Love & War
The story of Native American patriot and Civil War sharpshooter Payson Wolfe
By Mark Smith | April 3, 2021
“Attached to Colonel DeLand's First Michigan Sharpshooters was a company of civilized Indians who won fame at Spottsylvania. On that bloody 9th of May, 1864, the Federal line, advancing with a cheer, met the charging enemy in a dense thicket of pines, and in the hand-to-hand struggle that followed, the Union forces were slowly forced back. The First Michigan Sharpshooters was doing its best to hold the ground. Every now and then the Confederates would fight their way up to the battery and lay hold of the cannon to turn them upon the Union forces. But to touch one of those guns meant instant death at the hands of the sharpshooters. In this desperate encounter, the little band of Indians was commanded by Lieutenant Graveraet ... Under a perfect storm of lead, their number seemed to melt away, but there was no sign of faltering. Sheltering behind trees, they poured volley after volley at the zealous foe, and above the din of battle their war-whoop rang out with every volley. At dusk the ammunition gave out, but with the others the Indians ran forward at the shout of “Give them steel boys!” from the twice wounded but still plucky Colonel Deland.” — firsthand account of part of the fierce Battle of Spotslyvania, in Virginia, May 1964.
The “little band of civilized Indians” who fought so bravely and fearlessly in Spotslyvania — and so many other battles during America’s Civil War — was Company K, made up mainly of Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi Native Americans who enlisted in 1863.
It is, perhaps, a little-known fact that more than 26,000 Native Americans fought in the American Civil War, on both sides. Those who fought with the Confederate Army might have seen their participation as a chance to seek revenge on a federal government that had not honored its treaties; those who fought for the Union had other reasons for joining.
Payson Wolfe (pictured above left as a young man, and at right, with an unidentified boy, during his later years in Cross Village), of Northport, Michigan, was one of the Native American soldiers of Company K. On August 1, 1863, he and Charles Allen left on the propeller ship Tonawanda to join the First Michigan Sharpshooters, a volunteer regiment that was the largest unit of American Indians serving with the Union armies east of the Mississippi River.
Prior to 1863, Native Americans were not encouraged to enlist, but as the war wore on, and more and more white men died, the Union began recruiting more Native Americans to take part. Recruiting drives were held here in the county, and bonuses of $50 were offered by the State of Michigan for those who enlisted. Once enlisted, soldiers received $25 more and, once mustered, $75.00 from the federal government. Wages were $13 per month, so there were certainly solid economic reasons to enlist.
However, it is fair to say that the motivations of the Native American recruits were not necessarily the same as the motivations of the whites. Fighting in a land that was once theirs, alongside men who once were their enemies was a way to gain respect and perhaps strengthen the Indians’ claims to preserving their remaining land and culture. The appeals of a good wage, a square meal and money left over to send home were important, too.
But there was another motivation for Native American men like Allen and Wolfe to join the fray: their strong anti-slavery sentiments. It’s clear from letters Charles Allen sent home that he, like Wolfe, was a practicing Christian. It is also clear that both Allen and Wolfe had heard the abolitionist sentiment woven into the fabric of many of the sermons of Wolfe’s father-in-law, Reverend George N. Smith. In fact, Smith made sure to provide Bibles in English and Ojibwe to the local soldiers going off to war; as reported by Colonel R.T. Bennett, one of Smith’s gifted Bibles was found in Virginia, following the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness:
“We fought a regiment of Indians. As we drove them back, one Indian took refuge behind a tree. We saw him and supposed he would surrender,” recalled Thomas J. Watkins of the Fourteenth North Carolina Infantry. “As we moved on, he shot our color bearer. Many turned and fired, riddling him with bullets. The Indians fought bravely in the wood. When driven into the open they did not again fire on us, but ran like deer. We captured not one of them.” The Confederates failed to capture any of the retreating Indian Union soldiers after the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia, but Colonel R.T. Bennett recounted: “Among the captures [objects] were copies of the Bible in the Ojibwa language.”
Sharpshooters like Wolfe were highly trained and effective warriors who could turn the tide of battle. They had exceptional skills yet still suffered from discrimination. According to Dr. Clarissa W. Confer, “Fellow soldiers often made uncomplimentary remarks, generally sticking to well-worn stereotypes of ‘desperate’ or drunken men. Yet the Indian sharpshooters proved themselves time and time again in the grueling Virginia battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg. After the ill-fated Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg, survivors recounted how a group of mortally wounded Indian soldiers chanted a traditional death song before finally succumbing, inspiring others with their valor.”
