Jane Johansson is professor of history at Rogers State University and kindred spirit with CWBA when it comes to all things Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi. Her previous books include Widows by the Thousand: The Civil War Correspondence of Theophilus and Harriet Perry, 1862–1864 (2000) and the award-winning Peculiar Honor: A History of the 28th Texas Cavalry 1862-1865 (1998). Prof. Johansson's newest book Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards, and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier is scheduled for release in November of this year from LSU Press and is the subject of this interview.
DW: Hi Jane. How did you “discover” the Ellithorpe journal?
MJJ: In the late 1990s, I accompanied a group of students on a tour of the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. At that time, a treasure trove of artifacts and documents collected by Dr. Thomas P. Sweeney were on display in a small, privately operated museum adjacent to the park. Among the items on display was Albert C. Ellithorpe’s journal, opened to his description of the skirmish at Locust Grove in the Indian Territory. Since I live only fifteen miles from Locust Grove his account fascinated me, and the memory of his journal stayed with me. In 2011, I rediscovered his journal on the Community & Conflict: The Impact of the Civil War in the Ozarks website. In the intervening years, Dr. Sweeney’s collection had been purchased and became a part of the holdings of the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. Entranced, I scrolled through the digital images of his journal and impulsively decided that I wanted to edit and publish it.
DW: As an introduction, can you tell us a little about who Alfred Ellithorpe was and how he found his way into joining an Indian Home Guard regiment?
MJJ: Albert Chapman Ellithorpe grew up on a farm first in Vermont and then in Upper Canada. At about age 15 he migrated to the village of Chicago where an older brother worked for a newspaper. Ellithorpe would spend much of his life in Chicago; by the time he died in 1907, Chicago had become one of the largest cities in the United States. The young Ellithorpe plunged into business ventures, first as a carpenter and then as a carriage maker. With the assistance of another inventor, he developed a pulverizer that was used to crush rocks for one of the early street paving projects in Chicago. When the California Gold Rush began, he left his wife and daughter and joined in the frenzy to make a fortune. He didn’t strike it rich, but Ellithorpe did secure enough money to expand his carriage business. Not long before the beginning of the Civil War, a larger gold rush occurred in the Colorado Territory, and Ellithorpe journeyed to the Rocky Mountains where he made mining claims, marketed a revamped pulverizer, and became at least a part owner of a Denver newspaper. When the war began, he returned to Chicago and started publishing a newspaper with an antislavery slant to it. Additionally, he helped raise the 13th Illinois Cavalry and expected to receive a commission as either lieutenant colonel or major. The slots were filled by other men, however, and, after a physical confrontation with the colonel, Ellithorpe had to find another regiment. Connections with Senator Jim Lane and Major General Samuel R. Curtis led to a commission as a first lieutenant in the spring of 1862. Soon after, authorities ordered him to Kansas to help organize the First Indian Home Guards.
DW: An increasing number of scholars have placed new emphasis on the unique tri-racial nature of the fighting along the settled frontier of the Trans-Mississippi theater. What was the ethnic composition of the 1st IHG?
MJJ: Caucasians held the top commissioned and staff slots in the First Indian Home Guards with Muscogee Creek and Seminole Indians making up the majority of the company officers and enlisted men. Eight companies were comprised of Muscogee Creeks and the other two companies consisted of Seminoles; all were refugees, driven out by a Confederate force in the winter of 1861. Approximately 25-30 African Creeks and Seminoles enlisted and served in a dual role as soldiers and interpreters. These African Americans were the first to be officially mustered into the U. S. Army during the conflict.
DW: Beyond the inherent rarity in the published scholarship of an Indian Home Guard officer writing about his wartime experiences, were there some other distinctive features regarding what Ellithorpe chose to write about that drew you in?
MJJ: Ellithorpe’s personality and life story definitely attracted me to his writings. As I worked on his writings, I became increasingly impressed with his accuracy and careful observations. His writing style was straightforward with little of the “purple prose” that so often characterizes accounts of that time. Ellithorpe was also blunt in his opinions, and it’s obvious that he was not shy in expressing them outside of the pages of his personal journal. Although he was proud of his war service, unlike many Civil War veterans the war does not appear to have been the central part of his life. He was a man of great energy who had a variety of successful business ventures before and after the war. The fact that he witnessed the growth of Chicago from a village into a major city was appealing as well. Always inventive, Ellithorpe developed safety devices for the elevator after Chicago’s Great Fire when the city’s center was being rebuilt by talented architects. Mostly, though, the content of his journal and newspaper articles attracted me. His writings reveal the nature of warfare in the Border region during a time when the conflict there was transitioning into an almost exclusively guerrilla war. Ellithorpe focused on the ugly, gritty nature of the fighting there, but he also documented corruption, political maneuverings, and the plight of refugees. Regrettably and puzzlingly, he failed to write in much detail about the Indian peoples in his unit although he was obviously proud of their fighting abilities.
