- Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards, and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier ed. by M. Jane Johansson
Having languished for nearly a century among historians as a forgotten, insignificant backwater, the Civil War in Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma) and Native American involvement in the Civil War is in the midst of a scholarly renaissance, transforming the way we should think about the conflict on the western frontier. Over the past few decades, historians including W. Craig Gaines, Clarissa Confer, Gary Zellar, Matthew Stith, Mary Jane Warde, and others have illuminated the complex politics, racial fluidity, brutal guerrilla warfare, and devastating intratribal conflicts that hallmarked the Civil War in Indian Territory.
M. Jane Johansson's edited volume Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards, and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier fits squarely into this new wave of Indian Territory scholarship. Seeking to "weird" our understanding of the Civil War by investigating the experiences of the First Indian Home Guard and the nature of warfare in the Trans-Mississippi theater, Johansson has masterfully compiled and edited the writings of an ambitious, energetic, and competent Civil War officer who played a critical role in raising and leading a Union regiment "that uniquely and successfully allied three races in the task of defeating the Confederacy" (xiii, 184). By deftly weaving together the story of Albert Ellithorpe's life, his regiment, and Ellithorpe's own commentary on the war, Johansson has left us with something of a scholarly hybrid: part biography of Albert Ellithorpe, part primary source collection of Ellithorpe's wartime writings, and part history of the First Indian Home Guard. The result is an invaluable window into the unique and terrible aspects of the Civil War in Indian Territory and the Trans-Mississippi: the role of Native American and African American soldiers, army politics, and corruption, the grand campaigns of 1862 in Indian Territory and Arkansas, refugee crises, and the pervasiveness and destructive capability of guerrilla warfare. [End Page 75]
Consisting of eight chapters organized chronologically, Johansson's work charts Ellithorpe's life from his adventurous youth in Canada to his final days as one of Chicago's "Old Settlers." Each chapter is structured similarly: Johansson offers a brief overview of the developments in Ellithorpe's life and the themes apparent in his writing and then lets Albert speak for himself through his various outlets: a wartime journal, a set of twenty-three articles penned for the Chicago Evening Journal, and letters written to fellow officers and friends. This overlapping collection of sources—rough-hewn journal entries, polished letters to newspapers back home, and confidential missives to fellow officers—allows us to see Ellithorpe and his experiences from all angles. Ellithorpe proves to be an insightful, readable author whose letters are a joy to read. Johansson's able editing and ample research nicely supplement his original text.
Ellithorpe's writings deeply enrich our knowledge of the Civil War in the bloody borderland of Indian Territory, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas. In 1861, the Five "Civilized" Tribes of Indian Territory—Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole—negotiated treaties of alliance with the Confederacy. Yet these treaties papered over serious fault lines among these Native American tribes, and thousands of Creeks and Seminoles rebelled in the winter of 1861 and were pushed into exile in Kansas. In the book's lone yet glaring omission, the reader is left wondering why these Native Americans rebelled against the Confederacy and enlisted in the Union army. Johansson does not adequately explain how political feuds dating back to removal, intratribal cultural schisms, and fraudulent Confederate treaties prompted Creeks and Seminoles to fight for the United States. Once in Kansas, many of these Creeks, Seminoles, and African Creeks enlisted in the First Indian Home Guard, a regiment in which Ellithorpe served as major.
Albert Ellithorpe sympathized with the plight of Native American refugees, and in the spring of 1862...