Wisconsin’s Native-Americans During the Civil War

I am in the process of working on two blogs having to do with things going on in Racine. But, they are not ready yet. I hope to have one posted next week. So, wanting to post this week, I am offering an aspect of history that most people (meaning Wisconsinites) no nothing about; the contributions of Wisconsin’s Native-Americans during the Civil War.

In 1860, it was estimated that more than 300,000 Native Americans lived in the United States; 5,098 enlisted in the Union army during the Civil War. It is unclear how many Native Americans lived in Wisconsin. The 1860 census listed 2,833. Another 4,300 Chippewa lived in the seven Lake Superior reservations; however, only four of those were in Wisconsin. It seems 4,000 to 6,000 is a reasonable estimate. Of these, at least 500 served in Wisconsin regiments during the Civil War.


[ABove: Original land areas of the Native-American tribes in Wisconsin at contact: Chippewa/Ojibwe, Dakota, Ho-Chunk/Winnebago, Menominee, Potawatomi. The Brothertown and Oneida came to Wisconsin after contact. Below: Native-American reservations as they are today]


By 1860, most of Wisconsin’s Native American tribes were on reservations. They were in the northeast and northwest parts of the state. The living conditions on the reservations in Wisconsin varied, but generally they were not good.

As many as 500 Native-Americans served in Wisconsin regiments during the Civil War. The exact number is impossible to know because many of Wisconsin’s Native-Americans were not identified as such when they enlisted. The numbers in government reports do not include all of those who enlisted. The Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee and Menominee Nations, often called the “Green Bay tribes,” officially provided 279 men. Their rate of enlistment was high. Of 164 males enumerated among the Stockbridge and Munsee, 43, or 26%, enlisted. Of 518 Oneida males, between 111 and 142 enlisted. This is between 21.5% and 27.4%. At least 46 of them died or were reported missing during the war. Some tribal historians estimate as many as 65 Oneida died during the war.

Among the 886 Menominee males, 125 or 14 percent enlisted. One-third of the Menominee died, either in battle or of disease. In total, about 8.5% of the Green Bay tribal population served in the Union army. This was not far below the 10.2% participation rate for Wisconsin overall.

In addition, 140 Brothertown and 190 Ojibwe and Chippewa men enlisted. These numbers, added to the 279 for the Green Bay tribes, gives a total of 609. Given the possibility of reenlistment the number is undoubtedly 500 or more.

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[These two men are most likely Oneida. The man on right is wearing a frock coat, indicative of the infantry. From the Neville Museum in Green Bay.]

The circumstances of many Native Americans in Wisconsin provided one incentive. Money paid in the form of bonuses to new enlistees or to draft substitutes was a strong motivation.

Another reason for enlistment was a sense of tribal loyalty to the United States. Because the tribal reservations were established by federal treaty, some tribe members felt fighting on the side of the Union was an obligation to the U.S. government. Most Oneida for example, because they fought with the Americans during the Revolution and afterward, thought of themselves as allies of the United States rather than enemies.

There was also a desire to keep their land. Whether it was the Menominee living in their traditional lands or the Oneida and Stockbridge-Munsee who arrived from the East, all the tribes wanted to avoid further removal to the West. Tribal members hoped that loyalty to the U.S. government would prevent this.

Finally, the “warrior culture” of the Native American tribes undoubtedly provided an impetus. For years, the government had tried to get the Native-Americans to abandon their traditional ways and adopt “civilized” ones. This especially applied to warfare. Enlisting in the Union army represented a chance to literally become a warrior and enact those personal and tribal traditions (in the same way young men do from every culture).

Initially, the state rejected of the organized enlistment of Native Americans. In the first year of the war however, dozens of Brothertown, Menominee, Oneida and Stockbridge-Munsee men enlisted as individuals or in small groups because of that they were often clustered in particular units.

17 Brothertown served in the 21st Wisconsin Infantry, all but 1 in Company E; 14 served in Company C of the 38th Wisconsin Infantry. In Company A of the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry there were 13 and 12 in Company K of the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry. At least 28 Brothertown men died in service, 11 were discharged for disability or disease, 13 were wounded and recovered and 4 were taken prisoner, 1 of whom died at Andersonville.

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[Above: A Native-American. Most likely Oneida, is wearing a cavalry uniform]

By 1863, volunteers were harder to acquire, and a federal draft was instituted. Native Americans were exempt, but they could enlist or serve as “substitutes” for white men who were drafted and earn large bonuses. Many of them took advantage of the opportunity.

In the end, the Native Americans in Wisconsin gained little from their sacrifices during the Civil War. The Oneida epitomize this. In the opinion of one historian, the Civil War years were “tragedy of immense proportions” for the Wisconsin Oneida. Aside from the Oneida killed during the war, a smallpox epidemic ravaged the reservation from November 1864 through March 1865. 15 tribe members died. Overall, the tribe suffered a population decline of 4% to 5% during the war. The Native American sacrifice for the Union, while contributing to a legacy of courage and sacrifice, did little to improve their condition.


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