May 1991

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Remembering Iroquois Soldiers

on Memorial Day


Robert G. Koch

In Western New York we may remember that the Iroquois, especially the powerful Senecas, opposed the American Revolution. They were of course punished by the punitive Clinton-Sullivan expedition into Western New York. But we may forget that, overwhelmingly, the Iroquois have been American allies.

Their loyalty to the British Crown in the American Revolution resulted from long support for the English colonies against the French, whose claims were ended in the French and Indian War of 1756-63. Had that fighting turned out differently, some English "Lafayette" may have helped the rebelling American colonists to gain independence from Louis XVI.

Many of Western New York's pioneer white settlers became acquainted with the area as soldiers under Clinton and Sullivan. In the decade after the war, Iroquois loyalties were ambivalent, as they sparred with their conquerors at Canandaigua, Big Tree (now Geneseo) and elsewhere to retain enough of their ancestral lands to maintain something like their traditional style of life. The resultant treaties opened Western New York for white settlement, but the threat of British recapture of the area ended only with American victory in the War of 1812. Many Iroquois fought on the American side, and in subsequent American wars Iroquois soldiers have fought alongside white and black Americans. Which brings me to this Memorial Day remembrance.

During the Civil War, out of which Memorial Day grew, Iroquois soldiers fought bravely and well, and Ely Parker, a Seneca, was on the staff of General U. S. Grant. According to an article in the Northeast Indian Quarterly, published at Cornell University, "Over 300 Iroquois Indians from New York and Pennsylvania fought on the Union side during the American Civil War…Iroquois Indians fought in nearly every battle after March of 1862…Their names can be found in the records of the 12th, 53rd, and 132nd New York Volunteers, the 13th and 14th New York Heavy Artillery, the 24th New York Cavalry,…the 57th Pennsylvania volunteers [and the Union navy]…[They] served as volunteers in integrated units and had white commanding officers. This fact stands in marked contrast with the War of 1812, when separate Iroquois units of 'warriors' joined the American cause…"

But the Iroquois were not at first welcomed into the Union forces. "The Iroquois volunteered their services from April 1861 onward; however, the Departments of the Interior and War refused to allow them into military service [despite 'the shortfall of volunteers for the Union cause']. A Cayuga Indian medical doctor wrote to a recruiting general: "I cannot see why the department has taken this course. In the War of 1812 the then President did not refuse the services of my father, grandfather, and great grandfather, all of whom fought and rendered efficient service in that struggle." (His grandfather was wounded and an uncle was killed.)

When finally accepted into the Union armed forces, they fought well. "'D' Company of the 132nd New York Volunteers, better known as the Tuscarora Company, [was] the most famous Iroquois fighting unit is the American Civil War." One of its members, Abram Powlis, an Iroquois scout, was especially effective—and in a curious way—during the Carolina campaign. His lieutenant later wrote: "While he was on duty…, he was frequently permitted to go beyond our picket line, [to]…cross the…River and visit…[the Confederate army camp). He became well-known [there] as an Iroquois and a member of the One Hundred and Thirty-second New York.

"It was a singular fact that he was accorded immunities by the enemy; he was free to come and go, and had the freedom of the country beyond our lines. He was truthful, brave and loyal, was a useful, honorable and reliable scout."

By no means were all his fellow Iroquois treated so. One, John B. Williams of the 24th New York Cavalry, was captured in June 1864. He was sent to the deadly prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Sergeant Daniel G. Kelley, also of the 24th Cavalry, later estimated that more than 20,000 were quartered in about 15 acres, with more still coming. Food was short, fire wood scarce, and sanitation overwhelmed. "It was not an uncommon thing to see maggots crawling in the mouth and ears of living men."

Kelley described Williams as "a strong, hearty man" at the time of his capture, but without protection from sun and rain, "His feet became swollen, and his form wasted to a mere skeleton." For two days Kelley lost sight of him; then "found him in the valley, by the brook, unable to walk or stand alone…[During the time]…he had not tasted food." They carried him back to his detachment, where he lay "with a burning fever exposed to the [extremely hot August] sun…unable to move…[and without appetite]." The sergeant poured "cold water on his fevered brow, and [gave] him of the same to drink. How many times during these two long days of countless suffering, did he speak of…the father who had guided him with gentle hand, instructing him in the ways of honor, intregrity and manhood; of the mother who had early taught him to remember his Creator in the days of his youth; of the kind, loving woman he had chosen to be the companion of his life, and…of the little one he should nevermore behold…On the morning of the 27th of August, he expired, after giving me messages to carry to his kindred."

The following April at Appomattox, surrendering Confederate General Robert E. Lee, recognizing that Ely Parker, General Grant's military secretary, was Indian, extended his hand and said, "I am glad to see one real American here." Parker replied, "We are all Americans." Words worth recalling on Memorial Day.

© 1991, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
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