The Cherokee in the Civil War



The South and their Savage Brothers




On March 7th, 1862, one of the most unusual scenes in the Civil War occurred. The battle of Pea Ridge started off as any normal battle. Troops of gray and blue lined up to shoot each other in a Napoleonic style battle. Suddenly, from the tree-line, almost 1,000 Cherokee Indians burst out and rushed to capture an artillery battery.[1]  Many of these Indians were wearing war paint, feathers, leggings, and moccasins.[2]

Another instance comes two months after Lee surrendered to Grant. A tattered and half starved cavalry unit surrenders to a Federal officer. This is the last Confederate General to surrender. His name was Stand Watie and he and his unit were Cherokee. These Cherokee weren’t raiding white settlements for gain or forced into service like Southern black men, they were fighting of their own free will. They were not fighting against the racially oppressive South that had cost them their Eastern homelands or sent them on the Trail of Tears where thousands of Cherokee died. Instead, they were fighting for the South against the North who was fighting to free the slaves.

The real question is; why would the overtly racist South have Indian allies? The South had a strong idea of racial superiority and only reluctantly gave arms to slaves toward the end of the war. Not only did the South have Indian allies, they welcomed the Indians with open arms into the Confederacy, even offering them equal pay for whites and very favorable terms in the treaty, including protection from Union invasion and that none of the Indian troops would have to fight outside of Indian Territory.[3]

To answer this question one must look at the records of the time and learn what the people involved actually felt about these issues. There have been many books written about the Civil War in the West and a fewer good books written about Indians in the Civil War, such as Between Two Fires, by Laurence M. Hauptman. All discuss the reasons the Indians fought in the war and the reasons vary with each individual. However, as I looked through the documents the leaders of the Southern armies left behind, I discovered that the Confederacy said very little derogatory things toward the Indians while the North only seemed to refer to them as savages and Barbarians. There were a few reasons that could account for this seeming role reversal. The South believed that they had a common cause against the North. There was also the desire to protect the Indians against cruel invaders, but this is somewhat condescending in tone. There is also the fear that northern abolitionists would convert the Indians to their ideas.

Unfortunately there are not nearly as many records about the war in the Indian Territory as there are about other theatres of the war. Few of the Indians were literate, so there were not many letters and the war was far less formal and organized as the Eastern campaigns. Much of the fighting was guerilla warfare with quick ambushes and small, highly mobile units. A few large battles took place such as Cabin Creek and the Battle of Honey Springs. There are a good amount of official war records left from both Union and Confederate, but these do not usually cover the small engagements which the war in Indian Territory mostly was. In the press the war in the west largely ignored compared to the Eastern campaigns.

First the Indians themselves will be discussed briefly. It is important to understand why certain groups of Indians fought for a country that rightfully should have been their enemy. Then the question on why the South was on such friendly terms with the Indians will be examined. The North’s attitude will also be looked at and the contrast between the two sides’ opinions of Indians will be obvious. Many documents and letters will be reviewed as well as a few newspaper articles.

Though the Confederacy seemed to welcome the Indians, the feeling was not exactly mutual. The Cherokee had enormously complex reasons for fighting. Most of the Indians were not fighting for the South because they believed in the cause, though there were a few Cherokee that owned slaves. Many would have preferred to serve for the Union and get revenge against the Southerners that kicked them out of their homes.

The reasons that most Cherokee fought who they did, was for a Vendetta that was started nearly thirty years before with the signing of the Treaty of New Echota in 1835.[4] This caused a blood feud between two parties, the Ridge Party and the Ross Party. The Ross Party blamed the leadership of the Ridge Party for signing away their ancestral lands and the signers were marked for death due to a law called the “Blood Law.”[5] This caused an internecine war that lasted until the death of Chief John Ross, leader of the Ross Party, in 1866. There was a brief peace when John Ross and Stand Watie signed a peace treaty and Ross became the official Chief of all the Cherokee. The old hatred did not die away. It was only left to smolder.[6]

At this time, the North began to pull out of Indian Territory to move those forces east to protect Washington D.C. In a letter from E. D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General, he writes, “The interests of the United States are paramount to those of the friendly Indians on the reservation near Fort Cobb.”[7] He then goes on to say that the friendly Indians, if they so choose, can relocate nearer to a Union held fort. Essentially, the North left the Indians to fend for themselves.

Soon after the formation of the Confederate Government, Jefferson Davis appointed Albert Pike to negotiate treaties with the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory. Many of the tribes were eager to join. The Creeks were in a similar position as the Cherokees in that they were split down the middle. The pro-Union Creeks along with members of other tribes split off and were led by a Creek chief named Opothleyohola.[8] He headed north toward Kansas in a hope to gain support from Union troops. This support never came and his group was defeated by pro-Southern Cherokees and forced into exile in Kansas. This was a stark example of the Union’s apathy toward the Indians.