DW: Matthew Stith’s very recently published study Extreme Civil War (LSU, 2016) made fairly extensive use of Ellithorpe’s writing. Have any other scholars (that you know of) made use of this particular source material (the journal and Chicago Evening Journal articles) in their work?
MJJ: Matthew Stith has used Ellithorpe’s writings more than any other scholar thus far. William L. Shea used Ellithorpe’s journal effectively in Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign. Gary Zellar also utilized the journal in his article about African Creeks in the First Indian Home Guards and in his larger study of African Creeks. Additionally, Annie Heloise Abel quoted from some of Ellithorpe’s correspondence in her classic study, The American Indian in the Civil War.
DW: You’ve mentioned before that it was not your intention for the book to serve an additional purpose as something of a unit history of the First Indian Home Guard regiment. Given that no regimental studies of the Indian Home Guard formations exist at this time, were you able to incorporate at least some elements of a standard unit history into the book’s main text or notes?
MJJ: In my introduction to chapter two, I write about the organization of the First Indian Home Guards and its participation in the First Indian Expedition. Ellithorpe served with the First Indian Home Guards from its organization in the spring of 1862 until the following spring, and his writings (plus my notes) serve as a basic history of the regiment for that time frame.
DW: Very good. It seems unlikely that source material abounds regarding Ellithorpe’s unit and the men that served with it. Can you briefly describe what range of sources you were able to uncover during your research (and perhaps a couple examples of resources you found most interesting)?
MJJ: Source material about the First Indian Home Guards definitely does not abound! Newspapers contained some tidbits of information about Indian troops. More importantly, some valuable information was found in the National Archives collection, “Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824-1881, Southern Superintendency.” Fortunately this vast collection is available on microfilm, and I was able to see the pertinent reels at the University of Oklahoma’s library. Several of Ellithorpe’s letters were in this collection along with Indian agent reports that had some useful information about the organization of the regiment and preparations for the First Indian Expedition. The Office of Indian Affairs and the War Department tussled over control of the Indian Home Guards regiments and argued over the proper time to try and return the refugees to the Indian Territory. "Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Year 1862" had some fascinating, but poignant, descriptions of Indian refugee camps in southern Kansas. The report also tabulated the number of refugees in Kansas and described attempts to relieve the suffering of these peoples. Ellithorpe filed charges against his commanding officer, Stephen H. Wattles, and 1st Lieutenant George W. Dobler and accused both of fraudulent activities. The court-martial records for both of these cases included detailed accusations. Dobler was cashiered from the service. Wattles stole money from some of the regiment’s African American interpreters, but somehow managed to stay on as commander of the regiment until the end of the war.
DW: As a follow up and final question, do you think enough source material exists to construct a reasonably good 1st IHG unit study?
MJJ: Writing a full history about the First Indian Home Guards would require some creative research skills, and I’m not certain the project would be all together successful. Although there are useful documents in the Official Records, the main problem is one that Ian Michael Spurgeon experienced while researching Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War’s First African American Combat Unit; the challenge revolved around finding primary sources that detailed the experiences of the men in the ranks. Spurgeon successfully used pension records to help fill in some details about the men that served in the First Kansas Colored. Pension records as well as compiled service records do exist for the soldiers of the First Indian Home Guards, but I did not use them in the Ellithorpe project so I can’t personally speak for their utility. Government officials uncovered fraudulent activity regarding the payment of bounties and pensions to these veterans which is discussed in "Alleged Frauds Against Certain Indian Soldiers," an 1872 government publication. Some useful material, particularly regarding the postwar period, could perhaps be mined from that source. A digital copy of this is available as part of the Utah American Indian Digital Archive. Edwin Cassander Manning served as a lieutenant in the First Indian Home Guards, however, his memoir, Biographical Historical and Miscellaneous, has little in it about his wartime service. Ellithorpe’s writings are by far the best available in regard to the regiment.
DW: Thanks for your time, Jane. Best wishes for the success of Albert C. Ellithorpe, the First Indian Home Guards, and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier, and I hope it serves to awaken a wider public awareness and interest in the Indian Home Guard units and their Civil War.