Civil War

Native American allegiances varied during the Civil War, but were often motivated by a common desire to protect tribal lands and lifeways. Approximately 3,503 Native Americans served in the Union Army.

General Ulysses S. Grant and his staff, including Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker, in front of a tent

Photo by Mathew Brady, National Archives photo no. 524444

General Ulysses S. Grant (fourth from left) and his staff, including Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker (second from the right), late spring, 1864.

Though exact numbers are not known, many more Native people allied with the Confederacy. Even more participated indirectly, aiding or sabotaging one side or another while remaining outside the military.

Having survived removal from their ancestral homelands in the Southeast in the 1830s and ‘40s, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek), Choctaw, and Seminole Nations signed Confederate treaties that guaranteed title to territories west of the Mississippi. Elite tribal members’ enslavement of African Americans further motivated Southern allegiance.

Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker

Photo by Mathew Brady, National Archives photo no. 529376

Ely S. Parker, 1860–65.

At the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in 1865, Ely S. Parker (Seneca, 1828–1895) was the highest-ranking American Indian in the Union army, a lieutenant colonel. As General Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary, he drafted the terms of surrender. A popular story states that Confederate General Robert E. Lee, noticing that Parker was an American Indian, remarked, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker later recalled, “I shook his hand and said, 'We are all Americans.'”

Native nations supporting the Union likewise hoped their service would encourage the federal government to honor treaties that recognized tribal land rights.

The war exacted a terrible toll on Indigenous people. One-third of all Cherokees and Seminoles in Indian Territory died from violence, starvation, and war-related illness. Despite their sacrifice, American Indians would discover that their tribal lands were even less secure after the war.

River pilot William Terrill Bradby in traditional dress and holding a club

Photo by De Lancey W. Gill. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution [NAA INV 06197600]

William Terrill Bradby, dressed traditionally and holding a club, October 1899.

William Terrill Bradby (Pamunkey, 1833–?) and other men from Virginia’s Pamunkey and Mattaponi Nations served as river pilots, land guides, and spies for the Union army during the 1862 Peninsular Campaign. They piloted steamers, tugboats, gunboats, and torpedo boats during the remainder of the Civil War.

Chief of the Confederate-aligned Cherokee and Brigadier General Stand Watie

Photo by Mathew Brady, National Archives photo no. 529026

Stand Watie, 1860–65.

Stand Watie (or Degataga, Cherokee, 1806–1871) was elected principal chief of the Confederate-aligned Cherokee and awarded the rank of brigadier general—the only American Indian to achieve that rank in the Civil War—as commander of the Indian Cavalry Brigade, which included the First and Second Cherokee Cavalry, the Creek Squadron, the Osage Battalion, and the Seminole Battalion.

Group of American Indian Union sharpshooters resting beneath a tree in Fredericksburg, Virginia

Civil war photographs, 1861–1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Wounded American Indian Union sharpshooters rest beneath a tree at Brompton, the home of John L. Marye, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, May 14, 1864. Five days earlier, the First Michigan Sharpshooters, including Company K, had been heavily engaged at the Ni River during the Battle of the Spotsylvania Courthouse; the casualties were evacuated to Fredericksburg. Captain Edwin V. Andress is sitting under the tree facing forward; though non-Native, Andress spoke a number of Michigan Indian language dialects and recruited many of the Native sharpshooters. Sergeant Thomas “Ne-o-de-geshik” Ke Chittigo (Chippewa, 1836–1916), wounded on May 12, is seen standing to the right of the tree.