Native Americans in the Civil War

Race and Radicalism in the Union Army

MARK A. Lause writes that during the Civil War, “no other group sacrificed as much for the survival and triumph of the United States as did its Indian allies.” Written out of the historical memory and virtually ignored by scholars, the vital, but ultimately tragic, role played by Native Americans during the Civil War is a central concern of Lause’s new work, Race and Radicalism in the Union Army.

Lause argues that in the mid-nineteenth century, the upper Trans-Mississippi (roughly west Arkansas, southwest Missouri, Kansas, and the Indian Territory of Oklahoma) became a hotbed of radicalism that included John Brown and his followers. Lause notes that Brown spoke often of not only the Haitian revolution and slave revolts in the United States, but on the need for radical liberty against moneyed interests and deceitful politicians. Through armed struggle to defend a “free-state” Kansas against pro-slavery paramilitary forces, Brown learned key lessons on the need for revolutionary violence and resistance in the face of unjust laws. He told his supporters that he expected to die during his planned raid on Harper’s Ferry in order to apply the lessons of Kansas nationally. After his execution in 1859, it was in this upper Trans-Mississippi region where Brown’s dream was to be, at least partially, realized.

Free from the institutional structures and a federal military strategy that prioritized the East, this region saw a brief moment when a triracial unity of Native peoples, whites, and African Americans, “ordinary people unwilling to accept the status quo,” emerged. As Lause describes, the “dominant standards and institutions increasingly lost their hold over the people. The very survival…required the people themselves to mount the stage of history, write their own dialogue, and direct their own actions.”

Followers of Brown, with relatively little military experience, were given leading roles in western Union Army regiments and Indian Home Guard brigades, where even some Black soldiers engaged in their first combat during the war. William A. Phillips and James G. Blunt both led triracial military campaigns against the Confederacy, giving a radical meaning to “Wartime Unionism.” While federal troops were ultimately defeated at the Battle of Newtonia in 1862, the bravery of Indian units there marked a “political victory for the Indians in Washington,” and Indian rights advocates pressed Lincoln for reform against the “legacy of corruption, fraud, and deceit practiced on the Indians.” The first official “Colored Units” of Black soldiers emerged in 1863, and soldiers of the First Kansas Colored were pivotal in the Union victory at Honey Springs of that year, “the largest battle of the war in Indian Territory.”

Yet the meaning of “Wartime Unionism” was contested, and multiracial unity was to be a brief moment in an unfulfilled dream. Corruption in the white officer corps led to war profiteering and collusion with emerging market interests that either overcharged or purposely kept needed supplies at bay for Phillip’s troops at Fort Blunt, Oklahoma. Phillips himself was ostracized by his superior officers and eventually put under court-martial by those who understood “free-statehood” to mean “free of Indians.”

As Lause argues forcefully, it was Native peoples who paid the ultimate price. Caught in a war in which both sides reneged on their promises, Indians were, once again, removed from their lands. Thousands were forced to flee their homes and lived as refugees in Kansas, creating a humanitarian crisis and fueling white contempt. Lause describes the horrific tragedy caused by the Civil War:

Of the 3,530 known members of the Federals’ Indian Brigade, fully 1,018 died.… [T]he Civil War probably halved [the Cherokee] population.… The war in the Indian Territory widowed most adult women and orphaned most of the children. The regular ignoring or slighting of such a level of loss should certainly raise questions about the perspective from which we shape and process historical memory.

The war’s conclusion brought a reconstructed nation that, while promising radical change for African Americans, brought further immiseration of Native peoples and exposed its contradictions. The federal government abrogated its former antebellum treaties and reneged on its promises of protected settlement, forcing new arrangements of ceded lands on terms that benefitted the railroads. Some of Brown’s former supporters and even Black soldiers would go on to fight “Indian expeditions,” clearing western lands for white and African-American settlement. “In the end, the opportunities for further postwar dispossession made the Civil War seem like little more than a brief hiatus in the centuries-long subjugation of the Indians,” Lause concludes.

Race and Radicalism will inspire future debates about the fluid and shifting character of “Wartime Unionism” and the neglected aspect of both the western narrative of the war and, most importantly, the contribution played by Native peoples and their shameful treatment.

Lause’s work offers less, however, on the question of race and the role played by racism in Indian neglect and dispossession. He correctly posits the top-down and materially rooted effects of “white supremacy” in manifesting federal policy. Yet left unanswered is the role racism played in shifting opinions on the ground. Why exactly did some Kansas abolitionists come to favor Indian removal, and how could Black soldiers unite side-by-side with Native Americans at one time and then go on to fight against Native Americans at another? The role of racism needs to be further unpacked. On these questions, this reviewer would recommend David R. Roediger’s How Race Survived U.S. History.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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