Civil War, to Colonel William J. Worth’s actions during the Second Seminole War. The forced relocation of the Sioux in Minnesota and, more famously, “The Long Walk” of 8,000-9,000 Navajo from modern-day Arizona to the Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner, New Mexico (at least 200 perished on the 300-mile journey), recalled the “removal” of the “Five Civilized Tribes” from the Old Southwest to what is now Oklahoma.

Wartime friction with Indians also spawned the kind of debate about methods that had arisen in virtually all earlier eras. One side, often dominated by white voices from frontier areas, called for unrestrained war against the Indians. Colonel John M. Chivington, who led the Colorado and New Mexico units at Sand Creek, insisted “that to kill them is the only way we will ever have peace and quiet in Colorado.” Others called for less brutal methods, as when Senator Charles Sumner denounced Sand Creek, where approximately 150 Indian men, women, and children died, as “an exceptional crime; one of the most atrocious in the history of the country.”

After Appomattox, many regular army officers returned to the kind of service against Indians they had known before Fort Sumter. Few found the satisfaction they had known in winning a war to save the Union and kill slavery.