COMPANY K WAS ONE OF MANY companies that fought on July 30, 1864. The battle in Petersburg, Virginia, was one in a four-year war that had been ignited by decades-old disagreements. Arguments about African American enslavement raged: between states, between groups of people and political parties, even between family members. By the end of the 1850s, opposing views on slavery and its expansion had reached a fever pitch. While the federal government still sanctioned and upheld the slavery that existed in Southern states, the states in the Northern part of the country did not support slavery. In fact, they had already abolished it. The governing bodies of these states and the federal government did not want slavery permitted in any new states that joined the nation. States in the South permitted slavery—their economy was based on it. Their governing bodies favored the continuation of slavery and its expansion into new states.
In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln, who did not support the expansion of slavery, was elected president. Simmering tensions heated to a full boil. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated, in March 1861, seven states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—had seceded from the Union, tearing the country in two. With their secession, these states declared they were no longer part of the United States of America. They set up their own government, with its own constitution. They named their new country the Confederate States of America and chose Jefferson Davis as its president.
For many people in Southern states, the election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States was the last straw.
Soon after, the Confederacy established a volunteer army. Before dawn on April 12, 1861, in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, Confederate artillery began a steady bombardment of the Union’s Fort Sumter. After thirty-four hours, the fort’s commander surrendered.
Determined to preserve the United States as one country, President Lincoln responded. He issued a proclamation on April 15 that asked the militia of the United States to enroll seventy-five thousand men “in order to suppress” the rebellious action taken by the states that had seceded.
The situation worsened. By the middle of June, four more Southern states had joined the Confederacy. The Union and Confederate armies tested each other’s mettle in a series of small, scattered skirmishes. But on July 21, they clashed in a large battle at Bull Run, near Manassas Junction, Virginia. After that, there was no turning back. Civil war embroiled the country.
As the war intensified, Union and Confederate armed forces aggressively recruited new soldiers. Men enlisted for many reasons. Some wanted to abolish slavery; others wanted to maintain it. Some men fought to preserve the United States as one country; others fought to keep the seceded states separate. And because soldiers received regular pay, some men enlisted for the money. At the beginning of the war, men enlisted voluntarily. Later, as wounds, death, illness, and desertion reduced the ranks, men had to register for a draft, which is a system for required military service. But if he could afford it, a man could avoid military service by paying another man to serve in his place.
Some men who wanted to fight for the Union offered their service to the federal government within weeks of the war beginning. In May 1861, George Copway, an Ojibwe missionary and writer, wanted to form a company of “Indians of Michigan.” Backed by members of the Michigan Legislature, Copway proposed the idea to President Lincoln. Copway wrote that he would hand-pick the men and enlist them as scouts and messengers. They would be armed only in a way to provide for their self-defense. He added, “They will be young men, inured to hardship, fleet as deers, shrewd and cautious, and will doubtless prove of great service to the army.” The federal government turned down Copway’s proposal.
On October 30, 1861, Dr. G. P. Miller, an African American who lived in Battle Creek, Michigan, wrote a letter to Simon Cameron, President Lincoln’s secretary of war. In his letter, Miller asked for “the privilege of raising from five to ten thousand free men … to take any position that may be assigned us (sharp shooters preferred). We would like white persons for superior officers. If this proposition is not accepted we will if armed & equipped by the government fight as guerillas.” Miller added that some people who wanted to enlist with him were of “Indian” ancestry and were “legal voters in the state of Michigan.” Miller finished his letter, “In the name of God answer immediately.” The War Department wasn’t interested in Miller’s request, either.
That same year, twenty-five-year-old Tom Kechittigo, another Ojibwe man from Michigan, walked up to the army recruiter’s table. Kechittigo had been orphaned as a child. While growing up, he supported himself by fishing and hunting, often accompanied by his friend Bernard Bourassa. Kechittigo—by then an excellent shot—and Bourassa attempted to join the Second Michigan Cavalry. Kechittigo was rejected right away because the army wouldn’t “take Indians.” He recalled later that the officers told him they were afraid the American Indians would “murder and scalp all the womens and childrens.” Unfortunately, racist beliefs like this were commonly held by many white Americans. Somehow, though, Bourassa, also Anishinaabe, was accepted. Perhaps, to the enlisting officer, Bourassa hadn’t “looked” Indian.
