Indians in the Civil War of 1861 to 1865

The impartial. student of history, in reviewing the events of 1860-1861, cannot fail to be impressed with the fact that the United States authorities were guilty of nothing less than gross neglect, supineness and ignorance in their treatment of the Indians at the beginning of the Civil war.

The Indians were Southerners by birth, by ancestry, by education, by environment.

Many of them were slave-holders and large amounts of their trust funds were invested in southern securities.

These facts were well known by the Federal Government and should have prompted it to redouble its efforts to preserve the loyalty of the Indians. Instead, however, of strengthening the various army posts in the Indian country, at the very time when soldiers were needed to quell insurrections, to check the ravages of lawless bands of pillagers and to augment the faith of the Indians in the Government’s ability and desire to protect them and their families, the Government withdrew nearly all of the soldiers stationed in the Territory, sending them to Kansas and Missouri, leaving the Indians entirely unprotected, and causing them to believe that the Government was forsaking them. It was very natural, therefore, that the Indians should lend a listening ear to the specious pleas urged upon them by the numerous emissaries sent from Texas and Arkansas to urge them to declare allegiance to the Southern Confederacy. “Don’t you see that the Yankees are deserting you?” these wily emissaries exclaimed, as they pointed to the depopulated army posts. “Unite with us and we will protect your families and your property. Your moneys are invested in the South and we will see that they are paid over to you. The Yankee Government is rapidly crumbling and the South is sure to win. The North would free your slaves but we will see that they are not taken away from you.”

Such plausible argument, supplemented by the energetic efforts and personal visitations of such prominent, influential Confederates as Gen. Albert Pike and General McCulloch, resulted in creating a strong Southern sentiment among the Indians and in weakening their faith in the Federal Government.

The Chickasaw were the first of the Five Tribes to take formal action looking toward an alliance with the Southern Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil war. On January 5, 1861, the Legislature of that Nation held a special session and adopted a resolution calling upon the various tribes to send delegates to a general convention to be held at such place and time as the chief of the Creek Nation might designate, for the purpose of entering into some compact, not inconsistent with the laws and treaties of the United States, for the security and protection of the rights and citizens of said nations, in the event of a change in the United States, and to renew the harmony and good feeling already established between said nations by a compact entered into on the 14th day of November, 1859, at Asbury Mission, Creek Nation.

On the 4th day of the following month, Jacob Derrysaw, acting chief of the Creek Nation, sent notices to the neighboring chiefs announcing that he had fixed upon the 17th day of February as the date of holding said convention, and inviting each nation to send delegates to Asbury Mission, near Eufaula, on that day.

On February 9, 1861, Chief John Ross replied to the foregoing invitation in a communication to Governor’ Harris (Chickasaw) as follows:

“I was much surprised to receive a proposition for taking action so formal on a matter so important, without having any previous notice or understanding about the business, which might have afforded opportunity to confer with our respective councils .and people. Although I regret most deeply the excitement which has arisen among our white brothers, yet by us it can only be regarded as a family misunderstanding among themselves. And it behooves us to be careful, in any movement of ours, to refrain from adopting any measures liable to be misconstrued or misrepresented; and in which (at present, at least) we have no direct and proper concern. I cannot but confidently believe, however, that there is wisdom and virtue and moderation enough among the people of the United States, to bring about a peaceable and satisfactory adjustment of their differences.
“And I do not think we have the right to anticipate any contingency adverse to the stability and permanency of the Federal Union. Our relations with the United States are clear and definite, and the obligations growing out of them easily ascertained. And it will ever be our wisdom and our interest to adhere to those obligations, and carefully guard against being drawn into any complications which may prove prejudicial to the interests of our people, or imperil the security we now enjoy under the protection of the Government of the United States as guaranteed by our treaties.
“In the very worst contingency that can be thought of, the great national responsibilities of the United States must and will be provided for. And should a catastrophe such as that referred to in (your) communication unhappily occur, then will be the time for us to take the proper steps for securing the rights and interests of our people.
“Out of respect for the chiefs of the neighboring nations, and from the deep interest I feel for the peace and welfare of our red brethren, I have deemed it proper to appoint a delegation to attend the council appointed by the Creek chief at your request, on the 17th inst. at the General Council House of the Creek Nation, for the purpose of a friendly interchange of the views and sentiments on the general interests of our respective nations.”
Chief John Ross, however, appointed a delegation of Cherokee to attend the convention and gave them the following instructions
“Our duty is very plain. We have only to adhere firmly to our respective treaties. By them we have placed ourselves under the protection of the United States and of no other sovereign whatever. We are bound to hold no treaty with any foreign power, or with any individual state, nor with citizens of any state. Nor even with one another without the interposition and participation of the United States.”

