2011-01-20 / News

Researcher Tells Story of Michigan Indian Sharpshooters Who Served in Civil War

By Ted Booker


Telling the story of a group of 150 Indians called Company K who volunteered to join a Michigan sharpshooter regiment in 1863 during the Civil War, Eric Hemenway, researcher and tribal repatriation specialist for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, speaks at the Mackinaw City Public Library Monday, January 10. Telling the story of a group of 150 Indians called Company K who volunteered to join a Michigan sharpshooter regiment in 1863 during the Civil War, Eric Hemenway, researcher and tribal repatriation specialist for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, speaks at the Mackinaw City Public Library Monday, January 10. A contingent of 150 Native Americans who comprised Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters during the Civil fought in major battles and included Odawa Indians from Emmet County, where their descendants live today. Their accounts following formation of the regiment in 1863 were told by Eric Hemenway at the Mackinaw City Public Library Monday, January 10.

A researcher and tribal repatriation specialist for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Mr. Hemenway traveled to Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia in December with other Native American researchers to promote their story, and told his audience at the library that there are still many stories of Indians in the Civil War that researchers are bringing back to life.

The political climate during the Civil War played a major role in shaping Indian attitudes, he said. Because they weren’t American citizens, when the Civil War began the Union banned them from fighting, while the South, by contrast, recruited 10,000 to 20,000 Indian troops. But after the Union incurred heavy battle losses, the ban was lifted to allow Indian volunteers in 1863.

Upset with the government for violating treaty agreements and seizing their land, the majority of Indians in Michigan refused to fight in the war, which they didn’t consider their own. But the Odawas from Company K, who have a legacy of fighting in their culture, Mr. Hemenway said, mostly saw the war as a chance to prove their mettle and become heroes, or as a chance to fight for their freedom and against slavery. It’s even likely, he said, that some of their fathers fought against Americans in the War of 1812.

The Indians were chosen as sharpshooters because of their skill in shooting muskets, he said. One of the qualifications to join the regiment was to accurately hit a target 100 yards away five times in a row, with every shot falling within a 20- inch circle.

Most notably, Company K fought in the tortuous, nine-month-long siege of Petersburg , from June 15, 1864, to April 2, 1865, the eventual outcome to be a decisive Union victory. Early on, however, locked in trench warfare, the Union command set about to blow a hole through rebel lines, digging a tunnel more than 500 feet that ended about 20 feet below the Confederate trenches and, on July 30, igniting 8,000 pounds of black powder. After the blast, which sent debris everywhere and killed hundreds of Confederate soldiers and even some Union troops, a contingent of black soldiers and Indians from Company K were sent in to the crater to breach the rebel line. The charged turned out to be a bloodbath, however, as rebel soldiers easily mowed down the troops. Today, the massacre is known as the Battle of the Crater.

“It became a turkey shoot, and blood in the crater was about a halffoot deep, like a pool,” he said, adding that the crater was almost 200 feet long and 30 feet deep, with a width between 60 and 80 feet.

Noticing that many of their comrades were mortally wounded, several Indians in the crater raised their shirts over their heads and sung a traditional death chant to as a preparation for death. One of the heroic Indians in Company K, Antoine Scott from Oceana County, is said to have repeatedly crawled up the side of the crater to shoot rebel soldiers, defending those who were chanting.

“Union soldiers were amazed by his courage to protect his buddies,” he said, adding that Mr. Scott was twice nominated for the medal of bravery.

Company K was also known for its muskets which had artistic cultural engravings, he said, and whenever an Indian was killed, the Confederate soldiers would hastily seize these prize guns. Indians were also skilled at sneaking up to Confederate troops in the trenches, stealthily rolling on the ground with twigs and other foliage in their hair for camouflage, which were skills they had learned as hunters. The Union soldiers are said to have adopted many of their tactics, Mr. Hemenway said.

Because of cultural and language barriers, however, the Indians from Company K didn’t mingle much with other Union soldiers.

“They were Union soldiers, but at the same time they were their own group, and were treated as the Indian company,” he said.

About half of the 150 soldiers in Company K returned home alive from the war. Most had a hard time establishing themselves back in their communities, he said, and were disappointed to see the political climate hadn’t changed. Treaty rights were still being shunned and their land was freely taken. Despite fighting to win the war for the Union, their efforts had seemingly done little for their own people.

“They put their lives on the line for three years and things are just the way they were as they left. They didn’t have a hero’s welcome with open arms, they came back as Indians. They were accepted, at best, but not as Civil War veterans,” he said.

The names of many Indian soldiers who served are still unknown today because the army didn’t issue them dog tags, he said, although some bought them from local merchants or crafted their own.

Next Veterans Day, November 11, the Petersburg National Battlefield will honor Indian soldiers during a candlelight service at Poplar Grove Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia, where Mr. Hemenway, along with representatives from other tribes, will share the story of Company K. He’s excited that the story is gaining attention at the national park, pointing out that it’s a historical account for Native Americans in Michigan and across the country to take pride in.

“It’s as if these [soldiers] are being brought back to life,” he said. “We’re teaching people about honor and a sense of duty, and descendants from the tribe are getting involved. People are excited, and it’s as if they didn’t die in vain.”

Mr. Hemenway’s program in Mackinaw City was sponsored by the Mackinaw City Historical Society.

Return to top


Click here for digital edition
2011-01-20 digital edition