A Valorous but Fruitless Service: Native Americans of Co. K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters

By Al Fonner
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2024, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in May 2024.

When civil war broke out in the United States, a bloody struggle began that stretched on for four years. The causes, stated and unstated, were many: preeminence of states’ rights, preservation of the Union, abolition of slavery, even freedom itself. Native Americans warily viewed hostilities amongst the whites with mixed responses. Some, like the Chiricahua Apache, preferred to remain neutral. Others, such as the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw who had been forced from their ancestral lands by the U.S. Federal Government to live on reservations in the Oklahoma Territory, would throw their lot in with the Confederacy. Northern tribes, such as the Ottawa, sided with the Union in hopes that their loyalty would help preserve their shrinking land and way of life. Chippewa Chief Nock-ke-chick-faw-me, in Detroit, motivated the young men of his tribe to join the colors by warning, “If the South conquers you will be slave dogs…. There will be no protection for us; we shall be driven from our homes, our lands, and the graves of our friends” (Gordon Berg, 2016).

In 1861, the Michigan legislature rejected the idea put forth by Methodist minister George Copway, himself a Chippewa, of fielding a regiment of Great Lakes Native Americans, who he claimed were “inured to hardships, fleet as deer, shrewd and cautious” (American Battlefield Trust, 2023). After two years, however, the Union army was in dire need of new recruits. With the imposition of a federal draft that included quotas to be filled by each state, Michigan turned their attention toward Native Americans living within the state to support the Union.

Charles DeLand

Native American recruiting efforts in Michigan began in earnest, spearheaded by 9th Michigan Infantry veteran Colonel Charles V. DeLand. Of particular interest to him were “stealthy men with acute marksmanship to join a regiment of sharpshooters” (American Battlefield Trust, 2023). Potential recruits were enticed with the same benefits as white soldiers, including a $50 state bounty, $25 federal bounty, and $13 per month pay. An impressive recruiting drive amongst the Native Americans was led by 2nd Lieutenant Garrett Graveraet, filling out the ranks of what would be Co. K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. Graveraet even convinced his father, 55-year-old Henry Graveraet, to enlist. The elder Graveraet reduced his age to 45 and became a sergeant in Co. K, the only non-Native American amongst its enlisted ranks.

Garrett Graveraet

Garrett Graveraet was born in 1840 to a Franco-Ottawa fur trader and his Ojibwe wife. He lived in two worlds, helping his father fish, hunt, and farm while learning of the Ojibwe life through association with his Ojibwe friends and his mother. Garrett Graveraet was an educated man who taught briefly in a Native American school. He spoke English, French, and Ojibwe. A renaissance man of sorts, Graveraet displayed a passion for the arts; his interests included the violin, portraiture and landscape painting, and literature. He was said to be “a natural leader and an expert in cultural mediation” (American Battlefield Trust, n.d.). Garrett enlisted in 1863, becoming one of the few Native American officers in service with the Union.

The 1st Michigan Sharpshooters mustered in at Detroit on July 7, 1863. The men of Co. K underwent intense training while Colonel DeLand and the rest of the 1st Michigan were sent to hunt down Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan in Indiana. 2nd Lieutenant Graveraet, along with Captain Edwin V. Andress and 1st Lieutenant William Driggs, drilled the Co. K recruits into shape. The training administered by the officers was so effective that, upon DeLand’s return, mustering officer Lieutenant Colonel John R. Smith remarked that Co. K was “the stuff, no doubt of which good sharpshooters can easily be made” (American Battlefield Trust, 2023).

Despite such praise, in August 1863, Co. K and the rest of the 1st Michigan were ordered to Camp Douglas outside Chicago to guard Confederate prisoners. Mundane camp life soon led the men of the 1st Michigan to suffer boredom, disease, and desertion. Charles Bibbin of Co. F remembered after the war that the men of Co. K “never associate with the other soldiers, always keeping to themselves from the time they joined the regiment until they mustered out” (Gordon Berg, 2016). Orders eventually came on March 8, 1864, for the 1st Michigan to join Major General Burnside’s IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac in Annapolis, Maryland. Company K and the rest of the 1st Michigan arrived just in time for Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. The men of Co. K soon found themselves thrust into the fighting at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864, where they encountered the Confederates for the first time at Saunders Field.

