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134 CHAPTER 9 American Indians and the Civil War SCOTT MANNING STEVENS We all know the Civil War as one of the bloodiest conflicts in American history and one of the first modern wars, but rarely are we asked to consider the effects of that war on the indigenous peoples of North America. Where are American Indians in the historiography of the Civil War? We might sometimes hear of the Union’s Brevet Brigadier General Ely Parker, a member of the Seneca Nation, or the Confederacy’s Brigadier General Stand Watie, a member of the Cherokee Nation, but very little attention is given to the estimated 20,000 Indians who served on both sides of the conflict and almost no attention to the Indian communities who experienced that conflict within their homelands.1 In a recent exhibition titled “The Civil War and American Art,” curated for the Smithsonian American Art Museum by Eleanor Jones Harvey, a landscape painting by the Hudson River school artist Sanford Gifford was displayed among the various paintings and photographs related to the war; A Coming Storm (figure 9.1) does not depict the nation’s conflict but rather a dramatic and brooding mountain scene with a foreboding storm approaching. Harvey chose to include a number of landscape paintings from the period of the Civil War in order to demonstrate how they might reflect and comment on the nation’s fears or its desire for escape. With Gifford’s painting the curator notes that because the painting, created in 1863, was owned by Edwin Booth, brother to Lincoln’s assassin, it could not be viewed upon its exhibition in New York City in 1865 without an elegiac interpretation .2 The uncanny coincidence of its relationship to the Booth family forever changes how it might be viewed. What is curious to me is that Harvey makes no mention of the fact that the small figures visible on the lakeshore in the painting are American Indians; neither in the exhibition labels nor in the 316-page catalog. It is as though they were invisible or, worse, irrelevant when the painting is placed within the context of the war or Lincoln’s death. Ignoring these figures in a critical reading of Gifford’s paintings becomes a metaphor for the greater problem of the absence of American Indians from accounts of the Civil War. American Indians and the Civil War 135 Attending to the lives of American Indians during the Civil War almost immediately disrupts the decidedly non-Indian narrative we associate with that epoch in American history. When we think back to our grade school educations and learning about the Civil War I suspect many of us would be hard-pressed to locate an American Indian element within that struggle. This conflict is taught in the North as largely a struggle between right and wrong; the North, with its opposition to slavery, against the South with its stubborn insistence on maintaining its “peculiar institution .” Even if we were to consider the war an act of northern aggression against the fundamental principle of states’ rights, the American Indian would be almost wholly absent from that discussion. For most of the northern states the battle lines were in places removed from their everyday lives. But for Native peoples from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Mexican border to the northern plains, dozens of communities experienced firsthand the cataclysm of the American Civil War. Violence and displacement came to unforeseen regions and again and again drew Native lives into a war not of their making. Indian homelands were not spared FIGURE 9.1 Sanford Gifford, A Coming Storm, 1863; retouched and redated, 1880. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 136 SCOTT MANNING STEVENS the horrors of war, but those accounts have not found their way into the national narrative of the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy. We should not imagine that American Indians were prominent in the minds of most Euro-Americans during the Civil War either. For many of the larger East Coast cities Indians were either consigned to America’s past or to its frontier, and little attention was paid to those Indian communities still living among them. This was even truer after the Indian removal policies of the 1830s and 1840s had forced so many tribal nations to move west to Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma. So the newspaper reports of the violent attacks on the white settlers of Minnesota in late August of...


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