Payson Wolfe, Civil War Veteran

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.

The above narrative is a first hand account of a part of the fierce battle of Spotslyvania, during May of 1864.  The “little band of civilized Indians” who fought so bravely and fearlessly 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 over 26,000 Native Americans  fought in the American Civil War, on both sides.  Those who fought with the Confederates may have seen their participation as a chance to seek revenge on a Federal government which had not honored their treaties.  Those who fought for the Union had other reasons for joining.

Payson Wolfe of Northport was one of the Native American soldiers of Company K.  On August 1, 1863, Charles Allen and Payson Wolf left on the Tanawanda to join the First Michigan Sharpshooters. Prior to 1863 Native Americans were not allowed to enlist, but as the war wore on and more and more white men died, the Union began encouraging Blacks and 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 Indian recruits were not necessarily the same as the motivations of the 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. But the opportunity to continue in the tradition of a warrior in far off places must also have been a strong reason for joining the cause, especially if the result was more respect and a furtherance of their land claims.

Another likely motivation for the Native Americans Charles Allen and Payson Wolfe to join the fray would be strong anti-slavery sentiments. It is clear from letters sent home by Charles Allen that he was a practicing Christian (as was Wolfe). 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 for the soldiers going off to war, and one of these was found after the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia, as reported by Colonel R.T. Bennett:

“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 Payson Wolfe were highly trained and effective warriors who could turn the tide of battle.  They had high morale, but they still suffered from discrimination. “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.”  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 US 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.  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.  And when they got the chance to enlist for the cause in 1863, they did not hesitate.

As for Payson Wolfe himself, it seems clear that his enlistment was also a chance for a new beginning in his life.  Eleven years earlier Payson had married Mary Jane Smith, on July 31st, 1851.  Payson was 19, Mary Jane was not quite 16.  At the time of his enlistment in 1863 Payson was 30 and the father of several children with Mary Jane. At no time during their 11 year marriage was there enough income in the household to sustain a comfortable existence.

The marriage of Payson and Mary Jane was remarkable for the fact that Mary Jane was white and Payson 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 Indians. Neither of the mothers approved of the wedding and the ceremony was small and somewhat sad.  In marrying Mary Jane, Payson was caught between two worlds.   Part of him was still drawn to the highjinks and occasional drinking exploits of the lifelong companions of his youth, not to mention the traditional seasonal activities of hunting, fishing and trapping.  The “respectable” part, the settled husband, father, and householder, was harder to achieve.  Payson went to war to prove himself and make a new start.

In a touching letter home to his wife Mary Jane dated January 16, 1864, Payson makes clear that he intends to make good 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 [scratched out word] my own mother for me and children, kiss them for me. I am one who loves you and your devoted husband and a soldier.
Payson Wolfe

“I shall not be as I have been before,” writes Payson.  Clearly Payson intends to please his wife and has remorse for whatever past failings he may have been guilty of, and in this letter he pledges to do better.

As the war wore on, Payson was eventually captured and sent to Andersonville prison, a veritable hell on earth.  Eventually Payson is released and when he arrives home in December, 1864, he reports of his ordeal:

From the diary of his father-in-law, Rev. George N. Smith, Sr.:

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.

Payson Wolfe’s health had declined during the summer months and autumn of 1864. His captain, James S. DeLand, 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 his fingers was infected with gangrene, and the use of his left arm never fully recovered.

Payson returned home, permanently crippled in his left arm and emotionally scarred.  He was a shadow of his former self, malnourished and half broken.  Still, he returned again to war, this time recruiting 3 fellow Native Americans to join him, John Jacko, Aaron Sahgahnahquato, and John Kinewahwanipi.  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.

Payson eventually returns from the war for good, having done his duty with honor and distinction. Eventually, after much red tape and delay, Payson receives a pension for his disabilities. But not every fairy tale has a happy ending.  When Payson finally returns home to stay he is still beset by problems.  Coming home and making a life with his family is not easy. Eventually Payson and Mary Jane divorce, and Payson finishes out his days living with his mother in Cross Village.

Payson Wolfe finishing out his days in Cross Village, with unidentified boy.

Payson Wolfe, Civil War veteran and former husband of Mary Jane Smith died on December 7th, 1900 in Cross Village, and is buried there.

Compiled and written by Mark Smith.

Sources: Raymond J. Herek, “These Men have Seen Hard Service: The First Michigan Sharpshooters in the Civil War”; Walter Clark, ed., “Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions From North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, Vol. III”; Chris Czopek, “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”; “American Indians in Confederate Territory”, by Walter S. Coddington []; “Both the Honor and the Profit”: Anishinaabe Warriors, Soldiers, and Veterans from Pontiac’s War through the Civil War, by Michelle K. Cassidy []; Native Americans in the Civil War, by Dr. Clarissa W. Confer []