The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War

Larry Holzwarth - August 30, 2020

The American Civil War did not exclude the American Indians of numerous tribes. The war’s divisiveness extended to the tribes, with some serving in the Union army, some in the Confederate, and some fighting against both. Tribes and whole nations chose one side or the other, and individuals opted to support one side while their families supported the other. As with the white American population, the war often pitted brother against brother. For the Indians, fighting in the white man’s war placed their homelands at risk of conquest.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Post-war map of the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Wikimedia

Most of the Cherokee supported the Confederacy, unsurprisingly, since many Cherokee were slave owners. So were the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Creek peoples. When the tribes were relocated to the Indian Territory in the 1830s they took their slaves with them. Eventually, around 3 – 4 % of the southeastern tribes owned African slaves (many tribes used captives from other tribes as slaves as well). The issue of enslaved Africans and their descendants was as divisive among the tribes as it was in white America and lead to intratribal disputes and some actual fighting. Nonetheless, some Cherokee chose to support the Union, as did many southerners who were not slaveowners. Here is some of the complicated history of the American Indians during the Civil War.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
The Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run led many Cherokee to change allegiance. Library of Congress

1. The Trail of Blood on Ice

Following the secession of the Confederate states, most of the tribes in the Indian Territory leaned toward supporting the Union. That changed with the fall of Fort Sumter and the subsequent Confederate victory at the First Battle of Manassas. Leaders of the Cherokee, then the largest of the Indian nations in Indian Territory, lobbied for the territory to align itself with the Confederacy. Ancient tribal rivalries renewed. Several smaller tribes opposed the Cherokee leaders, and demanded the allegiance of the tribes to Washington. In November, 1861, a Confederate force entered the territory and clashed with some of the smaller tribes.

Opothleyahola, a Chief of the Upper Creek, decided to lead the pro-Union tribes to the safety of Union lines at Fort Row, Kansas. The Confederate troops under Colonel Douglas Cooper attacked them on their journey. The Trail of Blood on Ice was a series of battles between Confederate troops and their Cherokee allies against Opothleyahola and his followers, mostly Creek and Seminole. More than two thousand of his followers died as they fought their way to Kansas, where the survivors were mostly housed in refugee camps. Many, including Opothleyahola, died in them during the ensuing months. Their leader had survived the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the Creek war, the relocation known as the Trail of Tears, and the Trail of Blood on Ice before succumbing to the harsh Kansas winter in 1863.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
John Ross of the Cherokee Nation, photographed after the war. Wikimedia

2. John Ross

During the Indian Removal in the 1830s, the Cherokee split into two main political factions. One, which opposed the removal and sent several delegations to Washington took the name of the National Party and supported assimilation into American life. They were opposed by the Treaty Party, which supported relocation and retaining the Cherokee way of life. The National Party eventually came under the leadership of John Ross, a Cherokee political functionary and one of the wealthiest men of the nation. Ross had numerous business interests before and after the relocation, and owned up to one hundred slaves of African descent.

When the Civil War began Ross, who had extensive experience negotiating with the federal government, urged the Cherokee to either remain neutral or align themselves with the Union. Traditionalists and the members of the Treaty Party opposed him, and by late 1861, Ross began to advocate supporting the Confederacy, partly in the belief that the Confederates would not interfere with Cherokee slaveholders. By 1862 he had changed his mind. When growing support for a military alliance with the Confederacy continued to divide the Cherokee, Ross and his supporters and followers fled the Indian Territory for the protection of Union troops at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Stand Watie led the Cherokee and other tribes against Union troops and their Indian allies. Wikimedia

3. Stand Watie

Stand Watie was a successful planter in the Indian Territory, and after the Principal Chief of the Cherokee John Ross fled to Union territory in 1862, replaced him in that role. He was a fervent supporter of the Confederacy and led the Cherokee in support of Colonel Cooper’s attacks on the Creek and Seminole during the Trail of Blood on Ice. He eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General of the Confederate States Army. Stand Watie led his followers on numerous attacks against both Union troops and Cherokee supportive of the Union. By the end of 1862, the Cherokee were engaged in a de facto civil war of their own, with Cherokee troops serving in the Armies of the Union and the Confederacy, often fighting each other.

