The American Civil War wasn’t just a conflict between white citizens of the Union and the Confederacy. Spilling over into Indian Territory, on the western frontier of the war, it profoundly divided Indian nations, communities and families. An estimated 20,000 Native American soldiers participated in the conflict, fighting for both sides.
At the outset of the war, many nations in Indian territory signed treaties with the Confederacy—supported by a minority of wealthy slave-holding Indians within their communities. But those sympathies weren’t unanimously shared: Many Indians leaned toward ending slavery and expressed a wish to be independent from the U.S. and its bloody conflict. As the war progressed, though, momentum shifted. Three Indian Home Guard regiments emerged to support the Union and protect vulnerable tribal communities from violent guerrilla warfare. The result: Indians fighting Indians in a white man’s war.
Native American soldiers went to battle for a variety of reasons: to support or fight slavery, to defend tribal sovereignty and to protect family and community. But the war did little to advance their own needs and interests. Instead, it aggravated longstanding internal tribal tensions and ravaged territory the U.S. government had relocated them to decades earlier, creating a new wave of impoverished refugees.
An Old Feud ‘Burst Forth in All Its Fury’
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Indian Territory encompassed most of the area now occupied by the state of Oklahoma. Ancestral home to tribal nations including Osage, Quapaw, Seneca and Shawnee, it had also become the mandated home for the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole nations (known as the Five Civilized Tribes). Between 1830 and 1850, those groups had been forcibly removed from their ancestral lands in the Southeast and marched hundreds of miles west by the U.S. government. The relocation, later known as the Trail of Tears, killed thousands.
The Cherokee Nation, politically divided since that turbulent period, exemplified how tribal nations were further torn apart by the war. On one side stood Principal Chief John Ross, the leader who had navigated the nation through the Trail of Tears. Supported by nearly a two-thirds majority, he urged neutrality and national unity as the secessionist influence grew in and around Indian Territory. His supporters, organized as the Keetoowah Society, supported abolishing slavery but were motivated by the desire for Cherokee sovereignty.
On the other side: a minority of wealthy slave-holding Cherokees who deeply resented Ross and his failure to align with the Confederacy. Their leader was Stand Watie, longtime head of the Treaty Party, so called because its members, in defiance of the majority, illegally signed the treaty that forced removal of Cherokees from their homelands.
“There had been a smoldering hatred existing between two political factions ever since before the movement of the Cherokees from the old Cherokee Nation,” said tribeswoman Annie Hendrix, interviewed in 1938 as part of a WPA series of oral histories of Indian Territory pioneers. “And when the Civil War broke out, it only afforded an opportunity for the fire of this old feud to burst forth in all its fury.”
Three Different Factions Take Up Arms
In October of 1861, Ross relented to growing pressure and signed a treaty with the Confederate States of America, which promised the Cherokee nation protection, food and other resources in exchange for several regiments’ worth of soldiers and access into their territory for building roads and forts. Unpopular with most Cherokees, the treaty allowed Ross to maintain governmental stability—and stay in power.
Several months earlier, Watie had worked surreptitiously with the Confederacy to form a regiment, the Cherokee Mounted Rifles, mustering several hundred supporters. (He went on to become a brilliant field commander and daring guerrilla leader.) After the treaty, a second regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles formed under the command of Ross loyalist Colonel John Drew—a counterbalance to Watie’s growing power and influence.
Meanwhile, a third political force began to mobilize: the “Loyal” Indians, led by Creek chief Opothleyoholo, a staunch advocate of Indian neutrality in the white man’s war. Refusing to ally with the Confederates, he led thousands of followers from multiple tribes, along with escaped slaves and freedmen, to exile in Union-controlled Kansas, where the U.S. government had promised refuge. Along the way, through the fall and winter of 1861, the group endured harsh conditions and defended repeated attacks from Confederate forces, including Watie’s Cherokee Mounted Rifles. But many Cherokees in Drew’s regiment, sympathetic to the Loyal Indians, deserted the Confederacy to join his camp—evidence of the deepening divide between pro-Confederate and pro-Union Indians.
The Union-Backed Home Guard Invades from the North, Seizes Ross
By spring of 1862, James G. Blunt, brigadier general of the Kansas Union forces, wanted to raise an Indian expeditionary force to infiltrate Confederate-ridden Indian Territory. Intel had encouraged his belief that the Cherokee’s Principal Chief Ross was not only sympathetic to the North, but could be persuaded to abandon his Confederate alliance.