Albert Pike was a large man who was raised in Boston and knew several Indian languages. He took his appointment seriously and sincerely believed in the cause of bringing the Indians into the Confederacy. In a letter to J.P. Benjamin, Secretary of War, Albert Pike explains his intentions. “The Indian country is of great extent, and demands to be defended against…the more villainous marauders of Kansas on the North.”[9]

Pike goes on to explain how he wishes to do this. He petitions for arms and support from the Confederacy such as infantry and artillery. “United with infantry and artillery the Indians will prove valuable auxiliaries…and will be as available for offensive or defensive operations in Kansas or Missouri.”[10] Pike wanted the full support of the Confederacy for the Indians. Not only for mere defense, but they had the confidence to want to use the Indians in offensive actions.

The South petitioned the Cherokee with open arms and offered them their protection and even equal pay as white soldiers.[11] At first, the rhetoric seemed very warm and fraternal with the Indians. In a letter from L.P. Walker, Secretary of War, he says of the Indians to David Hubbard, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, “whose interests and feelings you will respect as if they were your children, the earnest desire of the Confederate States to defend and protect them against the rapacious and avaricious designs of their and our enemies at the North…” Nowhere is present the degrading attitude the South had toward African Americans or other minorities.  In the same letter he goes on to say that the Indian’s cause is their cause because they will both be subjected to the same vassalage by the North. Walker then goes on to prophetically say “…as that Government would, undoubtedly, sooner rob them of their lands, emancipate their slaves, and utterly exterminate them, than render to them justice.” It is evident that the Secretary of War was concerned with the welfare of the Indians. He also is concerned with “justice.” Robbing the Indians of their land was viewed as wrong, yet thirty years ago, the Georgians forced the Cherokee out of their land. Certain things seem easy to forget.

N. Bart Pearce, Brigadier-General of Arkansas wrote in a letter to Jefferson Davis, “Capt. A. Pike and myself are anxious that some steps be taken at once to secure the co-operation of the Indians in the West, and especially to prevent any emissaries of the republicans from poisoning the minds of the full bloods.” This is one motivation, to prevent the North from gaining allies. However, there is something more here, there is a distinct impression that though they may not consider Indians to be equals, they do not have a deep disdain for them. “Many of the Cherokees are already abolitionists, but the half-breeds and enlightened part of the nation are true to the South in their sympathies.” Pearce, along with Pike genuinely see the Indians as loyal and useful allies in the same struggle.[12]

The same sentiments were also penned by L. P. Walker, Secretary of war to Major Douglas H. Cooper who was operating in Choctaw country. “It is deemed expedient to take measures to secure the protection of these tribes in their present country from the agrarian rapacity of the North…” Once again there is the desire to protect the Indians from the Yankees. There is a common cause against a common enemy. The Confederates believed the North would destroy freedom for everyone, except the slaves who would gain freedom. They express the fear that the Northerners would also free the Indians’ slaves. “It is well known that with these unjust designs against the Indian country the Northern movement for several years has had its emissaries scheming among the tribes for their ultimate destruction.” These scheming emissaries he speaks of are northern abolitionist missionaries.[13] “Their destiny has thus become our own, and common with that of all Southern States entering this Confederation.”[14] We see the same kind of rhetoric, common causes, evil northerners, and protection of defenseless Indians.

Although Chief John Ross was still holding out for neutrality, the South did not bully the Cherokee into joining their cause. Brigadier-General, Ben. McCulloch wrote a letter to Walker about his hopes of seeing the Cherokee join the Confederacy. “I do not think it advisable to march into the Cherokee country at this time unless there is some urgent necessity for it.” He also says that it is inevitable that the Cherokee will join and that John Ross is “only waiting for some favorable opportunity to put himself with the North. His neutrality is only a pretext to await the issue of events.”[15] The South had confidence that the Indians would find common cause with them and that the few that held out, were either waiting for an opportune time, or were fooled by northern abolitionists.

What then, did some Confederates think about Indians as soldiers? In a letter from Pike to Robert Toombs, he says of the Indians that their “value can hardly be overestimated. There are no braver and better soldiers in the world, and for outposts and scouts no men are more than equals.”[16]

What about the North who was claiming to fight for liberty for the Negroes? How did they view the Indians? The North held no pretense to liking the Indians. In most cases they are referred to as savages and barbaric. William H. Seward, during a speech in the 1860 election said, “Indian territory south of Kansas must be vacated by the Indian.”

