First Michigan Sharpshooters

Published on August 30, 2012 by Christian

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First Michigan Sharpshooters
First Michigan Sharpshooters
Photo by Chris Czopek

By Shari Aljumah

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Native Americans have fought on the same side as the Europeans in many wars despite the fact that our history books rarely speak of their bravery and joint efforts in protecting the United States. Even though they were not considered American citizens, around one-hundred and fifty men volunteered for the Union Army forming the first and largest all Indian company located east of the Mississippi River during the Civil War. These brave men were part of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters Regiment known as Company K.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Michigan lawmakers did not allow its natives to join the Union Army. The South, on the other hand, was steadily recruiting natives for the Confederacy. After a year of war and heavy loss for the Union, Michigan legislature passed a bill allowing Indians to sign up for the army. Starting in January 1863, Michigan Indians were mustered into service. Many natives were discouraged from joining the army due to the political atmosphere of treaties being broken and land taken.

While the Indians were being gathered for service, a meeting was held in Detroit where Chief Nock-ke-chick-faw-me, a Saginaw Chippewa, gave a speech to the men of his tribe in which he said, “If the South conquers, you will be slave dogs.” He added, “There will be no protection for us; we shall be driven from our homes, our lands and the graves of our friends.”

A couple of months later, on the Pentwater reservation, Ottawa Chief Paw-baw-me gave a similar speech to his tribe that inspired around twenty-five men to join the Union Army. More recruits came from Bear River, Little Traverse, Charlevoix and La Croix. Several Ottawa-Ojibwa came from the Isabella reservation close to Saginaw.

Company K did their basic training in Dearborn, Michigan in July 1863. The men made perfect soldiers because of their skill shooting muskets, tradition of living off from the land and their ability of going unseen and unheard as they move around.

After training for a short time in Michigan, Company K was sent to Chicago, Illinois where they would spend several months guarding Confederate prisoners of war at Camp Douglas. They did not associate with other officers due to cultural and language barriers. However, during their stay, the locals would flock to come see the mysterious group of Indians.

In March 1864, orders finally came for Company K to report to Maryland where they would be under the command of General Ambrose Burnside. Once in Maryland, General Ulysses S. Grant sent orders for General Burnside’s Corps to join the rest of the Army of the Potomac. The entire regiment went deeper into Virginia where they spent the next year facing battle as well as boredom.

The 1st Michigan Sharpshooters fought in fierce battles during the Civil War. Their first encounter with the Confederate Army was in May 1864, in the Battle of the Wilderness. The men of Company K rolled in the brush and mud to conceal the blue Union uniforms they wore. The rest of the regiment followed suit by camouflaging themselves before every battle. Other notable engagements are the Battle of Spotsylvania and Shand House. The most violent conflict for Company K, however, was the ten-month long siege known as the Battle of the Crater that lasted from June 1864 until April 1865.

According to Lieutenant Freeman S. Bowley, a white officer who served in the 30th United States Colored Troops noted that his regiment was not the only men of color wearing Union uniforms in the Battle of the Crater. He said, “They (Company K) did splendid work crawling up to the top of the bank and raising up. They would take quick and fatal aim then drop quickly down again.” Lieutenant Bowley also asserted, “Some of them (Indians) were mortally wounded and clustering together they covered their heads with their blouses, chanted a death song and died-four of them in a group.” Also, Lieutenant William H. Randall from Company I, who was in the Battle of the Crater said, “The Indians showed coolness. They would fire at a Johnny and then drop down. Would then peek over the works and try to see the effect of their shot.”
After the Battle of the Crater, the regiment had minor encounters at Ream’s Station, Peebles Farm, Hatcher’s Run and Petersburg until the end of the Civil War in April 1865. The 1st Michigan Sharpshooters went to Washington, D.C in May where they proudly marched in the Grand Review of the Armies Parade. On July 28, 1865 Company K was mustered out of service.

When the men got home, most of them had a hard time situating themselves back in the community and were saddened that the political issues were still the same. They became the forgotten warriors of the Civil War.

While twenty thousand Native Americans served in the Civil War for both the Union and Confederacy, it is sad to look in the history books only to find wars that were fought against Native Americans and not the wars that were fought side-by-side for the same cause, freedom.

Resource: American Indian Sharpshooters at the Battle of the Crater, published on HistoryNet.com (2007)

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