From Nation to Wasteland: The Cherokees in the Civil War

Stand Watie

Stand Watie

The Cherokee Nation, like several others in Indian Territory, was plagued by deep divisions, between mixed-bloods and full-bloods, between those who had accepted removal and those who had resisted till the end. In the case of the Cherokees, the antagonists were, on one hand, those who had accepted the Treaty of New Echota, many of them mixed-blood slaveholders, led by Stand Watie, the last leader of the Treaty Party not to have been assassinated; and on the other, the mostly full-blood, non-slaveholding followers of Principal Chief John Ross.  The war brought those old resentments to a boil, and the result was the total destruction of the Cherokees’ painstakingly rebuilt society.

In the face of unrelenting pressure from Confederate officials, Ross tried desperately to maintain the unity of his nation by keeping it out of the conflict. But Stand Watie’s Southern Rights Party, allied with the Knights of the Golden Circle, saw the war as a means of settling scores.  Leaders of this party met secretly with Confederate military leaders; Watie was given a colonel’s commission, and proceeded to raise a regiment. Shortly thereafter, all four of the other “civilized tribes” signed treaties with the Confederacy.

John Ross

John Ross

At this point Ross gave in, called a national convention, and obtained the authority to negotiate with the Confederacy. He managed to obtain a treaty that, on its face, gave the Cherokees almost everything they had failed to get from the United States, in addition to stipulating that no Cherokee troops would be required to serve outside of the Cherokee Nation. John Drew, a close associate of Ross, was commissioned a colonel and raised a regiment of full-blood Ross supporters, known as “Pins” from the insignia they wore on their lapels.

Meanwhile in the Creek Nation, thousands of pro-Union followers of the traditionalist Chief Opothleyoholo gathered around him and fled north towards Kansas, with their women and children, their livestock and household possessions. They were pursued by a Confederate force that included the mutually antagonistic Cherokee regiments of Watie and Drew. The Confederates caught them three times. In the first two engagements, the pro-Union Indians fought back successfully and escaped. The second time, most of Drew’s Pins deserted, either joining the pro-Union refugees or heading home to their farms. The third time, however, a force of Texas and Arkansas cavalrymen crushed the refugees, forcing them to abandon all of their possessions in the course of their panicked flight. Reaching Kansas in mid-winter, they joined 10,000 other destitute and starving refugees.  Many of them died before the spring.

All of the promises made to the Indians by their Confederate allies were immediately broken. Both Confederate and Union armies used their Indian troops as convenient, both inside and outside of Indian Territory, while diverting their promised supplies to white troops.  A year later, Union General Blunt returned the pro-Union Indian women and children to their homes, where they were defenseless against the ongoing assaults of the Confederate guerrillas under Stand Watie.

Finally, abandoned by both Union and Confederate armies, the Cherokees were left to destroy each other. Hundreds of people were killed for being “traitors” to one side or the other. Houses, barns, and crops were pillaged and burned by both sides, gangs of freelance bandits robbed and murdered at will, and whatever livestock was left was stolen by white settlers coming over the border from Arkansas. By the end of the war only a wasteland was left, where once there had been a flourishing nation.

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