Special Report

Civil War Artifacts in the Smithsonian

The museum collections house many items from the Civil War, including photographs, uniforms and personal diaries

Lincoln's Top Hat (National Museum of American History)

Black-and-White Postcard of Studio Portrait of Joe Tasson, Interpreter for the Meskwaki Tribe and Civil War Veteran, National Museum of the American Indian

Portrait of Joe Tasson
(National Museum of the American Indian)

The National Museum of the American Indian has a postcard of a black-and-white portrait of Joe Tasson, a war veteran and interpreter for the Meskwaki tribe. Like many accounts of American Indians’ service in the Civil War, his story has been lost. “Reliable estimates of Native participation in the Civil War are hard to come by,” says Mark Hirsch, a historian at the museum. Sources believe anywhere from 6,000 to 20,000 men fought in the war, on both sides. The majority, however, fought for the Confederacy. In Indian Territory alone (modern-day Oklahoma and Arkansas), says Hirsch, about 3,500 Native people fought for the North, while most, including Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks, were sympathetic to the South. In fact, some prosperous Indians owned plantations and African-American slaves and were therefore pro-slavery. “The Confederacy viewed them as a buffer against the Union Army as well as a source of horses, mules and lead for musket balls and bullets,” says Hirsch. However, the war recharged old antagonisms within tribes over the policy of Indian removal. “The Civil War was a disaster for Indian people,” says Hirsch. “It was kind of like a civil war within the Civil War.”

by Megan Gambino


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