At Saunders Field, Co. K resolutely engaged the enemy, employing their honed skills for sharpshooting and skirmishing. The men camouflaged their uniforms with brush and mud, a practice that the rest of the 1st Michigan soon adopted. During the fighting, the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, along with the 2nd and 27th Michigan Infantry Regiments, supported the 14th New York Battery on a small rise of ground. The Michiganders tenaciously held their ground, but occasionally the Confederates fought their way to the battery. Any attempt to turn the guns met with certain death as the sharpshooters laid down a deadly hail of well-aimed bullets. One small band of Co. K sharpshooters was commanded by 2nd Lieutenant Graveraet. At dusk, when the ammunition ran out, Co. K rushed forward with the others at a shout from twice-wounded but still determined Lieutenant Colonel DeLand, “Give them steel boys!” (Sarah Bierle, 2019). The bloody fighting ended with the coming of darkness. Sergeant Charles Allen became the first of Co. K’s combat-related fatalities when he passed away from his wounds a week later in Fredericksburg.

Some members of Co. K resting under a tree

On May 12, 1864, during the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Co. K was attacked by Brigadier General James H. Lane’s North Carolinians. One of the North Carolinians remembered, “As we drove them back one Indian took refuge behind a tree. We saw him and supposed he would surrender. As we moved on he shot our color bearer. T.J. Watkins picked up a satchel with beautiful figured work thereon, made with various colored beads” (Sarah Bierle, 2019). While inspecting Brompton hospital on May 20, 1864, William H. Reed of the U.S. Sanitary Commission recorded, “In a group of four Indian sharpshooters, each with the loss of a limb, of an arm at the shoulder, of a leg at the knee, or with an amputation of the thigh, never was patience more finely illustrated. They neither spoke nor moaned, but suffered and died, making a mute appeal to our sympathy, and expressing both in look and manner their gratitude for our care” (Sarah Bierle, 2019). Ten more Co. K men died from the fighting at Spotsylvania Court House, including 2nd Lieutenant Graveraet’s father, Sergeant Henry Graveraet.

On June 17, 1864, after the army’s move south of the James River, Co. K took part in Brigadier General Orlando Wilcox’s poorly executed attack on a Confederate salient near Petersburg, Virginia. While the sharpshooters gained the Confederate breastworks, they found themselves isolated. The Co. K soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat while covering the retreat of their comrades, but they were soon overwhelmed by Brigadier General Matthew Ransom’s North Carolina regiments. Over 80 soldiers from the 1st Michigan were captured, including 14 from Co. K. Two casualties were suffered, including 2nd Lieutenant Garrett Graveraet, who would succumb to his wounds in Washington D.C. on July 10. Worse, the 80 1st Michigan prisoners were transferred to Andersonville Prison. Of these 80, 37, including eight from Co. K, perished while imprisoned there.

A Native American Civil War soldier

Following the action of June 17th, Co. K settled into the routine of siege warfare. They stood picket duty, dug trenches, and sniped at Confederates. In one case, that involved a well-placed Confederate sharpshooter causing havoc within his unit, Lieutenant Freeman S. Bowley of the 30th U.S. Colored Troops recalled, “Nearly a mile away stood a high chimney. All day the Indians watched that chimney and never fired a shot. The sun had gone down and the twilight was deepening, when one of the Indians fired. A man was seen to fall from the chimney…he had incautiously exposed a portion of his body, and the Indian sharpshooter had instantly dropped him” (Gordon Berg, 2016).

The next great challenge for Co. K and the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters came on July 30, 1864, during an ill-fated action known as the Battle of the Crater. General Burnside had come up with a plan to tunnel over 500 feet under the Confederate trenches and detonate a mine consisting of 8,000 pounds of gun powder. Four brigades of the IX Corps, led by Brigadier General Edward Ferrero’s “Colored Division,” were to swarm into the breech, push aside any remaining defenders, and take the Confederate trenches. Ferrero’s Division was to be followed by Brigadier General Wilcox’s 2nd Brigade, which included the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. The assault was to move swiftly and occupy Cemetery Hill, the high ground about 500 yards beyond, and then proceed into Petersburg.