Unlike his opponent John Ross, who was of mostly Scottish descent (7/8ths), Stand Watie was a full-blooded Cherokee. Watie owned a significant number of slaves, though slavery in the Indian Territory was different in some ways than in the Confederacy. The children of Cherokee slaves were not born into slavery as they were in the South. Intermarriage between the races was allowed, something is strictly forbidden in the Confederacy. The troops Watie raised and led as mostly irregulars on raids against Union troops and Cherokee villages which supported them included armed slaves, owned by Watie and some of his most loyal supporters. It was the only area of the Confederacy where armed slaves fought with the knowledge, though not the outright approval, of the government in Richmond.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Joseph Vann built a steamboat business empire in the antebellum period. Wikimedia

4. Joseph Vann

Joseph Vann was the son of a Scottish Georgia planter and a Cherokee mother. After his father was murdered he inherited his considerable wealth, which included plantations, slaves, several taverns, river ferries, and over $200,000 in gold. Vann relocated to the Indian Territory in 1837, where his business interests thrived. By the 1840s he owned and operated several steamboats, plantations, taverns, and other businesses along the Arkansas River, the Mississippi River’s tributaries including Ohio, and in New Orleans. In 1844 Vann was skilled when his steamboat, Lucy Walker, suffered a boiler explosion on the Ohio River below Louisville.

Vann was instrumental in influencing the Cherokee Council to organize the militia in the Indian Territory. He argued the militia was necessary to prevent organized slave revolts among the slaves held by the Cherokee, as well as by the Creek, Choctaw, and other tribes. In 1842 a slave rebellion erupted when 20 slaves escaped from Vann’s plantation; they were joined by others as they fled in the direction of Mexico. Along the way, they encountered a party of slave catchers bringing other escaped slaves back to their Creek and Choctaw plantations. Two of the slave catchers were killed. Eventually, the escaped slaves were captured by the organized Cherokee militia. Vann put the majority of the recaptured slaves on his steamboats, though only those who did not steam on northern rivers.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Cherokee political and military leader John Drew. Wikipedia

5. John Drew

Born in Georgia of mixed-blood parents (he was the nephew by marriage of John Ross), John Drew was a slave owner when he relocated to Indian Country during the period known as the Trail of Tears. He traveled in the same party as his uncle and his family. During the period before the outbreak of the Civil War, Drew led a party of Cherokee militia to hunt down a group of escaped slaves who fled from the plantation of Joseph Vann. The 100 or so man posse carried whatever weapons they owned. Some were armed with ancient Tower muskets, known familiarly as the Brown Bess, having been handed down in Cherokee families since the days of the American Revolutionary War.

Drew parlayed this “military” experience into a commission in October, 1861, raising the 1st Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles. Few of the Cherokee were armed with rifles, though some did carry Pennsylvania and Kentucky rifles of several decades’ vintage. Most of Drew’s volunteers, unlike their leader, opposed slavery and joined because they were exhorted to, using the traditions of the Cherokee warrior. A significant number of his men deserted during the Trail of Blood in Ice campaign, not wanting to fight against Indians they knew. After the Battle of Old Fort Wayne in 1862, where the Confederates and their Indian allies were routed, most of Drew’s remaining command deserted to the Union.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Veterans at a reunion of Thomas’ Legion. Wikimedia

6. William Holland Thomas

William Thomas, a white man adopted by the Cherokee, studied law in antebellum North Carolina. He represented the Eastern Cherokee during the period which led to the Indian Removal Act and obtained concessions from the Federal Government which allowed the Eastern Cherokee to remain in their lands in western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. When his adoptive father Yonaguska died, Thomas became Chief of the Eastern Cherokee, the only white man to ever assume such a role. From 1848 to 1860 he served as an elected representative in the North Carolina State Senate. The concessions Thomas won for the Cherokee made him a well-respected leader among both the Indians and North Carolina’s western citizens.

