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Native Americans in the Civil War: A Forgotten History

Native Americans in the Civil War: A Forgotten History

You don’t often hear about it, but Native Americans participated in the Civil War as both Union and Confederate soldiers. Why would Native Americans be invested in a domestic dispute within the United States? After all the battles between Native Americans and American settlers over the previous two centuries, it wouldn’t seem the two groups would have any common ground in the Civil War. But they did, and 28,693 Native Americans joined up as soldiers and fought alongside those whom they had previously fought against in other wars. Here’s the forgotten history of the involvement of Native Americans in the Civil War, including why they fought and what roles they played.

Land and Slaves: Issues Important to Many Native Tribes

Native Americans knew the outcome of the Civil War would affect both the land that was available to them, as well as their economic prosperity in this new world dominated by the descendants of European settlers. These things alone gave them incentive to fight. They would be affected by the outcome of the war either way, so fighting for the side they thought most likely to win made sense. This way, they had a hand in influencing the outcome of the war in their favor. If they fought for the winning side, there was a strong chance of them keeping access to their ancestral lands, as well as their freedom and cultural traditions. If they fought on the losing side, they could lose all of those things.

While the majority of Native Americans fought for the Union (particularly the Cherokees, who had been badly treated by the southerners), some tribes fought for the Confederacy. This was because they were slave holders. The Creek and Choctaw, in particular, were large slave owners in the south, and they were invested in a southern victory in order to preserve the economic prosperity slave ownership brought them.

Divided Tribes

Just like within the United States itself, which found neighbors and family members fighting on opposite sides of the war, the same was true of Native American tribes. It was a particular issue with the Cherokee, who had a mini-civil war amongst themselves in areas where northern and southern states bordered each other. A minority of Cherokee did fight for the Confederacy in defiance of the directives of their tribal leader, and were granted pay, food, clothing, and other rations and provisions. Other tribes experienced this to a lesser degree. All were reunited after the war.

The Role of Native Americans in Key Battles

The U.S. government and the Confederate government both welcomed Native American soldiers. They fought bravely and passionately for their sides, and were instrumental in achieving victories in certain key battles. Some of the battles where the presence of Native American soldiers influenced the outcome include:

Native Americans in the east were a part of the Civil War conflict, so it only made sense for them to participate. The outcome would influence their lives and livelihoods, unlike the Natives out west where the U.S. was only just beginning to reach and where there were no states. They put their lives and tribes on the line to make sure the side that would offer them the most won. Their presence was instrumental in winning many key battles and the U.S. government was glad for their participation. It is a forgotten history, but an important one that should be preserved for future generations, so they know about the important contributions of the eastern tribes in the outcome for both sides of the Civil War.


  • Were Indians in the 1800’s called Mulatto? Were some of the Indians held as slaves? Why did Indians move from North Carolina to West Virginia and then back to North Carolina? If anyone knows the answers please share with me. My email. Thanks.

  • I had once seen photos of plaques staked in the ground and taken in some type of park or preserve that was the site of an indian battle. the last names were penrod, two brothers. on one side listed the bio of one brother and started with “killed by Indians” 200ft from this mark, and on the other side of the plaque listed the bio of the other brother and started with “killed by Indians” 300ft from this mark. I would love to find that site again and wonder if anyone out there has any ideas where to start looking? I believe the battle was before 1830 and possibly between pennsyvania and Kentucky/wvirginia. I can’t even remember how I ran across it or where parks or preserves where indian battles occurred are listed. my email is thanks!

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