“The General: The Western Cherokee and the Lost Cause”

This week, I explored more about the Cherokee’s direct involvement with the Civil War. From the book Between Two Fires: American Indians in the Civil War by Laurence Hauptman, I read a chapter that told the story of the Cherokee during the war. The book covers not just the Cherokee’s involvement but also the stories of the many tribes and nations that fought for the Union or the Confederacy; “the two fires” who pinned indigenous nations against one another. The chapter I focused on this week was “The General: The Western Cherokee and the Lost Cause”. In this chapter, Hauptman analyzed the political rivalry of two Cherokee leaders, Chief John Ross and General Stand Waite, and how their hatred for one another affect the Cherokee’s willingness to fight in the war. He argued that the Cherokee’s motivations to fight in the Civil War were not solely based on slavery but internal conflicts between the two political forces. 

General Stand Watie
Chief John Ross

The war completely devastated the Cherokee Nation so much that Hauptman calls it the second “ruination” of the Cherokee (44). From 1861-1865, there was a total of 21,000 Cherokee in the Indian Territory. 3,000 served in the confederacy and around 8,500 sympathized with the South. Around 2,000 Cherokee who remained loyal to the Union became refugees at Fort Scott, Kansas, and 7,000 were held at Fort Gibson in Indian territory where they were protected from Waite’s forces. One-third of the women became widows and one-fourth of the children became orphans. After the war only 15,000 Cherokee remained (43). From fighting in the war, economic displacement, refugee conditions, poverty, starvation, smallpox, and political violence, Hauptman believed that the Cherokee Nation suffered more than any other Indigenous Nation.

In the first section of the chapter, Hauptman described how Watie was one of the last Confederate Generals to surrender two months after General Lee’s surrender on June 23rd, 1865. It was at first assumed he held on so long to defend the instruction of slavery however, in his research, Hauptman argued that Waite’s delayed surrender was less related to the Confederacy and instead was a result of the “developing nature of Cherokee politics” (42). He argued the reason why Watie held out so long was from the political history he had with John Ross. Their rivalry began with the Treaty Party, a group that was advocates for removal based on not fully honest motives and new opportunities in the West. Watie backed this party while Ross and his followers, The National Party, fought to protect their ancestral lands. Many from the National Party hated Watie and attempted many times to assassinate him and his circle of supporters. Hauptman described how “for the next seven years the Cherokee in Indian territory, failed tribal vendettas and bloodletting” tore through the nation until Ross and Watie were able to “bury the hatchet” with the treaty of 1846 (45). This federal treaty recognized Ross as the Principal Chief of the Nation and the government systems. Under the treaty, the land flourished and by 1860 they had 4,000 slaves (46). He argued that it was the Civil War that tore open old wounds between the two parties and caused the split as anti-Confederate and abolitionist Cherokee refused to join Watie’s war efforts.

Though Ross owned over one hundred slaves on his plantation, Hauptman described how he gained the support of abolitionist groups. The largest anti-Watie group was the Keetoowah; they organized to cultivate a national feeling among “full-bloods” (46). Another irony of Ross having this group’s support as he was only one-eighth Cherokee and Watie was one hundred percent. Their alliances were strictly based on what side they supported in the war. The Keetoowah were influenced by Christian missionaries in the Nation and gained a strong stance for the abolitionist movement. Associated with the Loyal League, established during the secession crisis, their purpose was to maintain friendly relations with the United States, advocates for the abolition of slavery, Cherokee rights and prevent anyone who had committed treason from holding public office. This group also became known as “Pin Cherokees” because they wore a cross pin on their shirts as a sign of their society (47). Their goal was to counter the support for Watie even though they supported Ross who was a slave owner. Watie retaliated by establishing his “Knights of the Golden Circle”. This was the new party that represented the slaveholding interest. Their objective was “capturing and punishing abolitionist who interfaced with slavery in the Cherokee Nation” (47). Watie’s strong retaliation against abolitionists led to his commission into the Confederate army as a Colonel. Ross feared removal from his position and that he would soon be replaced by Watie so he decided to sign the treaty of 1861. In October of 1861, a treaty was signed between the Confederacy and the Cherokee Nation. The treaty outlined:

The Confederate States assumed all of the treaty obligations due to the Cherokee from the government of the United States… guaranteed the Cherokee protected from invasion, respect for the Cherokee title to their lands, payment of Indian annuities and the recognition of the Cherokee right to maintain the institution of slavery. (48)

As a sign of commitment to the treaty, the Confederacy also provided that the Cherokee were allowed a delegate in the Congress in Richmond. Under the treaty, Watie agreed to furnish a regiment of ten companies of mounted men, with two reserve companies. No Indian regiment was raised to be called to fight outside of Indian territory. This was an interesting part to read because later on, the Confederates would form prejudices against the Indian soldiers which would lead to Watie changing his motives for fighting.

Next week, I will continue to explore the second section of this chapter that highlights the battles the Cherokee fought in the Civil War. The political motivations for fighting in the war do impact the relationship between the two parties. The war caused more violence within the territory as Ross’s loyalists deflected the Union.

Laurence M. Hauptman. 1995. Between Two Fires. Free Press. http://archive.org/details/betweentwofiresa00haup.

One Reply to ““The General: The Western Cherokee and the Lost Cause””

  1. Rick Kipphut

    Thank you. We forget that there were other factions at play during the Civil War and not just white northerners fighting white southerners.

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