The North, they did little else but tell the pro-Union Indians that they had not been forgotten. E. H. Carruth, Commissioner of U. S. Government wrote a letter to Opothleyohola, Chief of the loyal Creek Indians. In this letter Carruth says “I am authorized to inform you that the President will not forget you. Our Army will soon go south and those of your people who are true and loyal to the Government will be treated as friends. Your rights to property will be respected.”[17] At this time, Chief Opothleyohola was a refugee in Kansas with the remainder of his destitute followers. They had no food, no shelter, and little clothing. The letter also ironically says, “You will learn that the people who are true to the Government which so long protected you are your friends.” After the war, the Government viewed all Indians the same, as having rebelled, and broke their treaties about respecting their rights to land.

In two different letters, E. H. Carruth says to different groups of Indians, “The Indians who are true to the Government will always and everywhere be treated as friends by her armies. Your rights will be held sacred.” And “His soldiers are as swift as the antelope and brave as the mountain bear…they will give you powder and lead. They will fight by your sides.” Here he promises them powder and lead. This would be very motivating for Indians who had just been booted out of their homes and made into destitute refugees. This was an opportunity to pay back the pro-Southern Indians.[18]

Union uniforms and equipment were never in such a short supply as they were in the South, but many refugee Indians in Kansas were without shoes and their clothes had holes. They remained as such during the winter and as a result, many died.[19] Once the refugees became so numerous, the North began to take notice and organize the refugees into “Home Guard” units.[20]  One Sgt. Wiley commented on how he viewed the Indians as ridiculous in army uniforms.[21]

As for weapons, the Indians did not receive very many first class weapons. Instead they got many antique arms that have been out of use for several years. If the volunteers came with weapons, that was what they used, but the ones that came unarmed had to be given government issued weapons. Generally Northern Indian troops were better armed than Southern Indian troops, but the South had a hard time arming many of their own troops. In Florida, Governor Perry had raised 2,000 troops to meet a levy issued by the Confederate Government. However, he was only able to arm 1,000 of them with muskets.[22] The Confederacy accepted them, but after that they would not accept anymore soldiers unless they were properly armed because the Confederacy had a chronic shortage of arms everywhere. This being the case, it is a marvel that the Indians received weapons at all.

The rare and first class weapons were the Springfield .58in rifle-musket M1855 and the British Enfield .577in rifle-musket pattern 1853. The second class weapons were older muskets that had been converted from flintlock into percussion. Flintlock had a piece of flint that struck down when the trigger was pulled and caused a spark to ignite the powder. The percussion was a simple cap put on a nipple that ignited when struck. It was far more efficient and usable during wet weather. Many of these old converted muskets had to have their calibers changed, rifled, and sights added.[23] The M1817, 1817 referring to the date of first issue, was a converted musket that came to be called the “Indian Rifle.” Its short smoothbore barrel was converted to a longer rifled barrel with percussion caps. Third class weapons were hunting muskets, squirrel rifles, and shotguns. Essentially, any civilian weapon they could find.

During the battle of Pea Ridge where Cherokees played a large part, there were many eye witnesses to Indians scalping dead and wounded Union soldiers. Major-General Samuel R. Curtis in a report to B. F. Wade, Chairman of Committee on Conduct of the Present War said this about Indians, “…it will appear that large forces of Indian savages were engaged against this army at the battle of Pea Ridge, and that the warfare was conducted by said savages with al the barbarity their merciless and cowardly natures are capable of.”[24] He uses the words “savage,” “barbarity,” “merciless,” and “cowardly.” None of these words are ever attributed to Indians in Confederate reports. There are several eye-witness reports buy Union soldiers who had witnessed scalping.[25]

When the Union press heard of these events, they began to express how the South was using savages to fight for them and that these savages would mutilate dead Federal soldiers. Harper’s Weekly reported that “the savages who fought under the Confederate flag systematically butchered the wounded, and this not only in obedience to their own fiendish instincts, but by the order of their officers.”[26] They are degrading the Indians in an effort to hurt the South’s reputation and honor; in effect, using the South’s own allies to hurt them.

As the war went on and the South had fewer and fewer resources, the amount of Confederate troops that could be spared to protect their Indian allies declined sharply. It wasn’t long before the South was unable to provide the support necessary to prevent an invasion by the North. Still, the Confederates did not abandon their allies like the North did at the beginning of the war. Until the end of the war Stand Watie, now a general, worked alongside General Gano, a white southerner.[27]  The two of them led many raids to divert the Union’s resources and harass their supply lines.

The Union who professed to fight for liberty and freedom for blacks, openly and not rarely degraded Indians. The Northern press criticized the South for using savages in their armies. The South in turn, fought to keep their oppressive racial oligarchy and keep the blacks in chains. One cause of the North’s negative dealings with the Indians was expediency. The North did not need the Indian allies while the South did. If the South did not need all the help they could get, the situation might have been very different.


