Memorial Day, a solemn day of remembrance in the United States, holds deep historical significance as a time to honor those who have sacrificed their lives in military service. The first national observance of Memorial Day occurred on May 30, 1868. Then known as “Decoration Day”, the holiday was proclaimed by Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic to honor the Union soldiers who had died in the Civil War.
While the origins of this commemoration lie in the aftermath of the American Civil War, it is essential to recognize the often-overlooked contributions and impact of Indigenous peoples during this pivotal period.
This blog post explores and sheds light on the “Five Civilized Tribes” and events that took place throughout the Civil War.
Approximately 20,000 Native Americans served in the Union and Confederate armies. Tribes included: the Delaware, Muscogee Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Kickapoo, Seneca, Osage, Shawnee, Choctaw, Lumbee, Chickasaw, Iroquois, Powhatan, Pequot, Ojibwa, Huron, Odawa, Potawatomi, Catawba, and Pamunkey.
The Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Catawba, and Creek tribes were the only tribes to fight on the Confederate side.
By the 1830s, Andrew Jackson had removed many Native Americans from their lands in the southern United States. Most tribes were relocated into the Midwest in what was labeled “Indian Territory,” as they were promised by the government to be given land and to be considered nations of their own.
For Native Americans, fighting alongside the white man was seen as an opportunity to gain recognition and support from the prevailing government. They believed that participating in the war effort would restore Native lands and rights.
The term “Five Civilized Tribes” was applied by European Americans in the colonial and early federal period in the history of the United States to the five major Indigenous Tribes in the Southeast—the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, and Seminoles.
Americans of European descent classified them as “civilized” because they had adopted attributes of the Anglo-American culture. Examples of such colonial attributes adopted by these five tribes included Christianity, centralized governments, literacy, market participation, written constitutions, intermarriage with white Americans, and chattel slavery practices, including purchase of enslaved African Americans. For a period, the Five Civilized Tribes tended to maintain stable political relations with the European Americans, before the United States promoted Indian removal of these tribes from the Southeast.
The Seminole Nation
The Seminole in the American Civil War were found in both the Trans-Mississippi and Western Theaters. The Seminole Nation in the Trans-Mississippi Theater had split alliances.
However, the majority of the tribe in the Western territories joined the Union Army under the leadership of Sonuk Miikko (commonly known as Billy Bowlegs). Sonuk formally enlisted in the Union Army as a captain in May 1862 and was assigned command of Company A of the First Indian Home Guards.
Others, such as John Jumper (pictured left), supported the Confederacy. When the Civil War broke out, Chief Jumper reluctantly agreed to sign an alliance with the Confederate States of America. He also enlisted in the Confederate Army, first serving as a major in the First Battalion Seminole Mounted Rifles, and as lieutenant colonel of the First Regiment Seminole Volunteers. He led these troops in the battles of Round Mountain, Chusto-Talasah, Middle Boggy, and Second Cabin Creek
After the War ended, the Seminole Indians became reclusive and their history was obscured.
The Cherokee Nation
The Cherokee Nation was divided, with one side led by Principal Chief John Ross and the other by Stand Watie.
John Ross was the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828 to 1866. Fearing that joining the Confederacy would void the earlier Cherokee treaties with the United States, Ross tried to persuade his people to remain neutral in the conflict, but eventually most chose sides. At a general assembly on August 21, 1861, Ross ended his speech by announcing that in the interests of tribal and inter-Indian unity it was time to agree on an alliance with the Confederate States of America.
Stand Watie was the only Native American to rise to a Confederate brigadier-general’s rank during the war. Watie took part in what is considered to be the greatest (and most famous) Confederate victory in Indian Territory, the Second Battle of Cabin Creek, which took place in what is now Mayes County, Oklahoma on September 19, 1864. The Confederate Army put Watie in command of the Indian Division of Indian Territory in February 1865. By then, however, the Confederates were no longer able to fight in the territory effectively. On June 23, 1865, at Doaksville in the Choctaw Nation (now Oklahoma), Watie signed a cease-fire agreement with Union representatives for his command. He was the last Confederate general in the field to surrender.
The Cherokee Nation was considered the most negatively affected of all Native American tribes during the Civil War, its population declining from 21,000 to 1,500 by 1865. Despite the Federal government’s promise to pardon all Cherokee involved with the Confederacy, the entire Nation was considered disloyal, and those rights were revoked.
The Chickasaw Nation was the first of the Five Civilized Tribes to become allies of the Confederate States of America. In addition, they resented the United States government, which had forced them off their lands and failed to protect them against the Plains tribes in the West. In 1861, as tensions rose related to the sectional conflict, the US Army abandoned Fort Washita, leaving the Chickasaw Nation defenseless against the Plains tribes. Confederate officials recruited the American Indian tribes with suggestions of an Indian state if they were victorious in the Civil War.
Because the Chickasaw sided with the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War, they had to forfeit some of their land afterward.
The Choctaw in the American Civil War participated in two major arenas—the Trans-Mississippi and Western Theaters. The Trans-Mississippi had the Choctaw Nation. The Western had the Mississippi Choctaw. The Choctaw Nation had been mostly removed west prior to the War, but the Mississippi Choctaw had remained in the east. Both the Choctaw Nation and the Mississippi Choctaw would ultimately side with the Confederate States of America.
There are several possibilities why they sided with the Confederacy:
1. They believed the United States was on the verge of collapse.
2. They were neglected by the United States.
3. A majority of Mississippi Choctaw soldiers were conscripted into service.
4. Some Choctaw may have been enticed to side with the Confederacy as a possible solution to their land grant problems.
5. Financial incentives including fifty dollar bounty to those who enrolled with the Provisional Army of the Confederate States.
The Choctaws continued their support for the Confederacy until its collapse.
Muscogee Creek Nation
At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Opothleyahola, a Muscogee Creek Indian Chief, was among the minority of Creek in Indian Territory who supported the Union. Because of rising conflict within the tribe, he led his followers to Kansas as a refuge. They engaged in three battles against the opposition along the way. Their journey became known as the Trail of Blood on Ice, because the people suffered harsh conditions.
Because many Muscogee Creek people did support the Confederacy during the Civil War, the US government required a new treaty with the nation in 1866 to define peace after the war.
At the end of the war, it was General Ely S. Parker, a member of the Seneca tribe, who drafted the articles of surrender that General Robert E. Lee signed at Appomattox Court House.
Ely S Parker was born in 1828 in Genesee City, New York, as a Seneca, although much of his life was spent straddling two cultures. Parker acquired knowledge of his grandfather’s Iroquoian religion, while he was educated at the local Baptist school. Raised and educated in two cultures, he was a trained attorney and a self-taught engineer. While a captain of engineers with the Rochester regiment of the New York State Militia, he was also a “sachem,” one of the honored positions in his tribe and active in Tonawanda affairs.
Despite being barred from practicing law and receiving an initial rejection from military service because of his race, Parker rose to General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff. In 1863, with Grant’s support, he was commissioned as a staff officer for Brig. Gen. John E. Smith.