American Indians and the Civil War

May 3rd, 2015 | By | Category: Media Reviews, Online media reviews, Web Exclusive
By Marjane Ambler

American-Indians-and-the-Civil-WarEdited by Robert K. Sutton and John A Latschar
National Park Service (2013)
216 pages

Review by Marjane Ambler

A counselor in Nebraska once told me about a student who wanted to write about American Indians, but the assignment was for a Civil War class. “Of course not,” the teacher told the student. “American Indians had nothing to do with the Civil War.”

Thankfully, the National Park Service has published this book to set such teachers straight. More than 20,000 American Indians fought on both sides of the war. Some opposed slavery and others held slaves, but they fought primarily for their future viability as tribes on their own lands. Brigadier General Stand Watie (Cherokee) was the last Confederate officer to surrender—two months after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered.

When the U.S. government reassigned the soldiers from Indian Territory to support the Union war effort, the Confederate government moved in and negotiated new treaties with leaders of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole nations. This gamble by the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” did not end well for them.

In addition to such direct involvement, the editors of this volume include incidents affected by the war, such as the Sand Creek Massacre, the Bear River Massacre, and the Dakota War of 1862. We learn that Dakota people do not consider President Abraham Lincoln a hero: He ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota men, the largest mass execution in American history. And author Janet Youngholm delves into a little known facet of that story: the sexual exploitation of the Dakota women prisoners.

This book is part of a series that tells the lesser known stories of the Civil War as the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the conflict. So far, the series includes Hispanics and the Civil War and Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War (2015).

The book’s chapters were written by some of the best scholars of American Indian history, including several Indian authors. Historian Peter Iverson’s oral history research reveals that, contrary to other accounts of the period, thousands of Navajos resisted their forced removal to Fort Sumner. Iverson also traces the development of fry bread to Fort Sumner.

The 216-page book is made even more inviting by its great illustrations, including photos and paintings. It shows photos of modern-day service men and women, reminding us that “historically, Native Americans have the highest record of service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups.” Instructors and librarians will appreciate the map in the book, which shows the 28 different tribes and the corresponding incidents included in the book.

Marjane Ambler served as editor of Tribal College Journal from 1995 until 2006.    

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