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The story of Company K: Native Americans from Michigan who saw tough action in the Civil War

Courtesy of the Michigan History Center
Members of Company K rest under a tree in 1864. On May 9, 1864, the First MI Sharpshooters, including Company K, were heavily engaged at the Ni River, and casualties were evacuated to Fredericksburg.

Thousands of Michiganders fought for the Union during the American Civil War, but one group of soldiers in particular stood out: Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters.

To tell the story of this special group, the Michigan History Center's Steve Ostrander and Eric Hemenway, director of archives and records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, joined host Cynthia Canty on Wednesday for Stateside's weekly history lesson.

Company K was made up of 139 enlisted Anishnaabe men and one officer from the lower and upper peninsulas. The company tried to muster at the beginning of the Civil War and were denied, Hemenway said.

"There were a lot of stereotypes that natives were barbaric, bloodthirsty and couldn't be controlled in battle, therefore they weren't wanted," he said.

Leftover hard feelings from the War of 1812 didn't help either, Hemenway added. The ancestors of many members of Company K fought against the United States in that conflict.


But by 1863, as the Union forces suffered mounting losses, the Army reversed its stance and decided to allow native peoples to enter the armed forces. The Anishnaabe in the First Michigan Sharpshooters were much better marksmen than their white comrades and used unconventional tactics for the era learned from their ancestors, Ostrander said.

The company would go on to fight in several majors battles. Listen to the full conversation above to hear more.

This segment is produced in partnership with theMichigan History Center.

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