When the state seceded from the Union in May 1861, Thomas used his influence both in the state government and the Eastern Cherokee to raise a legion to defend North Carolina. Thomas recruited 8 companies, six from the white citizens of North Carolina, most of which were of Scotch-Irish descent. The other two were comprised of Cherokee warriors, about four hundred men. He called his new command Thomas’ Legion of Cherokee and Highlanders. They were placed under the command of the Department of East Tennessee, and engaged in several battles in the Eastern Theater, including in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley late in the war.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
The Indian Territory Home Guard fought in both pitched battles and guerilla raids during the war. Wikimedia

7. The Indian Territory Home Guard

In October, 1861, the Delaware nation, then living in the Indian Territory under the auspices of the Wichita Agency, announced its loyalty to the federal government in Washington. Delaware warriors, armed with their traditional weapons, volunteered for service with the Union Army. The following January the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, William Dole, directed the agencies to recruit and arm men of the several tribes in the Indian Territory to defend it against Confederate aggression, and from attacks from the tribes supporting the Confederacy. Several tribes responded by providing troops, which were formed into the Indian Territory Home Guard.

Delaware, Seminole, Creek, Shawnee, Seneca, Choctaw, and several other tribes responded to the call. The warriors were divided into two regiments, designated the 1st and 2nd Home Guard, and were led by tribal chiefs who reported to the Union agents. The Department of Indian Affairs authorized the Home Guard to erect fortifications and establish checkpoints and defensive positions on roads entering the Indian Territory. It also established that none of the troops of the Home Guard were allowed to serve outside the Indian Territory. Eventually, a third regiment was created, and though a fourth was authorized, the few men it recruited were transferred to the other units, and the regiment disbanded before it saw service.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
A Choctaw Brigade Battle Flag. Pinterest

8. Choctaw

Before the attack on Fort Sumter, the new Confederate government received support through the enlistment of considerable numbers of Choctaw, many of whom owned slaves on plantations along the Mississippi and its southern tributaries. The Choctaw had split into two major bands following relocation, the Mississippi Choctaw east of the river, and the Choctaw Nation in the Indian Territory. By the time of the Civil War, the Choctaw Nation prospered, following the economic system of the southern states, with several tribal leaders successful in the cotton trade. The Mississippi Choctaw were for the most part poor, existing as sharecroppers and small farmers.

Both bands of the Choctaw supplied troops to the Confederacy, in numbers large enough to create several regiments throughout the war. This occurred despite a marked lack of support from the Confederate government. They fought in numerous battles and skirmishes in the western theater, against Union troops and their Indian allies. Choctaw and Chickasaw frequently served together in regiments, though divided by companies rather than fully integrated. By mid-1863 desertion rates among the Choctaw and Chickasaw troops increased dramatically, largely due to their being unpaid by the Confederate government, as well as undersupplied.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Comanche Chief Quanah Parker saw the Civil War as an opportunity to reclaim lost lands. NPR

9. Comanche

The Comanche viewed the Civil War as a battle between the encroaching white settlers and their soldiers. For them, the withdrawal of blue-coated American cavalry, as well as the Texas Rangers across much of what had been the lands they formerly roamed was an opportunity to reclaim them. During the American Civil War, the region once known as the Comancheria became the scene of destruction and death. Joined by the Kiowa and Kickapoo, the Comanche managed to push what had been the frontier back over 150 miles. White settlements were abandoned, farms raided and destroyed.

