- Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards, and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier ed. by M. Jane Johansson
Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards, and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier is a compendium of the life and times of Major [End Page 165] Albert Chapman Ellithorpe, a white man who commanded a unit composed of Seminoles, Creeks, and African Americans. The book contains an assortment of Ellithorpe's journal entries, letters, and articles for the Chicago Evening Journal. Carefully collected and annotated by M. Jane Johansson, this volume offers a glimpse into an unfamiliar episode of the American Civil War and a sketch of an interesting and fairly complicated man. The primary texts are drawn from archives in Kansas and Nebraska, a handful of newspapers, and a selection of published sources. Each chapter also contains a narrative vignette, written by Johansson, that places the sources in their proper context.
The First Indian Home Guards was a Kansas unit made up "primarily of refugee Muscogee Creek and Seminole Indians" and included white officers, African Americans, and former slaves who chose to fight for the Union army rather than the Confederacy (p. 10). The terms of service in the Home Guards were somewhat different than those of other units as soldiers could occasionally absent themselves without leave and were frequently punished with only the loss of pay. In total, there were probably over a thousand soldiers in the First Indian Home Guards. They fought valiantly against southern whites as well as the many Cherokees and Creeks who joined the Confederacy.
Unfortunately, we do not learn as much about these Native American soldiers as we might have hoped. The ambitious Major Ellithorpe is the main subject of this volume, and any discussion of the First Indian Home Guards is driven by his concerns. We learn, for instance, that his officers seemed to appreciate him. The officers who served in his regiment recommended him for promotion to colonel, but we only know this because of a letter that Ellithorpe wrote. We also learn about the crucial role that African-descended Creeks and Seminoles, familiar with both Muscogee and English languages, played as intermediaries and translators. But again, we only learn more about their roles as translators when some interpreters were cheated out of their pay by an unscrupulous officer whom Ellithorpe hoped to see removed. Overall, the story of the Creeks, Seminoles, and African-descended Creeks and Seminoles who composed the guard remains largely untold.
Nevertheless, there is much of value here besides a biography of Ellithorpe. For one thing, Ellithorpe describes the fight against southern guerrillas (bushwhackers), an overlooked military component of the Civil War. He also describes the devastated white southern women he encountered in the Arkansas River region, along the border between Indian country and Confederate territory. The fighting was particularly brutal in this Civil War borderland, and it truly devastated the people who lived there. Ellithorpe offers one particular description of southern women that is perhaps the most uncharitable I have ever read, but it illustrates how destructive the war was in this area. Ellithorpe's account also offers a view into the political maneuvering that sometimes resulted in officers—even unscrupulous ones—receiving promotions. All too often, promotions were the result of the intricacies of Kansas politics rather than talent. Finally, we learn about the African Americans who escaped their former captors en masse after the Emancipation Proclamation. Interestingly, Ellithorpe credits former slaves for emancipating themselves through flight and fight. [End Page 166]
This volume should be of interest to military historians as well as scholars of the Indian Home Guards (especially its officers), emancipation in the West, and the early history of Chicago.