As often happens with military plans, things did not go as intended. The mine was detonated 90 minutes late. Bowley recalled, “From the earth there burst a red glare of flame, followed by the black smoke; with it came a terrible rumbling, that lengthened into a muffled roar. High into the air rose the cloud of smoke and dust, and with it great blocks of clay and many dark objects that might have been men or cannon. Back to earth the mess fell again, with another shock almost equal to the first” (Gordon Berg, 2016).

When Co. K entered the crater, they were greeted with a chaotic scene. A leaderless, confused mass of blue milled about within the pit that had formed following the blast. Co. K and the rest of the 1st Michigan took up positions on the left, gaining a foothold on the Confederate trenches. They were soon joined by the 2nd and 20th Michigan. The Confederates, though, soon regrouped and began to pour a withering hail of lead down upon the Union troops in the pit. Despite the Confederates’ murderous fire, the Native Americans of Co. K remained steadfast. Lieutenant William H. Randall of Co. I recalled that, “the Indians showed great coolness. They would fire at a Johnny and then drop down. Would then peek over the works and try to see the effect of their shot” (Gordon Berg, 2016). Lieutenant Bowley remembered, “Some of them were mortally wounded, and clustering together, covered their heads with their blouses, chanted a death song, and died—four of them in a group” (Gordon Berg, 2016).

A depiction of four Native American soldiers chanting their death songs

Few accounts of the retreat out of the Crater exist. Historian Raymond Herek had this to say based on his research: “Some of the Sharpshooters, among them Pvts. Sidney Haight, Antoine Scott, and Charles Thatcher covered the retreat as best they could before they pulled out. Scott (Co. K) was one of the last to leave the fort…. Thatcher, Haight, Scott and [Charles H.] DePuy all were cited for the Medal of Honor for their exploits that day” (Gordon Berg, 2016). Thatcher, Haight, and DePuy, all white, received their medals in 1896. Scott, a Pentwater Chippewa, passed away in 1878, likely unaware that his exceptional bravery had been recognized. Co. K lost 10 men to the Crater: three killed, one wounded, and six captured.

The Crater was the last major action for Co. K. They went on to participate in the fighting at Reams Station, Peebles’ Farm, Hatcher’s Run, and the final assault at Petersburg in April 1865. The men marched in the Grand Review in Wahington, D.C. on May 23, 1865. They were mustered out of the Army on July 28, 1865. Approximately 1,300 men had served in the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters; of these, only 23 officers and 386 enlisted men returned home after the war. Those absent from the return included, 2nd Lieutenant Garrett Graveraet and his father, Sergeant Henry Graveraet. Having lost both her husband and her only son to the white man’s war, Sophie Graveraet would be compensated with $15 per month until she died.

Over 20,000 Native Americans fought in the Civil War, splitting their allegiances between North and South much like their white counterparts. But unlike their white counterparts, the Native Americans’ sacrifices for the cause would be hardly acknowledged. The “civilized tribes” in Oklahoma would be forced to sell much of their land to pay reparations as punishment for siding with the Confederacy. Even the tribes who sided with the Union, such as those of Co. K, would continue to face discrimination as whites continued to encroach upon their way of life. As Roy Morris stated, 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” (Roy Morris Jr., 2008).

Native Americans of the Ottawa Tribe: The choice to remain loyal to the Union “turned out to be a costly and ultimately losing proposition.”


American Battlefield Trust (n.d.). “Garrett A. Graveraet.” Retrieved on April 23, 2024.

American Battlefield Trust (October 24, 2023). “Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters.” Retrieved on April 23, 2024.

Berg, Gordon (February 18, 2016). “American Indian Sharpshooters at the Battle of the Crater.” Retrieved on April 23, 2024.

Bierle, Sarah Kay (November 19, 2019). “Company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters at Spotsylvania.” Retrieved on April 24, 2024.

Harvey, Don and Lois (n.d.). “1st Michigan Sharpshooters, Company K.” Retrieved on April 23, 2024.

Michiganology (August 23, 2017) “The Story of Company K: Native Americans from Michigan Who Saw Tough Action in the Civil War.” Michigan Radio Stateside Interview with Cynthia Canty, Steve Ostrander, and Eric Hemenway. Retrieved on April 23, 2024.

Morris, Roy Jr. (December 2008). “Michigan Ottawa Indians in the American Civil War.” Retrieved on April 23, 2024.