For the Comanche and their allies, it mattered not at all what were the political views of the settlers they attacked. During the war, they exacted revenge on the tribes which had supported the white settlers, fighting Texas militia and rangers, Indians supporting both the Confederacy and the Union, and volunteering US Army troops. They raided wagon trains bound for Santa Fe, and were involved in engagements both large and small. By 1863, territorial governors in the western plains responded to pleas from settlers and raised Union regiments in New Mexico and Colorado. Among their leaders were Christopher “Kit” Carson and General James H. Carleton.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Tonkawa men, women, and children were massacred following the destruction of the Wichita Agency by Indian allies. Wikimedia

10. The Wichita Agency raid

In October, 1862, troops loyal to the Union attacked the Wichita Agency, then at Fort Cobb, south of the present-day Fort Cobb, Oklahoma. The agency provided shelter to 300 or so Tonkawa who were there expecting the protection of the Confederacy. In the pre-war years, the Tonkawa frequently supported the United States government and the Texas Rangers in their battles with other tribes, particularly the Cheyenne. Their service included acting as scouts for the cavalry and rangers, earning them the enmity of several tribes. The agency had few troops to protect it, and the Tonkawa were not prepared for an assault, which included Indian troops from numerous tribes. Some accounts claim both Cheyenne and Kiowa participated in the attack, though neither tribe was allied to the Union, making it unlikely.

Following the assault, which led to the agency being destroyed, all of the whites dead, and the Tonkawa fleeing to Fort Arbuckle, they were attacked again the following day. Which tribes participated in the second attack, known as the Tonkawa Massacre, is equally unclear, but approximately 140 men, women, and children were killed as the remains of the party scattered and fled to the south. Those who survived and reached Fort Arbuckle came under the protection of a Chickasaw unit loyal to the Confederacy. The attackers of the Wichita Agency returned to their bases, taking with them a captured Confederate flag and about $1,200 in gold.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
US Navy crews (though not officers) were integrated during the Civil War, including both black and Indian sailors. US Navy

11. Service in the navy

For the sailors and officers of the Union Navy, the coastal waters and rivers and streams posed a considerable obstacle. Most of the pre-war officers familiar with the waterways of the south resigned and joined the Confederate Navy, and most local pilots and watermen remained loyal to their respective states. In Virginia and North Carolina, several tribes chose to align themselves with the Union, acting as river guides and pilots in both civilian and military capacities. Among them were the Powhatan, descendants of the first Indians to encounter the English settlers at Jamestown more than 250 years earlier. They were joined by the Pamunkey and Lumbee in North Carolina and Virginia.

The Powhatan pilots and guides were essential to the operations of the Union Army during the Peninsula Campaign and subsequent operations around Hampton Roads, along the James River, and on its tributaries. They also provided spies which reported to the leaders of the Army of the Potomac during its operations in Virginia. As such, they reported the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia, identified river fords not depicted on maps, and provided information on alternate routes to the main roads in eastern Virginia. Other tribes, including Cherokee and Creek loyal to the Union, provided similar services to the Union armies in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Though few in number, Catawba fought bravely for the Confederacy throughout the war. Wikimedia

12. Catawba

Although the Confederacy refused to recruit and arm blacks, even freedmen, for their armies it had no qualms about arming Indian tribes which expressed loyalty to the government. The Catawba were so enthusiastic about their support of the Confederacy that nearly all of the adult males in the region entered the army. However, there were then not many Catawba left in South Carolina. About 55 Catawba were alive when the war began and of those a known 19 entered the Confederate Army, serving in the 5th, 12th, and 17th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. The 12th fought in the Peninsula Campaign, the Battle of Antietam, the Siege of Petersburg, and other major actions of the war.

In the Army of Northern Virginia, the Indian troops were not deployed in segregated units, as they were for the most part in the Army of the Potomac. In the latter, they were enrolled in units that were at the time referred to as “colored” troops. Exceptions were made for spies, scouts, and waterways pilots. In terms of sheer numbers the participation of the Catawba was small but in terms of the percentage of the population serving it was high. The Catawba’s service to the Confederacy was honored with a monument erected in Columbia, South Carolina in 1900.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Sharpshooters served as pickets and snipers on both sides during the war. Wikimedia

13. 1st Michigan Volunteer Sharpshooters, Company K

Over the summer of 1863, the 1st Michigan Volunteer Sharpshooters were formed and trained near Dearborn, Michigan. Among the volunteers were a large number of members of the Ottawa, Ojibwa, Huron, Delaware, and Potawatomi tribes. They were formed into a single company, K company, one of the six which made up the regiment. After initial training, the regiment served briefly in Indiana and Chicago before joining the Army of the Potomac in time to take part in the Overland Campaign in 1864. They fought in the Battle of the Wilderness, where Company K covered their blue uniform blouses with camouflage made from mud and leaves as they acted as skirmishers and pickets.

