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Michigan’s Ottawa Indians in the American Civil War

by Roy Morris Jr.

While many Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Indians threw in their lot with the Confederacy, fighting alongside southern troops at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862, a more northern-based tribe—the Ottawa—chose to remain loyal to the Union, in the forlorn hope that its willingness to fight for the white men’s country would help preserve its increasingly imperiled way of life. Like many of the tribe’s dealings with the federal government, it turned out to be a costly and ultimately losing proposition.
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At the beginning of the Civil War, the Ottawa lived near Mackinac Island in upper Michigan. Like other Indians on the rapidly expanding American frontier, the Ottawa had seen their tribal holdings steadily reduced by encroaching white settlers and unsatisfactory treaties with Washington. Their willingness to sign treaties and sell land enabled the Ottawa to escape the coerced removal of the Cherokee and other southeastern tribes, but it also severely damaged the fabric of their lives. By 1861, many of the former hunters and warriors had exchanged their traditional ways of life to become mild-mannered farmers, craftsmen, and clerks.

Company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters

In the summer of 1863, Garrett A. Gravaraet, a 24-year-old mixed-blood schoolteacher and the son of an Ottawa chief, recruited a number of his fellow tribesmen, along with other Indians from the Ojibwa and Franco-Indian communities, to form Company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. The new soldiers went into the ranks beneath an unusual battle flag—a live eagle perched on a six-foot-high pole. They hoped to use their skills as hunters, trackers, and woodsmen to help the Union Army scout the enemy in northern Virginia.

Instead, like many of the soldiers in Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army, the Indians in Company K were ruthlessly fed into the giant meat grinder known as the Battle of the Wilderness. In a week of fighting at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, the company suffered heavy casualties—13 sharpshooters were killed, including Gravaraet’s father, Chief Mankewenan, also known as Sergeant Henry Gravaraet. The company was singled out for official praise by regimental Colonel Charles De Land, who noted its “conspicuous coolness, courage and gallantry,” and a somewhat racist Michigan newspaper report cited the men for being “as brave a band of warriors as ever struck a war-path, sounding the war-whoop with every volley.”

Valorous But Fruitless Service to the Union

After the Confederates had taken refuge inside Petersburg, the company took part in a misguided frontal assault on enemy lines. Surrounded and beaten back by the Confederates, the Indians took heavy losses—including seven who were captured and later died at the infamous Andersonville prison camp in Georgia. Among those seriously wounded was Lieutenant Garrett Gravaraet, who was sent back to Washington, D.C., for surgery.

Gravaraet described his plight in a letter to his mother, Sophie, from Washington’s Armory Hospital. “On Friday last during the first charge on the enemy’s outworks near Petersburg, I was wounded in the left arm with a minnie [sic] ball and the arm had to be amputated below the shoulder,” he wrote. “I think I shall be discharged before long and come home if my arm does well. The doctor thinks it will do well. Don’t be discouraged about me. This fighten [fighting] for my Country is all right. It has brought me to my senses.”

Two weeks later he was dead of “mortification of the heart.” Gravaraet’s body was returned to Mackinac Island for burial. In death as in life, he was the most prominent member of an Indian company whose members would be praised by the federal government for their “earnest desire that the government should in the end triumph over its enemies and restore its authority throughout the land.” Ironically, that authority extended over the very homelands that the Ottawa had hoped to regain through their valorous but ultimately fruitless service to the Union.

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