Civil War and American Indian Research: Getting out of the “Archives”

By Dr. Michelle Cassidy, Central Michigan University

I’m trained as an archival historian. I depend on the scraps of information that I find in archives, libraries, and government offices, as well as recorded oral histories, to support my arguments related to the past. Yet, as I work on articles and a book proposal related to my dissertation research, it strikes me how many “ah ha” moments happened outside of the archives, either in conversations or while visiting the places that are central to my historical narrative. My current project focuses on Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters—an almost completely Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi) Union company. I explore how service in the Civil War provided some Ojibwe and Odawa men with multiple strategies to acquire or sustain leadership positions, maintain autonomy, and remain in their homelands.  They claimed the rights and responsibilities of male citizenship – voting, owning land, and serving in the army – while also actively preserving their status as Indians. My work is in dialogue with both American Indian and Civil War historiographies. In both fields, it’s important to step out of “the archives,” talk to people, and, when possible, explore the places related to your research. Of course, all historians know that the archive is bigger than what you find inside institutional walls. 

  Injured soldiers at a hospital near Fredericksburg, VA. The man standing on the far right may be Thomas Kechittigo from Saganing, who was wounded in his left arm from a shell fragment at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864. Source: LC-DIG-cwpb-01550, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Injured soldiers at a hospital near Fredericksburg, VA. The man standing on the far right may be Thomas Kechittigo from Saganing, who was wounded in his left arm from a shell fragment at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864. Source: LC-DIG-cwpb-01550, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

During the early stages of my research on Anishinaabe soldiers, I met with Company K historian Chris Czopek. In May 2010, he accompanied the Ogitchedaw Veterans and Warriors Society, as well as descendants of Company K, to Andersonville, Georgia to honor the seven Company K soldiers who died at the Confederate prison. Czopek has recorded many of the final resting places of Company K soldiers.[i]Listening to his advice, I went to cemeteries while conducting research, often taking wrong turns, ending up driving on one-lane paths, or unexpectedly and belatedly realizing graves were on private property (the results of settler colonialism). 

  Looking for a soldier’s grave in Leelanau County. Photo by author.

Looking for a soldier’s grave in Leelanau County. Photo by author.

Seeing someone’s final resting place reveals much about their life, and, at times, the lives of their descendants. Visiting soldiers’ graves soon became part of my research routine. First, a moment of silence to acknowledge an individual’s life, then a look around with the eyes of a historian to observe the landscape, which includes hints of what nineteenth-century visitors might have seen from the same spot: the gentle hills of the Leelanau Peninsula; the view of Omena Bay from the site of Private Thomas Miller’s grave; and glimpses of the same bay from another hillside where a gray-spotted white marker reads: “Aaron Sargonquatto: Co. K 1 Mich. Sharp Shooters: Known as Aaron Pequongay, 1837-1916.” In the Omena cemetery, where Sargonquatto was buried, there are many other familiar names—descendants of Company K men—with several gravestones indicating twentieth-century military service. Anishinaabe cemeteries in Michigan attest to American Indians’ high rate of military service. 

The graves of three Company K soldiers are located in Arlington National Cemetery. Private David George (enlisted at Isabella, May 18, 1863) shares his final resting place in the Lower Cemetery, section twenty-seven with the earliest interments near Robert E. Lee’s occupied plantation. George died May 12, 1864 and may have been buried before the land officially became Arlington National Cemetery on June 15. James Park, a former slave of General Lee who remained at Lee’s plantation, dug many of the early graves and may have dug this Anishinaabe man’s grave. Former slaves and African American troops occupy much of section twenty-seven, but, unlike George, they were segregated from the other burials. George was buried next to white soldiers, as were Sergeant Peter Burns and Private Oliver Aptargeshick. In contrast, African American troops and free black civilians were not, at least in section twenty-seven; a reminder that while the “Indian Company” was frequently racialized and viewed as something unique, it was not placed in the same category as “Colored Regiments.”[ii]

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with another Company K researcher, and we visited the Riverside Cemetery in Mt. Pleasant. I learned how to make a tobacco offering during our visit to the gravesite of Thomas Wabano (Waubauno)—an Ojibwe soldier who enlisted in Isabella on May 18, 1863 with around 19 other Ojibwe men. Wabano’s Company Muster Role notes: “Went home on sick furlough and died at Isabella, Mich., Jany 7th, 1864.” His grave is located behind the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) memorial. The Mt. Pleasant G.A.R. Post was organized in 1884 and named the Wa-bu-no Post. Researchers interested in Company K note that this is the only G.A.R. post, to their knowledge, that is named after an indigenous individual. Visiting Wabano’s grave was a reminder of a research avenue I haven’t yet pursued. Why was this post named after this particular Anishinaabe soldier? 

  Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, Riverside Cemetery, Mt. Pleasant. Photo by author.

Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, Riverside Cemetery, Mt. Pleasant. Photo by author.

Stepping out of the archives has been important to my research process, especially given there are many silences in the traditional archives related to race, class, and gender. The information learned visiting final resting places or traversing the modern contours of a historical landscape doesn’t always make it into your central argument. Yet, these visits often illuminate connections between the past and present—a task that seems critical when writing history related to both the American Civil War and indigenous peoples. 

[i]Chris Czopek, Who was Who in Company K(Lansing: Chris Czopek, 2010).

[ii]Robert M. Poole, On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery (New York: Walker & Company, 2009), 58-61. Arlington National Cemetery, http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Map/ANCExplorer.aspx, accessed May 9, 2014. Burns and Aptargeshick are both buried in Section 13. I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Company K soldiers’ graves in Arlington; instead, this information is from a virtual visit via Arlington’s website.