From there they were an intrinsic part of the long slugging match over the summer of 1864, including the battles of Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the Siege of Petersburg. They were among the units pinned down during the ill-advised bloodbath known as the Battle of the Crater. The survivors of that debacle were among the first to enter Richmond after Lee’s army fled the city in the spring of 1865. They joined the Union troops which pursued Lee to Appomattox and surrendered. Throughout their participation in the Overland Campaign, they drew high praise from officers of other units who observed their behavior under fire, for their skirmishing ability, accurate shooting, and coolness in battle.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Refugees pause for a meal while fleeing the attacks of the Dakota in 1862. Wikimedia

14. The Dakota War of 1862

In 1862 the Dakota, also known as the Eastern Sioux, were in a lengthy dispute over the non-payment of annuities due them based on treaties signed with the United States government in 1851. The treaties were signed while Minnesota was still a territory, it became a state in 1858. The payments were in fact made, though often late, and directly to the traders with whom the Sioux had debts. Subsequent treaties and discussions reduced the lands reserved for the Sioux to occupy, and increased settlement in the state reduced the forests and the amount of game on which the Sioux survived. In 1862 a delegation of Sioux led by Little Crow arrived in Washington to plea for direct payment of the annuities to them.

While the delegations met in Washington, tensions in Minnesota reached a breaking point when a hunting party of settlers was attacked and killed by Sioux hunters. That night the Sioux decided to launch a war, while still waiting for word from the delegates in Washington. The Sioux decision to initiate a war with the Union had nothing whatsoever to do with the war then raging between the states. Nonetheless, Little Crow was aware the Union was at the time engaged in a major war, and he believed the Union was at a disadvantage, unable to commit significant amounts of troops to the Northwest. Less than half of the Sioux supported the idea of war on the settlers.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Sioux leader Little Crow, taken in 1863. Wikimedia

15. Sioux raids in Minnesota

Beginning on August 18, 1862, Sioux bands raided settlements and farms in western Minnesota. Several settlements were razed, and the occupants were killed or carried away as captives. The Lower Sioux Agency at Redwood was attacked and destroyed, and a detachment of Union troops sent to defend it nearly wiped out. In early September, Minnesota militia suffered a defeat at the Battle of Birch Coulee, and were rescued by a detachment sent to relieve them from Fort Ridgely. By the end of the month, Sioux attacks brought trade along the Red River, most of it conducted by flatboats and steamboats, to a complete halt. Pleas to Washington for help went largely unheard, with the military preoccupied with the Confederate invasion of Maryland, as Little Crow had predicted.

President Lincoln created the military Department of the Northwest and appointed General John Pope to command Volunteer troops to defeat the Sioux. Pope’s appointment followed his defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and ended the significant blame exchange for that debacle among Union Generals. Pope moved with alacrity, and the reinforced troops in Minnesota faced the Sioux on September 23, 1862, less than a week after the bloody Battle of Antietam in Maryland. The troops in the field were commanded by Colonel Henry Sibling Hastings and volunteer Charles Flandrau. Their roughly 1,500 men were opposed by just under 1,000 Sioux warriors.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Captured Sioux under guard at Camp Release, Minnesota, in 1862. Pinterest

16. The Battle of Wood Lake

The engagement between the Sioux and the Union forces at Wood Lake resulted when a failed ambush set by the Sioux quickly evolved into a major engagement. The Sioux faced not a handful of settlers and militia, but a Union line steadied by the presence of veteran troops who had faced the Confederate Army in Virginia. The result was a battle which raged for about two hours, with the advantages quickly shifting to the Americans. The immediate result was the realization that the Sioux could not continue depredations on the Minnesota frontier in the face of reinforced American troops. Winter approached, and the Sioux faced starvation if they remained in the field.

