Abraham Lincoln and the Indian Wars

Today's selection-- from The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic by Manisha Sinha. The Native Americans in the Civil War:

When recalling his time in an Illinois militia in the Black Hawk war of 1832, Abraham Lincoln, whose settler grandfather had been killed by Indians, joked that the only thing he had killed were mosquitoes. The so-called Black Hawk war, named after a Sauk chief, was a merciless slaughter of Sauks and Foxes (Mesquakies), who had returned to their lands after being forcibly exiled by the US Army. Like other settlers who served in the militia, Lincoln received a land grant for his service, further dispossessing the Sauks.

“During the Civil War, preoccupied with defeating the Confederacy, President Lincoln—who, compared to many Americans, was not a diehard Indian hater—did not give much thought to the Indian wars. In 1862, 303 Dakota warriors were condemned to execution in a summary military trial after the Dakota-US conflict led by Little Crow in Minnesota, after years of reneged treaties, land grabs, and mistreatment that had reduced the Dakota Sioux to starvation and desperation. Lincoln pored over the trial records and commuted the sentences of all except thirty-nine accused of particularly egregious actions. In the end, thirty eight were hanged—the largest mass hanging in American history and a blot on Lincoln's presidency. And like most US presidents, Lincoln signed off on laws dispossessing Indians. Besides indigenous people themselves, only abolitionists like the Indian advocate John Beeson protested. As he put it, the Dakota were a ‘sovereign people’ and ‘their hostile acts in Minnesota ... [were] one of war, and not rebellion; and for what the most civilized nations would deem sufficient occasion for war.’ The Dakota Sioux and some Ho-Chunks (Winnebagos), who had not taken part in the uprising, were expelled from their homes and consigned to reservations.

“The Civil War brought devastation to Native America. Even as army regulars stationed in the West were summoned east, volunteers under generals such as James Carleton continued to wage war on the Indian frontier. The gruesome Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado Territory in 1864 saw volunteers of the Third Colorado Cavalry murder nearly four hundred Arapaho and Cheyenne, mainly women and children. Captain Silas Soule, an abolitionist, blew the whistle on his commanding officer, Col. John Chivington, a Methodist minister, who ordered the massacre. At a court-martial led by Samuel F. Tappan of the abolitionist Tappan family, another officer, Major Patrick Wynkoop, testified that the Indian women had been tortured and ‘profaned’ in a manner that was truly ‘sickening.’

Sauk Indian family photographed by Frank Rinehart in 1899

“The report of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, written by radical Benjamin F. Wade, strongly condemned Chivington's actions and the victims were given forty thousand dollars. Congress passed a joint resolution suspending all pay and allowances to Chivington's regiment. Charles Sumner called it an ‘exceptional crime,’ the ‘most atrocious in the history of any country.’ Despite congressional inquiries, Chivington went mostly unpunished. A month after the Sand Creek massacre, a Colorado cavalry regiment killed Lean Bear, a Cheyenne chief and one of the peace chiefs who had met with Lincoln in 1863 to protest settler encroachments. He was still wearing the peace medal Lincoln had given to him when he was murdered.

“Indigenous nations in ‘Indian territory,’ what is now the state of Oklahoma,—the so-called five civilized nations that had been expelled from their homelands in the 1830s-signed treaties with the Confederacy and fought on its behalf. Yet substantial numbers of people in these nations, especially among the Creeks and the Seminoles, many of whom had intermarried with former slaves, sided with the Union. Such indigenous unionists formed the first Indian regiments of the Civil War, in Kansas. Stand Watie, like many of the ‘mixed blood’ slaveholding elites of the Cherokee nation, supported the Confederacy and rose to the rank of a brigadier general in the Confederate army. His rival, John Ross, the ‘principal chief’ of the Cherokees, whom abolitionists had lauded before the war, had initially advocated neutrality and supported the Union. The Cherokees eventually surrendered to Union forces, and Ross met with Lincoln in 1862, trying to preserve the sovereignty of his nation. In a subsequent letter, Ross assured Lincoln that his nation had signed a treaty with the Confederacy out of necessity and that the true loyalty of Cherokees lay with the United States. At the end of the war, the fact that many of these nations were slaveholding—a mark of ‘civilization’ in the South—left them vulnerable when they signed treaties with the United States in 1866 that abolished slavery and recognized the equality of Indian freedpeople. (The status of Afro-Indians as full fledged members of Indian nations continues to be disputed.) In the late nineteenth century, the federal government gave Indian freedpeople and black settlers land in Indian territory, even as the abolitionist dream of land reform in the South withered.

“The pitting of freedpeople's rights against tribal sovereignty was the tragedy of formal Reconstruction in Indian territory. The southern Creeks, Chickasaws, and Choctaws abused freedpeople in much the same way as southern ex-slaveholders, reported agents of the Freedmen's Bureau. The remarkable northern Creek chief, Oktarsars Harjo, posited an alternative and, unfortunately, a minority vision: native sovereignty that included freedpeople. As he put it, ‘we were all one nation.’ Black settlers, fleeing southern terrorism, also cannot simply be viewed as equal participants in American colonialism in the West. The 1866 treaties between the US government and the five ‘civilized’ southern Indian nations resulted, C. N. Vann of the Cherokee nation argued, in land being taken from them and given to railroad corporations or designated as public domain. He was outraged ‘that the Government shall rob its wards and cover itself with ignominy, in order that these corporations may pile up mountainous fortunes.’ Indian territory would be opened to white settlement in 1889, paving the way for further dispossession and Oklahoma statehood. The loss of sovereignty suffered by indigenous nations in the West was compounded by wartime laws that were predicated on their dispossession: the Homestead Acts, which gave homesteads to settlers, citizens as well as immigrants, on ‘public’ lands, and the Pacific Railroad Act, which allowed for the construction of a transcontinental railroad through Native America.”

The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic: Reconstruction, 1860-1920
author: Manisha Sinha  
title: The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic: Reconstruction, 1860-1920  
publisher: Liveright  
page(s): 310-312