The conference at Asbury Mission proved a complete failure. The Cherokee, Creek and Seminole sent delegates, but the representatives of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations failed to attend. No reason was assigned for their absence, but it is only fair to presume that the letter of John Ross convinced the Chickasaw that their proposition would not be favorably considered. Buchanan’s administration was still in power at Washington and nearly every Indian agent and almost every Federal official in this section of the country was a southerner and in sympathy with the Secession movement. Many of them, while still in the service of the United States, openly advocated secession and used every influence at their command to induce the Indians to join the southern confederacy.

R. J. Cowart, United States Indian agent for the Cherokee, was charged with publicly advocating the Southern cause.

Governor Rector of Arkansas wrote a letter to John Ross and sent Colonel Gaines, a member of his staff, to personally urge the Cherokee to unite with Arkansas in support of the Southern Confederacy. The reply of Chief Ross to Governor Rector expressed sentiments almost identical with those contained in his letter to the Chickasaw governor, above quoted.

In May, 1861, Gen. Albert Pike and General McCulloch, both of Arkansas, visited John Ross at his home at Park Hill, a few miles south of Tahlequah, and urged him to join the rebellion, but Ross still refused. Pike succeeded, however, in stirring up some sympathy for the Southern cause among certain members of the Ridge party, one of whom was Stand Watie, and was much more successful in his conferences with the Creek and other tribes. Stand Watie was one of the first and most active of the Cherokee to espouse the Southern cause. As the successor of John Ridge, as leader of the so-called “Ridge” party, which had opposed Chief John Ross ever since the conclusion of the New Echota Treaty, he was in a position to wield great influence among his people, and he used that position to promote the interests of the Confederate cause and to break down the prestige which Ross had possessed for so many years among the Cherokee people.

Watie organized a regiment of Indian soldiers and joined the Confederate army. In his efforts to induce the Cherokee to join the Southern Confederacy General Pike was ably assisted by Gen. Ben McCulloch. Both of these men stood high in the estimation of the leaders of the South; both were shrewd, able and convincing in their arguments ; both had seen service in the Mexican war ; both were proficient in the science of warfare. Pike had been a student in Harvard College and was an author of some repute.

Failing, however, to induce Chief John Ross to declare allegiance to the South, they did what they could in the way of stirring up opposition to Ross among the followers of John Ridge, of whom Stand Watie was the recognized leader, then departed to hold consultations with the leaders of the other Indian tribes on the west and south. There they were more successful. On July 10, 1861, they were successful in making a treaty with the Lower Creek, although Opothleyohola, the Creek Chief, positively refused to join them. During the summer of 1861 Pike and McCulloch, aided by the disloyal Federal agents, succeeded in persuading several other tribes to cast their fortunes with the South. In the meantime southern sympathizers were active among the Cherokee. Stand Watie had organized his regiment known as the Second Mounted Rifles, expressly for service in the Confederate army. Col. John Drew had organized the First Regiment Mounted Rifles, which, at first, was intended as a home guard organization to protect the Cherokee from marauding bands and invading forces from any direction, but which soon was induced to fly the Confederate flag. Some of the enlisted men, desiring to remain neutral and some who were not willing to violate their treaty obligations with the Federal Government, deserted the regiment and returned to their homes. While many of the Indian soldiers enlisted with the understanding that they were not to be taken away from home to fight, yet soon after they were organized, the two Cherokee regiments were marched across the Arkansas line, where they took an active, part on the Confederate side, in the famous battle of Pea Ridge, March 6, 7 and 8, 1861. This battle resulted disastrously to the Confederates and Gen. Ben McCulloch, commander of the Indian forces was killed. The discouraging outcome of the battle, coupled with the fact that the Indians were poorly fed and cared for, together with the fact that the Indians had been opposed to being taken away from their own territory to fight, resulted in still greater dissatisfaction among the enlisted men and an increasing number of them deserted the army and returned to their homes. Following the battle of Pea Ridge, Stand Watie’s regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles engaged in several skirmishes in Arkansas, but soon found its way back to the Cherokee Nation where it continued to render valuable assistance to the Confederate side. The Federal authorities continued their shameful policy of leaving the Indians to look out for themselves while the Confederate leaders, aided by disloyal Federal agents, kept busy sowing the seeds of Secession. Many of the Indians who were disposed to remain loyal to the North became discouraged, and feeling that they were being deserted by the North, were easily persuaded that their only safety lay in their casting their fortunes with the South. Southern sentiment continued to develop rapidly, with no organized effort on the part of the Government to counteract it, and when Gen. Albert Pike and his lieutenants returned to the Cherokee Nation in August, 1861, after having made treaties with several other Indian tribes, he was met with a much more friendly reception than was accorded him during his previous visit in March. Political excitement had been wrought up to the highest pitch and a -fierce internecine war was threatened between the two Cherokee factions. In order to avert this a mass convention was held at Tahlequah on August 21, 1861, which was attended by about four thousand citizens, including many of the soldiers of John Drew’s and Stand Watie ‘s regiments.

