Daily Archives: 15 February 2023

Southern Indians in the U.S. Civil War

From Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War, by David Williams (New Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 209-210:

For the South’s other “persons of color,” the southern Indians, both those in the southern states and in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), loyalties were often more difficult to sort out. Many tried to steer a neutral course. But caught as they were “between two fires,” southern Indians were usually forced to weigh their options and, often against their better judgement, choose sides. In South Carolina’s tiny Catawba band, numbering just fifty-five, almost every adult male at one time or another served in the Confederate army. Long since stripped of their own land, most Catawbas were day laborers working plantation lands that had once belonged to their ancestors. The enlistment bounty of $50 was very attractive for these impoverished and dependent men. They were too few to form a company of their own, and there were no “colored” units in the Confederate army for them to join, so they fought alongside their white neighbors in several South Carolina regiments of the Army of Northern Virginia. These were among the Civil War’s few racially integrated units.

Some southern Indians, more isolated and less dependent on the whites, were more successful in avoiding military entanglements. The Florida Seminoles, left to themselves nearly two decades earlier after fending off efforts to root them out, deftly maintained neutrality while allowing both the Union and the Confederacy to court them. In exchange for gifts and supplies, they shrewdly held out the possibility of an alliance without ever committing to either side.2

Others tried to remain neutral with less success. In Virginia’s tidewater region, descendants of the once powerful Powhatans—the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Chickahominy, Gingaskin, Nansemond, and Rappahannock Indians—had little love for the Virginians who had stripped them of nearly all their lands and stigmatized them as “free persons of color.” With the war’s outbreak, the Powhatans tended to remain at least nominally neutral. But when Union forces arrived in the spring of 1862, they found ready allies among the Powhatans. Many served the Federals as river pilots, land guides, and spies. They led gunboats and supply vessels as far as one hundred miles inland along the navigable waterways of eastern Virginia.

The Lumbees of eastern North Carolina at first declared neutrality but became solidly pro-Union after Confederates began conscripting them to do forced labor, essentially enslaving them. Lumbee guerrilla bands took revenge by raiding local plantations, attacking Confederate supply depots, tearing up rail lines, and doing whatever else they could to disrupt Rebel operations. Most notable of the Lumbee bands was the one led by Henry Berry Lowry, whose exploits became the stuff of legend. Called The Robin Hood of Robeson County, Lowry became, in the words of one Lumbee scholar, “a folk hero to his people, a symbol of pride and manhood.”

The Confederacy also tried to conscript some Indians to serve as soldiers, though they proved to be no less resentful than those conscripted for forced labor. In the spring of 1863, Eastern Choctaws drafted into the First Choctaw Battalion, Mississippi Cavalry, deserted en masse to the Federals just before the Vicksburg Campaign got under way.

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Filed under labor, migration, military, nationalism, U.S., war