Nearly all the Sioux warriors surrendered to the Union by the end of September, the majority of them at Camp Release on September 26. Their leader, Little Crow, fled with a small band of followers to Canada. Of the surrendering Sioux, 498 were imprisoned, awaiting trial for the raids which occurred in August and September. In November, 300 of them were convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. Lincoln ordered the executions stayed until he could review the cases one by one. General Pope warned Lincoln that clemency towards the Indians would lead to frontier justice among the settlers, and a likely return of fighting. Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38, and those were hanged on the day after Christmas, 1862. It remains the largest mass execution in American history.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
The Sand Creek Massacre as drawn by a witness, the Cheyenne artist Howling Wolf. Wikimedia

17. The Colorado War

The Colorado War began in the spring of 1864 in a series of encounters between Cheyenne and white ranchers, including one incident in which the Cheyenne were found with 175 head of branded cattle stolen from Colorado settlers. A series of raids on isolated settlers by Cheyenne and Arapaho expanded during the summer to involve the Lakota, and along the Arkansas River, the Comanche and Kiowa also conducted raids. The 1st Colorado Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, expanded and supported by territorial militia, moved to subdue the Cheyenne, believing them to be the principal leader among the tribes. They were also considered the perpetrators of the massacre of the Hungate family, in which Nathan Hungate, his wife, and their two young daughters were brutally slaughtered.

Colonel John Chivington led the 1st Colorado Cavalry regiment that summer and fall. In November, a large encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho were ordered to move their encampment to Big Sandy Creek. Most of the Cheyenne and Lakota Dog Soldiers, who were responsible for the majority of attacks on settlers throughout the preceding summer, were absent. When the Cheyenne and their allies refused to move they were attacked, with the result known to history as the Sand Creek Massacre. Following the action at Sand Creek many Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors opted to join the Dog Soldiers (essentially renegades), and attacks on settlers continued during the winter and into 1865, as the American Civil War continued to rage in the east.

Read More: Sand Creek Massacre: Part 2 – Slaughter of the Innocents.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
The Battle of Olustee, the largest ever fought in the State of Florida. Wikimedia

18. The Seminole

As with the Cherokee, the Seminole split over the issue of the American Civil War, with a small minority in the Trans-Mississippi Theater opting to support the Union, mainly as guides and scouts. Starting with a battalion of Seminole volunteers, eventually expanded to a regiment, the Seminole fought on the Confederate side in several engagements and skirmishes in the swamps and bayous along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Their leader, John Thumper, received a commission in the Confederate Army, eventually rising to the rank of Colonel of Volunteers. The Trans-Mississippi Seminole practiced slavery before the Civil War, and following the end of the war, the United States imposed a new treaty with the tribe, freeing all slaves and restricting their lands.

In Florida, Seminole companies formed and offered their full support to the Confederacy as units of the Confederate States Army. The first formed in 1862, led by Andrew Hodges, and included both Seminole and white volunteers. The second, formed from the remnants of the first in 1864, in the Everglades. There is substantial debate over whether this company fought in the Battle of Olustee – the largest battle fought in Florida – but numerous reports of Seminole led ambushes and sniper attacks to appear in the records of Union soldiers. After the war, the Florida Seminole remained in the area of the Everglades, where many still live in the 21st century.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Ely S. Parker stands beside the fireplace in this depiction of the surrender at Appomattox in 1865. National Park Service