Tom Kechittigo was rejected along with Copway’s and Miller’s proposals due to one reason: the prejudice of racism. At that time, many people unfairly believed that neither American Indians nor African Americans were trustworthy and that they were incapable of fighting as soldiers in an organized army.
Twenty-three-year-old Joseph Wakazoo, an Odawa, took a different route than Kechittigo. Instead of seeking a recruiter in Michigan, where he lived, Wakazoo traveled to Virginia, where the 16th Michigan Infantry was stationed. On November 8, 1861, Wakazoo enlisted in Company H of that regiment, apparently without any problem. It’s possible that he was permitted to do so because he knew one of the regiment’s officers.
By 1863, as the war dragged on and the Union needed more men, the federal government had changed its policy regarding the enlistment of African Americans and American Indians. The army went out and recruited African Americans, but segregated them into their own regiments, separate from white soldiers but under the command of white officers. The new recruits were officially labeled Colored Troops. (Today colored is not considered an appropriate way to describe African Americans or other people, but it was in common use during the Civil War.) Similarly, American Indians who were initially denied the opportunity to serve were now recruited to enlist.
In total, about twenty thousand American Indians served in the Union and Confederate armies and navies. In fact, two opposing army officers of high rank were American Indians. Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker, a Seneca from New York, was General Ulysses S. Grant’s adjutant—his right-hand man. He assisted Grant in issuing orders. In 1865, Parker wrote the final draft for the Confederates’ terms of surrender at Appomattox. After the war, he was named a brigadier general. Brigadier General Stand Watie, a Cherokee, commanded an American Indian brigade west of the Mississippi. He was the last Confederate general to surrender at the war’s end.
Ely S. Parker was one of Lincoln’s valued officers.
Many Choctaws, Cherokees, and Seminoles who lived in Southern states and the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) enlisted in the Confederate army. Their decision to side with the Confederacy may have reflected their grievances with the federal government, which had forced them from their homelands and broken many treaties. Some members of these nations—Stand Watie among them—owned enslaved people. In 1860, Cherokees in the Indian Territory owned four thousand slaves. Others in the same areas opposed slavery and joined the Union army. A number of battles in the West pitted members of the same community against one another.
About thirty-six hundred American Indians enlisted in the Union army, including the Ojibwes, Odawas, and Potawatomis whose ancestors had lived in the Upper Great Lakes region for many hundreds of years. As a group, these three bands call themselves Anishinaabek. This means “the good, or real, people” in Anishinaabemowin, the traditional language of the Anishinaabek.
For the Anishinaabe soldiers of Company K, a slavery-related reason may have prompted their support for the Union. In July 1863, Ojibwe chief Nock-ke-chick-faw-me gave a passionate speech to a group of young men. He spoke of their people’s long tradition as honorable and courageous fighters. He reminded them, “We are descendants of braves, who … drove the powerful tribes now beyond the ‘great river’ from these our once beautiful hunting grounds.… If the South conquers you will be slaves, dogs.” The chief’s words may have caused fear in some of his listeners, given the long history of their mistreatment by the government. If the Confederacy won the war, perhaps they might also be enslaved. On the other hand, slavery was illegal in the North. By supporting the Union cause, they could avoid enslavement.
A more pressing reason for the Anishinaabe soldiers was their desire to preserve their homeland. Ever since the Revolutionary War, treaties between the U.S. government and the Anishinaabek had greatly reduced the area of their homeland. Why did the Anishinaabe men support a government that did this? A government whose treaties tried to remove them? As the Civil War began, perhaps the most important reason was to safeguard the right to remain where generations of their ancestors had lived. Unfortunately, the Anishinaabek’s fear of losing their land was rooted in a long history of conflict with the federal government.
Copyright © 2019 by Sally M. Walker