Native American Combatants in the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, both the Union and the Confederacy looked toward the Indian Territory for support. American Indians there, mostly members of the famed Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole), had connections with the federal government through various agencies, but most also had Southern roots in the Carolinas, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Native Americans made significant contributions to both sides during the Civil War. Approximately 3,500 Indians fought for the Union, and a similar number fought for the Confederacy. Most of the Indians who participated in the war were from the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, and a Cherokee leader named Stand Watie (1806–1871) became one of the Confederacy’s most distinguished generals.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, both the Union and the Confederacy looked toward the Indian Territory for support. American Indians there, mostly members of the famed Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole), had connections with the federal government through various agencies, but most also had Southern roots in the Carolinas, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee.

In March, 1861, Confederate president Jefferson Davis commissioned Albert Pike to visit Indian Territory to seek treaties with the Five Civilized Tribes. It was hoped that a strong Confederate force in Indian Territory would prevent Union sympathizers in Kansas from raiding Texas. Pike’s visit with all the tribes in Indian Territory was largely successful. Shortly afterward, General Ben McCulloch raised two American Indian regiments: one led by Colonel John Drew and the other by Colonel Stand Watie. Drew and Stand Watie were bitter enemies, and during much of the war commanders on the western front kept the two Cherokee regiments separated as much as possible. Stand Watie, a mixed-blood Cherokee, had been born in Georgia and was one of the signers of the New Echota Treaty, which sold Cherokee lands in Georgia to the United States government. He was also a prosperous Cherokee landowner and businessman, a brilliant warrior, and a member of an opposition faction within the Cherokee tribe. His signature on the new Echota Treaty put him at odds with the more dominant faction of the Cherokee Nation, led by John Ross.

Stand Watie

Stand Watie was a great leader, and even in the face of extreme hardships, especially during the winter months, he kept his regiment together and participated in numerous battles. Although the treaties that had been signed with the Confederacy promised that Indian regiments would not be required to fight outside Indian Territory, Stand Watie’s troops also were called to duty in Missouri and Arkansas. Over a four-year span, the old Cherokee warrior and his forces fought at Wilson’s Creek, Newtonia, Bird Creek, Pea Ridge, Spavinaw, Fort Wayne, Fort Gibson, Honey Springs, Webber’s Falls, Poison Spring, Massard Prairie, and Cabin Creek.

Stand Watie’s abilities on the battlefield were widely recognized and greatly heralded by both his contemporaries and historians. His greatest skills were gaining and keeping the confidence of his troops and his wily guerrilla tactics. Stand Watie’s regiment, without his presence on the field, also fought the Second Battle at Newtonia in Southwest Missouri in 1864. The first Newtonia battle, fought in 1862, is of major historic significance, because it was the only Civil War battle in which American Indians fought on both sides.

In most battles, Stand Watie’s Confederate Cherokees fought admirably. In a losing cause at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas, however, they and Colonel Drew’s troops were accused of bad conduct because they were too easily routed during the battle and because they allegedly scalped some of the federal casualties. This act, when reported to the upper command of the Confederate Army, created a great embarrassment among officers, most of whom had been trained at such prestigious military academies as West Point, where cadets were taught to be gentlemen as well as warriors. The loss at Pea Ridge was made even greater by the death of General McCulloch, who had organized and fought with the Cherokees from the beginning.

Shifting Allegiances

Despite the overwhelming support given the Confederacy in 1861, when the tide of war turned in favor of the Union and the Confederacy became unable to supply its forces on the frontier, disenchantment took hold of the leaders of the various tribes. In February, 1863, the Cherokee Council met on Cowskin Prairie in Indian Territory and voted to end its alliance with the Confederacy. Colonel Stand Watie refused to accept the vote and vowed to continue his fight. This created an even deeper split in the Cherokee tribe.

Stand Watie’s forces and Cherokee civilians with attachments in the South remained loyal to Stand Watie, even establishing a government that they claimed was the legitimate government of the Cherokee Nation. These Southern sympathizers elected Stand Watie as the principal chief. Those now aligned with Union forces recognized John Ross as their chief, although he left Indian Territory and returned to his wife’s family in Pennsylvania. At the time of this deepening split, there were about ten thousand Cherokees with Union sympathies and seven thousand supporters of the Confederacy. This situation actually created a civil war within a civil war.

On May 10, 1864, Stand Watie was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, the only American Indian to attain this rank in the Civil War. In the remaining months of the conflict, General Stand Watie fought without reservations for the Confederacy. One of his most spectacular successes was the sinking of the steam-driven ferry J. R. Williams on the Arkansas River at Pleasant Bluff and making off with food and clothing for his Cherokee and Creek troopers, breaking a major supply route for Union forces at Fort Gibson. Successful raids on Union supplies kept Stand Watie’s forces busy, supplied, and inspired to stay in the fight.

Because the battlefield situation for the Confederacy was growing worse, Stand Watie called all the Cherokee units to his camp on June 24, 1864. At that meeting, the Cherokee Troops, Confederate States of America, resolved to “unanimously re-enlist as soldiers for the war, be it long or short.” In September of 1864, Stand Watie masterminded a plan to attack and steal a Union supply-wagon train worth one million dollars. This battle was fought at Cabin Creek in Indian Territory and is said to have been Stand Watie’s greatest success. His brilliance and bravery were not enough, however, as the Confederacy was losing battle after battle. On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered for the Confederacy at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. General Stand Watie fought on, hoping to win the battle for the West, but it was not to be. On June 23, 1865, when Brigadier General Stand Watie surrendered at Doakesville in Indian Territory, he became the last Confederate general to lay down his sword.

The contribution made by American Indians in the Civil War was enormous. An estimated 3,500 fought for the Union and 1,018, or more than 28 percent, died while in service to their country. Census figures in the Cherokee Nation showed a population of 21,000 in 1860. By 1867, that number had dropped to 13,566. Approximately one-third of the nation had been lost, either in battle or to hunger and exposure, which were suffered by soldiers and civilians alike. After the war, General Stand Watie became more involved in the political activities of the Cherokee Nation and in resettling his people in the aftermath of the conflict. On September 7, 1871, the great general became ill and was taken to his old home at Honey Creek, where he died on September 9.

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