Resolutions were adopted endorsing the position of neutrality which John Ross had advocated, expressing a desire to maintain friendly relations with neighboring states and tribes, declaring that there should be no. distinctions between full-bloods and mixed bloods, repudiating the charge of their being abolitionists and recognizing the right of property in Negro slaves.

The convention’s last act was the adoption of the, following resolution:

“Resolved, that reposing full confidence in the constituted authorities of the Cherokee Nation, we submit to their wisdom the management of all questions which affect our interests growing out of the exigencies of the relations between the United States and the Confederate states of America, and which may render an alliance on our part with the latter states expedient and desirable.”

Confederate emissaries continued their active propaganda among the Cherokee, even going to the extent of agreeing to pay them the amounts due them under their treaties with the United States. Some money was paid over but the soldiers claimed they were not getting their rightful share.

The influence of the slave-holding element, combined with the pressure brought to bear upon the Indians by the presence of several companies of Confederate soldiers, overpowered the sentiment in favor of remaining true to their treaty obligations to the Federal Government so that when General Pike and his party returned to Tahlequah in the early autumn he found a much friendlier feeling prevailing, and on October 7, 1861, he succeeded in inducing the Cherokee to conclude a treaty with the Confederate Government.

The southern branch of the Creek, under the leadership of Colonel McIntosh had already made a similar treaty, although the venerable chief, Opothleyohola, refused to become a party to it and avowed his determination to remain loyal to the Federal Government. He organized a regiment of loyal Creek and engaged in several battles with the Confederates, but his regiment was poorly equipped with guns and ammunition and he was soon overpowered and compelled to flee to Kansas. After the ratification of the Cherokee Treaty many of the loyal Cherokee were also compelled to abandon their homes, some seeking shelter in Kansas, while others tramped their way to Missouri.

An account of the wanderings and suffering of these refugee Indians will be found in another chapter.

Albert Pike, the Confederate general who had been so active during the first year of the war in inducing the various Indian tribes to join the Confederacy, was sent farther south, making his headquarters in the Choctaw Nation, where it was believed that he could hold the Choctaws and Chickasaws in line, and at the same time protect Fort Smith from capture by the Yankees. The verbose promises which he had made to the Cherokee and Creek were not being fulfilled. The Indian soldiers were not being paid nor provisioned as they expected and their families were not being protected in their homes as Pike had promised. As a result many of them became dissatisfied and deserted the Confederate army, some of them returning to their homes while others joined Colonel Phillips’ regiment of Union soldiers then in possession of Fort Gibson. Col. John Drew lost several companies of his soldiers by these desertions, but Stand Watie was able to hold nearly all of his men in line.

Source: Benedict, John D. Muskogee and northeastern Oklahoma, including the counties of Muskogee, McIntosh, Wagoner, Cherokee, Sequoyah, Adair, Delaware, Mayes, Rogers, Washington, Nowata, Craig, and Ottawa. 3 v. illus., ports., facsims. 28 cm. Chicago, S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1922.

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