So, Blunt ordered the mustering of a 1st Kansas Indian Home Guard regiment encompassing refugees and survivors of Opothleyoholo’s camp of Loyal Indians. The regiment included nearly 1,800 men, primarily Creeks and Seminoles. Later, a second regiment was raised of nearly 1,500 men, mostly Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Osages.
The 1st Home Guard expedition soon made its way through Indian Territory toward Tahlequah, the Cherokee Nation capital, and Park Hill, Ross’s home. After repelling Watie’s regiment at the Cowskin Prairie, routing a larger Confederate force in the Battle of Locust Grove and capturing Fort Gibson, they successfully claimed the interior of the Cherokee Nation.
News of the resounding Union victory spread quickly, attracting nearly 1,500 new recruits to the Kansas Indian Home Guard overall, including more than 600 deserters from Drew’s Cherokee Mounted Rifles. The influx prompted the mounting of a new, third Kansas regiment, the core of which came from deserters from Drew’s Confederate regiment, effectively gutting it as a fighting force.
Ross tried to remain steadfast in his treaty alliance. But after Blunt dispatched a force of 1,500 to escort him to Fort Leavenworth, the chief and the general quickly forged their own agreement: Ross would proceed immediately to Washington to meet with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss a renewed alliance with the United States.
Confederate Guerrillas Ravage Cherokee Communities
After the Home Guard withdrew, Watie’s regiment of nearly 700 strong began reprisals that ravaged Cherokee society. The war in and around Indian Territory raged through the fall and winter of 1862, with the Indian Home Guard regiments redeployed in Kansas and Missouri, then moving back into Indian Territory to serve as a crucial fighting force in at least four separate battles. The Battle of Newtonia saw Indian units on both sides of the conflict.
In 1863, delegates from the Cherokee National Council pleaded for another Union military offensive to suppress the ongoing terrorism inflicted by Watie and his Confederate force. But while General Blunt’s command made several forays into Indian Territory that spring and summer, they couldn’t provide lasting stability.
According to Justin Harlin, the federal agent to the Cherokees, military authorities had assured him and the Cherokee people they would protect Indians in their homes, prompting him to procure and distribute farming supplies. But, he wrote, “About the 21st of May, the rebel Indians under the command of Stand Watie, entered the territory and robbed the women and children of everything they could find… Robbing, sometimes murdering and burning, continued until the about the fourth day of July without abatement.”
Union forces dealt a decisive blow to the rebels in Indian Territory in July 1863 at the Battle of Honey Springs, where they decimated a unified Confederate presence. The defeat forced many southern-sympathizing families to move to Texas for the duration of the war—including Watie’s wife and children. But after another Union withdrawal left the countryside unprotected, Watie’s group returned yet again to pillage and rob, along with white settlers who crossed into Indian Territory from Arkansas. Many families were forced to flee to Fort Gibson for protection. By the end of the year, Harlin reported, more than 6,000 refugees were camped within a mile and a half of the fort.
Through the end of the war, Cherokees and other Indians experienced tremendous suffering due to U.S. support failures, disease and continued guerilla warfare. By the time the Union won the war and the Indian Home Guard disbanded in May of 1865, the Cherokee Nation was barren and devastated, its people’s resilience infinitely tested.
Reconciliation At Last
General Stand Watie, the persistent nemesis of the Ross Party and the Union Indian Home Guard, was the last Confederate general to surrender on June 23, 1865. And Principal Chief John Ross died on August 1, 1866, in Washington, D.C., still negotiating a Cherokee Nation treaty with the United States.
Reconciliation did eventually emerge. “The legacy of the Civil War actually occurs a few years after the Civil War,” says Dr. Julia Coates, a Cherokee Nation tribal councilor and adjunct professor of American Indian Studies at Pasadena City College. In 1867, the Keetoowahs ran their own candidate, Lewis Downing, who had been part of the Indian Home Guard, after having been in Drew’s regiment first. He ran in opposition to the established Ross Party candidate, William P. Ross, nephew of John Ross.
“He does a really remarkable thing and reaches out a hand to Watie and the Southern Cherokees,” Coates says. “They say, ‘If you will join us in supporting Downing, we will begin to fold you back into the Cherokee government, into Cherokee society. Let's close this thing up, after the extraordinary devastation and division of the Civil War. And it works, it leads to an era of Cherokee reconstruction.”