How did a high-standing Indian who signed away his ancestral lands in the Deep South become a general for the Confederacy during the Civil War? And why did he fight so fiercely against other Native people during the conflict?
Stand Watie lived during a convulsive time for his people—and the young American nation. Throughout the 19th century, Indians were being increasingly displaced from their homelands, and in some cases, massacred. Tribal nations faced internal discord over thorny issues like slavery—some Indians were themselves slaveowners—and whether to sign treaties that often pressured them to choose between their ways of life and their very survival. After the South seceded from the Union, Indians were forced to choose sides in the white man's war.
Stand Watie, a Cherokee, chose the South.
His Family Owned Slaves
Born in 1806 to a Cherokee father and mixed-race (half-Cherokee, half-European) mother in Oothcaloga, Cherokee Nation (near present-day Rome, Georgia), Stand Watie was originally given the Cherokee name Degataga, meaning “stand firm.”
After his father, Oo-wa-tie, was baptized into the Moravian Church as David Uwatie, he changed his son’s name to Isaac S. Uwatie. But as an adult, Isaac combined his Cherokee and Christian names (and dropped the “U”) to get Stand Watie.
As a student at the Moravian Mission School, Watie learned English, and later helped his older brother publish the Cherokee Phoenix, a tribal newspaper. By the time Isaac reached young adulthood, his father David Uwatie had become a wealthy planter who owned African American slaves.
Watie Signed His Tribe's Removal Treaty
Beginning in 1829, thousands of prospectors poured into Georgia after gold was discovered in Cherokee territory. Anglo settlers put increasing pressure on the Cherokee to relocate to reservations further west, a process that intensified after Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830.
Facing untenable choices, the Cherokee splintered into two factions. The majority, led by Chief John Ross, wanted to stay on their lands and fight for tribal sovereignty. Watie was among the minority who supported removal to the West, believing it was the only way to preserve the tribe’s autonomy. In 1835, he and several others signed the Treaty of New Echota, ceding ancient Cherokee homelands in Georgia to the U.S. government, in exchange for land on Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma.
Watie made the move west in 1837, settling in the northeastern corner of the western Cherokee Nation, near Honey Creek. Thousands of other Cherokees weren't so lucky. A majority believed the treaty invalid, and stayed put while Chief Ross appealed, unsuccessfully, to Washington, to nullify the agreement. By 1838, the U.S. military began evicting Cherokees from their Georgia homes, forcing them to migrate west along what came to be known as the "Trail of Tears." Of the estimated 15,000 Cherokee people who made the arduous journey, as many as 4,000 died—including Chief Ross's wife, Quatie.
Watie Raised the First Indian Regiment of the Confederate Army
Under Cherokee law, selling tribal lands without the people's approval was punishable by death. So in 1839, members from the majority faction executed Watie's co-signers of the New Echota treaty—his brother, his uncle and his cousin. Watie, who barely managed to escape the same fate, became a prominent opposition figure in the Cherokee nation's fractured politics, and a blood enemy of Chief Ross. As the surviving leader of the Treaty Party, he held a position on the Tribal Council from 1845 to 1861. And he developed a successful plantation in Indian Territory with enslaved workers of his own.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Watie wasted no time in joining the Confederacy, viewing the federal government—not the South—as the Cherokees’ principal enemy. He raised the first Indian regiment of the Confederate Army, the Cherokee Mounted Rifles, and helped secure control of Indian Territory for the rebels early in the conflict. Eventually, many fellow Cherokees would support—and fight for—the other side.
Watie became known as a gifted field commander and a bold guerrilla leader. At the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas in March 1862, his troops earned acclaim for capturing a Union battery in the midst of a Confederate defeat. On June 15, 1864, his men scored a major victory by capturing the Union steamboat J.R. Williams. The following September, they seized some $1.5 million worth of supplies on a Federal wagon supply train at Cabin Creek.
READ MORE: How the US Civil War Divided Indian Nations
Watie Refused to Acknowledge Union Victory
Much of his activity during the latter half of the war consisted of attacks against those in Indian Territory who supported the Union—burning homes, destroying fields and creating thousands of starving refugees. Even after a Cherokee majority repudiated the alliance with the Confederacy in 1863, Watie stayed loyal to the Southern cause. His reward? A commission of brigadier general.
So committed was Watie to the Southern cause that he refused to acknowledge the Union victory in the waning months of the Civil War, keeping his troops in the field for nearly a month after Lieutenant General E. Kirby Smith surrendered the rest of the Confederacy’s Trans-Mississippi Army on May 26, 1865. A full 75 days after Robert E. Lee met with Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Watie became the last Confederate general to lay down arms, surrendering his battalion of Creek, Seminole, Cherokee, and Osage Indians to Union Lieutenant Colonel Asa C. Matthews at Doaksville on June 23.
After the war, Watie returned to Indian Territory to rebuild his home, which Federal soldiers had burned to the ground. He traveled to Washington, D.C. to represent the southern Cherokee during negotiations of the Cherokee Reconstruction Treaty of 1866, which stripped tribe members of vast tracts of land in Indian Territory in exchange for their reinstatement in the Union. Watie then retreated from public life to his old Honey Creek plantation, where he died in 1871.