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Un-Civil War: When North Fought South, It Was Indians Who Lost

The Blue, the Gray, and the Red: Indian Campaigns of the Civil War, though not a new release, is noteworthy in that it explores topics not much ventured into: It relates the story of how American Indians fared in the seminal conflict.

As the U.S. marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War this year, it is worth recalling the almost forgotten tragedies that befell Indians during that bloody conflict. Thom Hatch’s The Blue, the Gray, and the Red: Indian Campaigns of the Civil War (Stackpole, 2003) is a useful introduction, treading as it does on ground where no one else has ventured, even if a lack of Indian voices ultimately causes the volume to fall flat.

While other authors have written extensively about American Indians as participants in the war between the states, Hatch focuses on several isolated military assaults that were conducted against certain tribes. He argues that these campaigns resulted from various Civil War objectives, stating that “every drop of blood that was shed [during the Frontier Indian Wars] was a direct result of operations conducted during the Civil War.”

It is a compelling idea that has never been explored, even by renowned historians of frontier military, Civil War and American Indian history such as Robert Utley, Paul Hutton, Robert Wooster and Laurence Hauptman. But facts are facts: Between 1861 and 1865 both the North and the South waged devastating crusades against Indians and tribes. Hatch attempts to shed light on these struggles, relating them in great detail.

Despite any number of problems with his approach—about which more will be said presently—Hatch is correct in his major assertions. Long before the secession of the Southern states, he convincingly writes, economic and social divisions characterized the North and South, and their conflicting visions for the future of the American West intensified their differences. Not surprisingly, many Natives died amid that clash.

With increased urbanization in Northern cities following the Market Revolution (1815–1846) came overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions, disease and rising crime. Coupled with this was the need to sustain and stabilize the tremendous growth of industry. Northern industrialists consequently set their sights on the abundant natural resources of the West, viewing this vast area as a proving ground for rugged individualists and entrepreneurs.

The South, by contrast, was mired in an antiquated system of industrial cotton agriculture fueled by slave labor. Its leaders wanted the lands of the West too, but mainly for the growth of its cotton empire. Therefore for the South, Western development was fundamentally tied to the expansion of slavery. In either case, acquiring the coveted Western lands and resources required first removing the Indians who resided there. For these reasons, the Western aspirations of both North and South that fueled the conflicts of the Civil War are directly tied to the Frontier Indian Wars.

Hatch discusses a handful of cases in which the military attacked various Indian tribes during the Civil War. His list of victims includes the Creek, Shoshone, Santee, Apache, Diné, Cheyenne and Arapaho. He writes about Opothleyahola and his Creek followers, who refused alliance with the Confederacy and were driven into refugee camps in Kansas, resulting in the death of thousands along the way. He also details the Bear River Massacre, the slaughter of some 250 Shoshone men, women and children in the Cache Valley area of Utah. The Shoshone were met there by Colonel Patrick Edward Connor and his California volunteers at the urging of Utah territorial officials after young warriors raided some encroaching Mormon settlements. Although the massacre at Bear Creek resulted in the largest Native death toll of the frontier wars, the incident has been little discussed.

Hatch goes on to describe the events leading up to the Santee Sioux “uprising,” the conflict that resulted in the largest mass execution in U.S. history, when 303 Sioux warriors were handed death sentences. Thanks to the intervention of President Lincoln, many were spared, though in the end 38 were hanged at Mankato, Minnesota. He also discusses the Navajo Long Walk, the Dakota Expeditions of Sibley and Sully, the Woolsey Expedition and the Sand Creek Massacre.

The author does a nice job of explaining these encounters, but unfortunately he offers scant conclusive evidence that would place these campaigns firmly within the context of the Civil War. Furthermore, Hatch began his career as a journalist and has since honed his reputation as a Western writer with a particular focus on the frontier military, a specialty that is evident in his accounts of military objectives and strategies. Native readers will at once recognize the Euro-cultural perspectives and concepts that color his narrative on the tribes. His descriptions of the Indians and their motivations lack cultural context and distinction and are clearly the views of a non-Indian.

Although the details may be somewhat obscure to the general public, the tribes who were affected by them retain the oral history that could have lent authenticity and nuance to the story. Instead, Hatch relies heavily on secondary ­sources, primarily books written by other non-Indian authors. Thus the Indian voice is almost completely lost in the telling.

Nevertheless, his book is both thought-­provoking and important. The campaigns waged against Indians during the Civil War have not received the attention they deserve, and the idea that the conflict between the North and South influenced them is worthy of much more exploration. Through this book, others may be inspired to further delve into this worthy topic.