Red Fox; Stand Watie and the Confederate Indian Nations During the Civil War Year. By Wilfred Knight. The Arthur H. Clark Company. Glendale California. 1988.


The Confederate Cherokees. By W. Craig Gaines. Louisiana State University  Press. Baton Rouge. 1989


The American Civil War in the Indian Territory. By John D Spencer. Osprey Publishing. New York. 2006.


Stand Watie and the Agony of the Cherokee Nation. By Kenny A. Franks. Memphis State University Press. Memphis. 1979


Between Two Fires; American Indians in the Civil War. By Laurence M. Hauptman. The Free Press. New York. 1995.


Confederate Florida; The Road to Olustee. By William H. Nutty. The University of Alabama Press. Tuscaloosa. 1990.

[1] Alvin M. Josephy Jr.The Civil War; War on the Frontier, the Trans-Mississippi West. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, VA

[2] W. Craig Gaines, The Confederate Cherokees. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge and London. Page 82.

[3] Laurence M. Hauptman, Between Two Fires; American Indians in the Civil War. The Free Press. New York. Page 48.

[4] Gaines, Confederate Cherokee. Pg 3

[5] Hauptman, Two Fires. Pg 44

[6] Kenny A. Franks, Stand Watie; and the agony of the Cherokee Nation. Memphis State University Press.

[7] E. D. Tonwsend, Letter to Lt. Col. W. H. Emory. Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Vol. I part ww. Pg 656

[8] John D. Spencer, The American Civil War in the Indian territory. Osprey Publishing. New York. Page 7

[9] Albert Pike, Letter to J.P. Benjamin, OR, Vol 13. pg 696

[10] Albert Pike, Letter to J.P. Benjamin, OR, Vol 13. pg 670

[11] Spencer. Civil War in Indian Territory. Pg 4

[12] N. Bart. Pearce to Jefferson Davis. OR vol 13. pg 576.

[13] Gaines. Confederate Cherokee. Pg 6

[14] L.P. Walker to Douglas Cooper. OR Vol 10. pg 574.

[15] Ben. McCulloch to L.P. Walker. OR Vol. 10. page 596

[16] Albert Pike to Robert Toombs. OR Vol. 10. page 580

[17] E. H. Carruth to Opothleyohola. OR Vol. 13. page 25

[18] E. H. Carruth to Tusaquach, Chief of the Wichitas. OR Vol. 18. pg 26

[19] Gaines. Confederate Cherokee. Pg 60

[20] Spencer. Indian Territory. Pg 14

[21] Quoted in, Spencer. Indian Territory. Pg 15

[22] William H. Nulty. Confederate Florida; The Road to Olustee. University of Alabama Press. Tuscaloosa. Page 7.

[23] Spencer. Indian Territory. Pg 19

[24] Sam. R. Curtis, to B.F. Wade. OR Vol. 13. Pg 206

[25] First Sergeant Daniel Bradbury. OR Vol. 13. Pg 207

[26] Harper’s Weekly. Volume 1862, Issue 06/14

[27] Hauptman. Two Fires. Pg 6.


5 comments on “The Cherokee in the Civil War

  1. Glenda says:

    Yep, totally convinced you need to write history for youth. Saw a program on TV about the Cherokee. So many of them believe they are of Jewish decent. They say all of their ceremonies are totally Jewish all the way. I found that amazing. Way cool. Back to the subject at hand. Seriously, you have a great talent and passion for history. You need to use it to educate others. Our youth today, are certainly not being taught history. You could be the answer.

  2. My great-grandmother near Little Rock used to speak lovingly of Stand Watie when I was a child, with many comments about Cherokee politics. I only remembered because of his distinctive name. Too bad I was so young and ignorant; no telling what I missed. I do have a Stand Watie T shirt, FWIW.

  3. nunyez says:

    “The overly racist south.” Wow you have no grasp on TRUE history. I suggest that rather than being “programed” by anti-white/southern so-called text books, that you cross reference written history from that era and formulate your own opinion. It shows a lack of intelligence to echo bs. You do know that the Union was very racist including Lincoln whom was a poster boy for white supremacy evidenced by his many speeches before and during his presidency. In fact General Lee among other Confederate officers were indeed what we would now consider abolitionists. Lee free his inherited slaves and wrote his own version of an Emancipation Proclomation long before it was used by Lincoln as a way of propaganda. On the inverse, Gen Grant owned slaves even AFTER the end of the war. Thats odd isnt it? Do some research before you show your posterior next time. Ignorance and bigotry are not good characteristics.

    • And you’ve shown your lack of reading comprehension. The ENTIRE article was demonstrating how in many ways the north was just as if not more racist than the South. That said, what the South did was inexcusable. They were horrible racists with a terrible history of cruelty, violence and worse. The South was culturally racist. The fact that the North was too doesn’t excuse them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s