19. Ely S. Parker

Ely Parker was born in New York State, on the Tonawanda Seneca Reservation, a tribe of which he was a full member. Educated at first by missionaries, then by reading the law in New York, he was denied admittance to the bar because at the time Indians were not considered American citizens. He later attended college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, gained an engineering degree, and worked as a civil engineer when Lincoln issued his call for volunteers in 1861. Parker attempted to raise a company from the Iroquois tribes, but his services were rejected by the War Department. He then attempted to enlist himself, and was again denied. Parker appealed for help from his long-time friend, Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant obtained a commission for Parker as a Captain of Engineers during the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863. Following Grant’s promotion to command of all the Union Armies in the field, Parker went with him as his adjutant. After Grant and Lee discussed the terms of surrender at Appomattox, it fell to Parker to draft the document to which Lee affixed his signature. Afterward, Lee commented to Parker that he was glad to see at least one “real American” present at the surrender. Parker replied to the Confederate General, “We are all Americans” as he shook Lee’s hand. When Grant became President he appointed his former adjutant as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold the office.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
The Battle of Cedar Creek saw the near destruction of Thomas’ Legion, though it was later rebuilt. Wikimedia

20. Thomas’ Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders

When Thomas’ Legion was formally organized at Knoxville in 1862, it mustered 1,125 men, divided into the 10 infantry companies, a cavalry battalion, and an artillery detachment. Throughout the next two years, the Legion fought in several engagements and skirmishes. By early 1864 its strength had been reduced to about 500 men. In 1864 the Legion was ordered to join Confederate General Jubal Early’s campaign in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, an attempt to divert Union strength away from the bloody Overland Campaign. The Legion was detached from Early’s campaign in May, 1864. Following the Battle of Cedar Creek in October it was returned to North Carolina, its strength down to about 100 men.

By then the Appalachians in several southern states were filled with deserters from the Confederacy, and old grudges between mountain families and clans erupted in ongoing violence. The Legion recruited additional men from these groups, in an attempt to restore law and order. The recruiting of deserters, rather than returning them to their original commands, drew Thomas a court-martial, during which he was convicted. President Jefferson Davis overturned the conviction and the Legion remained in the field. By March, 1865, Thomas had increased the strength of his command to approximately 1,200 men, about one-third of whom were Cherokee. After receiving word of Appomattox, the Legion surrendered at Waynesville, North Carolina, May 10, 1865.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Stand Watie commanded his Cherokee and allied tribes at the Second Battle of Cabin Creek. Wikimedia

21. The Battles of Cabin Creek

The First and Second Battles of Cabin Creek were relatively small affairs, in terms of casualties and their impact on the war. But they were significant in that they cast Confederate troops from Texas, all of them white, and Cherokee troops under Stand Watie against Union forces comprised of largely “Coloured Troops” including Cherokee and other tribes loyal to the Union. Both were started as troops deployed to deter Confederate attempts to capture Union supply wagon trains. The first, in July, 1863, was a Union victory. In the second, in May 1864, the Confederates prevailed, and atrocities occurred when Confederate troops, whether Texan or Cherokee under debate since, massacred surrendering Union soldiers.

The two Battles of Cabin Creek, and the many other pitched battles which took place in the Indian Territory during the Civil War, are examples of how the nation was torn in ways well beyond the disputes between North and South. The Texas troops resented all Indians, regardless of where their allegiances lay. In many cases, they refused to serve under Cherokee officers, including Stand Watie, by the end of the war a commissioned Confederate general. Raids by both Union and Confederate troops into the Indian Territory destroyed Indian homes, villages, and farms indiscriminately, with Cherokee fighting Cherokee, dividing families and clans.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Quantrill’s Raiders became the symbol of bloody and indiscriminate slaughter throughout the western region, including the Indian Territory. Library of Congress

22. Guerilla fighting

Following the Second Battle of Cabin Creek in 1864, the war in the Indian Territory became largely one fought by roving guerilla bands. William Quantrill’s famous raiders conducted numerous raids against the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, and other bands which had remained loyal to the Union, or which had failed to support the Confederacy. Among the men who rode with Quantrill’s Raiders were Frank and Jesse James. Their tactics were brutal. Originally endorsed by the Confederate government as “partisan rangers”, their tactics and numerous atrocities attributed to them eventually caused the government in Richmond to denounce them. The Lawrence Massacre of 1863, the most notorious of all the raids into Union Kansas, was the last straw for Jefferson Davis and his government, and Quantrill was declared an outlaw.