Starting from “less than zero” in the eyes of the whites, the Indian recruits proved themselves to be fearless allies, crack shots, and devastating warriors.
Here in Northport, the Anishinaabeg also sought to distinguish themselves from the Dakota, who in 1862 were involved in a fierce war with the U.S. government in nearby Minnesota. This pressure manifested itself in Northport, as evidenced by the diary of Reverend George N. Smith:
“14 Sept Sabbath Went to Onumunese Ville. [Chief] Ahgosa was there all day. At the close of the meeting I talked to the men about the fright [Dakota Uprising which began on August 17, 1862]. Ahgosa said the Indians all felt bad about, would have a council at N.P. Tuesday PM to assure the whites of their friendship.
16 Sept PM had a large council at our school house in which the Indians gave the Whites every possible assurance of their friendship. It was a very large council considerable many white also were in, also some women.”
It seems the local tribes were at pains to show that they were “loyal” Indians and took much effort to reassure the townspeople of Northport of that fact. So when they got the chance to enlist for the cause in 1863, they did not hesitate.
A Chance to Start Over
As for Wolfe himself, it seems clear that his enlistment was also a chance for a new beginning in his life. Eleven years earlier, Wolfe had married Mary Jane Smith, on July 31st, 1851. Wolfe was 19; Mary Jane was not quite 16. At the time of his 1863 enlistment, Wolfe was 30 years old and was father to several children with Mary Jane. At no time during their 11-year marriage had there been enough income in the household to sustain a comfortable existence.
The marriage of Wolfe and Mary Jane was remarkable for the fact that Mary Jane was white and Wolfe was Indian. Marriages of white men to Indian women were common, but the reverse was very rare. Mary Jane was the daughter of Reverend George Nelson Smith, missionary to the Native Americans. According to Rev. Smith's diaries, neither his wife, Arvilla, nor Wolfe's mother, Kinequa, approved of the wedding, and Kinequa refused to even attend.
In marrying Mary Jane, young Wolfe was caught between two worlds. Part of him was still drawn to the hijinks and occasional drinking exploits of his boyhood friends as well as the traditional seasonal activities of hunting, fishing, and trapping; the more “respectable” demands of his role — as the settled husband, father, and householder/provider — were harder to achieve. Wolfe went to war to prove himself, support his growing family, and make a new start.
In a touching letter home to Mary Jane, dated January 16, 1864, Wolfe makes clear that he intends to make good on the challenges ahead and apologizes for any past failings on his part:
“I like to hear you say or write you are doing the best you can, I wish you happiness all the while. My dear wife if I had wished otherwise I would not have left you, for the good of you and our children. I have undertaken such a work as this now, and not that I should be permitted to good reputation before men. When I know you to be lonely or getting sick of me, I also get uneasy for you. You know not dear wife how much I love you. I say the truth, I love you. Should I see anything I could Possibly do for you in this world, I would do it. And now although I would have been very glad to stay with you at home, to see me every day, and know that my mother loves me very much, for I am her only son living, my brothers all died long ago … .
And although I knew that I should have to put a piece of a wood under my head for a pillow and have to sleep on a bare floor or ground. All this did not stop me, I determined to go for the good of you. My dear wife, if you think over this, you will see. And you well know, that no person led me to enlist, it was my own will that brought me here … These are my constant thoughts. If I should meet you again, I shall not be as I have been before …
I give you my best respects & love to Father and Mother, and Annie. Also [illegible word] my own mother for me and children, kiss them for me. I am one who loves you, your devoted husband and a soldier.
Capture & Imprisonment
Clearly, Wolfe intended to please his wife and had remorse for whatever past failings he may have been guilty of, pledging to do better.
It is astonishing Wolfe lived to have the chance. On June 17, 1864, he was captured in Petersburg, Virginia, by Confederates and sent to the infamous Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp, in Georgia. A veritable hell on earth, the open stockade was overcrowded to four times its capacity, with such inadequate food and water supplies and conditions so unsanitary that nearly one-third of the 45,000 Union prisoners held there died during the 14 months Andersonville operated, most of scurvy and dysentery, many of starvation.
During Wolfe’s six-month imprisonment at Andersonville, his health rapidly declined. His captain, James S. DeLand, later remembered, “He was attacked with diarrhea first and then with scurvy, his gums swelled, a part of his teeth fell out, his legs & arms swelled to a monstrous size, his muscles contracted badly so that it was difficult to move at all.”
One of Wolfe’s fingers also became infected with gangrene, and the use of his left arm never fully recovered.
Against all odds, Wolfe survived Andersonville. Just before Christmas 1864, he returned home — seemingly a shadow of his former self, malnourished, and half-broken. He recounted his ordeal to his
father-in-law, Rev. George N. Smith, Sr., who recorded this in his diary:
“December 20 1864: Payson arrived about 2 PM, a paroled prisoner. was paroled at Savannah & 1100 prisoners took the Steam Ship Constitution & were landed at Annapolis. they were furnished a suit of clothes on going on board the ship & another suit when they landed at Annapolis. he says they suffered terribly while prisoners —- going sometimes 2 & 3 days & a number of times 4 days with out eating at all — men robbed of their blankets & overcoats & lived & slept in the open weather, their bed the ground, their covering the rain — water sometimes 4 inches deep where they had to lie. All the family took supper and with us eve.
“December 30 1864: Payson, Mary and the children spent the eve here, had supper with us. He tells shocking stories of their suffering while prisoners — he says when men got so weak they could not keep their rations on their stomachs — would vomit up beans as soon as swallowed & others would rush to eat the vomit with greediness & often the boiled rice would be alive with full grown maggots — he has eat it so — was obliged to or starve.”
Despite his experience, Wolfe returned again to war, this time recruiting three fellow Native Americans, each from Leelanau Township, to join him: John Jacko, age 20; Aaron Sahgahnahquato, age 21; and John Kinewahwanipi, age 20. All three of these new recruits had relatives who had been killed or captured in the war, suggesting family or community motives for enlisting, rather than merely the inducement of bounty payments. (Jacko and Sahgahnahquato would survive. Kinewahwanipi would die of disease in Virginia three weeks after enlisting. Charles Allen, who left with Wolfe on his first tour of duty, died at age 19 from battle wounds received in the Battle of the Wilderness.)
Wolfe eventually returned from the war for good in June 1865, having done his duty with honor and distinction but little in the way of recompense. After what appears to have been much red tape and delay, Wolfe ultimately received a small pension for his disabilities. But his story has no happy ending.
Like many veterans who sacrificed themselves for their country, when Wolfe finally returned home to stay, he was beset by many struggles. Coming home broken and permanently disabled to make a new life with his family was not easy. He and Mary Jane never quite found their footing and ultimately divorced. Wolfe finished out his days living with his mother in Cross Village.
Payson Wolfe, Civil War veteran and former husband of Mary Jane Smith died on Dec. 7, 1900, in Cross Village and is buried there.
Want to learn more about the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters and Native Americans in the Civil War? Get to know the Omena Historical Society, whose collection of documents, photos, and more bring historic tales like these to life, and check out some of the sources Mark Smith used to craft this article:
“These Men Have Seen Hard Service: The First Michigan Sharpshooters in the Civil War” by Raymond J. Herek
“Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions From North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, Vol. III” by Walter Clark, ed.
“Who Was Who in Company K: Reliable Facts About the Native American Soldiers in Company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, During the Civil War 1861-1865” by Chris Czopek
“American Indians in Confederate Territory” by Walter S. Coddington, available at Opionator.blogs.nytimes.com
“Both the Honor and the Profit: Anishinaabe Warriors, Soldiers, and Veterans from Pontiac’s War through the Civil War” by Michelle K. Cassidy. Available through “deepblue” at the University of Michigan library.
“The More Noise They Make: Odawa and Ojibwe Encounters with American Missionaries in Northern Michigan, 1837-1871” by Michelle Cassidy. Michigan Historical Review, vol. 38, no. 2, 2012, pp. 1–34. www.jstor.org/stable/10.5342/michhistrevi.38.2.0001
“Native Americans in the Civil War” by Dr. Clarissa W. Confer. Cowboys and Indians Magazine
Rev. George N. Smith, Missionary to Indians in Michigan. Journals and Letters, 1850-1879, Reels 1-3, National Archives. George Nelson Smith Transcribed Papers, Avis Wolfe Collection, Northport Area Heritage Museum, Northport, Michigan