Guerilla fighting continued in the Indian Territory and the Trans-Mississippi long after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, and the Indian Nations were devastated by internecine warfare, hunger, disease, and homelessness. Following Union attempts to regain control of the Indian Territory in 1864, reprisals against the Cherokee and other tribes which had fought for the Confederacy became common. The fighting in the Indian Territory diverted troops and resources from the main Union Armies in the summer of 1864; Sherman’s army in Tennessee and Georgia, and Grant’s slugging its way south to Richmond and Petersburg.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
Railroads, wagon trains, and steamboats were common targets for Indian raiders during the war. National Archives

23. The attack on the steamboat J. R. Williams

Logistics to support Union troops in the Indian Territory were a nightmare for their leaders in 1863. Slowly moving wagon trains, drawn by mules, were a frequent target of the guerrilla bands in the Indian Territory. Living off the land for large troop formations was impossible by 1864, after three years of nearly continuous fighting. Following the Battles of Cabin Creek, the Union had control of the Arkansas River, which was navigable by steamboats, and sternwheel steamers became the preferred method of supplying the Union troops, as well as moving them about as needed. One such steamboat was J. R. Williams. On June 15, 1864, J. R. Williams was at Pleasant Bluff on the Arkansas River when it was attacked by Confederate troops under the command of Stand Watie.

Ironically, the steamboat was carrying commissary supplies intended for the Indian refugees sheltering at Fort Gibson when it was attacked by troops comprised of Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw. The only Union defenders aboard were two dozen men of the Kansas Volunteer Infantry. The Confederates attacked with cannon and infantry fire, and after a brief resistance, the Union troops abandoned the ship. The Confederates then looted the vessel of all that it contained of value. Most of the Indian troops considered whatever they removed from the vessel their personal property, and many deserted with it, weakening Stand Watie’s remaining forces. The action temporarily boosted Southern morale, but had no impact on the outcome of the war.

The Little Known History of American Indians during the Civil War
John Ross was restored as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation by Andrew Johnson’s Administration. University of Cincinnati

24. The aftermath

Following his surrender, Stand Watie traveled to Washington to negotiate a new treaty, in which he sought the creation of a new Southern Cherokee Nation in the Indian Territory. The United States government refused to negotiate with him and recognized John Ross as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. It was a greatly depleted nation. More than 20% of the Cherokee and a like number of Creek died of all causes during the American Civil War. The federal government forced the Cherokee who had fought against the Union to cede lands as reparations. Around 35% of Cherokee women were widowed. In the east, the remnants of the Eastern Cherokee were afflicted by smallpox, with deadly results.

The divisions among the Cherokee caused by the war remained a factor in tribal politics throughout Reconstruction and for decades beyond. The northern tribes were adversely impacted as well. Over 1,100 American Indians died fighting with the Union forces during the war, nearly one-third of all who enlisted. In the years following the war, the western expansion intensified, spurred by the Transcontinental Railroad and the Homestead Act. The tribes in the Indian Territory and eastern reservations became an afterthought as the government in Washington concentrated on new conflicts on the plains and the American Southwest. By the end of the century, the contributions of American Indians on both sides of the Civil War were all but forgotten.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Hidden History: For Opothle Yahola’s people, ‘Trail of Blood on Ice’ led to Osage County”. Wendi Bevitt, Osage County News. December 16, 2016

“John Ross, Chief of the Cherokee Nation”. Article, Encyclopedia Britannica. Updated July, 2020. Online

“Watie, Stand”. Entry, Oklahoma Historical Society. Online

“Joseph Vann”. N. Michelle Williamson, New Georgia Encyclopedia. January 20, 2006. Online

“Indian Soldiers (Civil War)”. Article, Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Online

“Thomas, William Holland”. Gordon B. McKinney, NCPedia. 1996. Online

“Forgotten Warriors”. Fort Scott National Historic Site, National Park Service. Online

“The Choctaw Confederates”. Adam Goodheart, The New York Times. February 9, 2011

“The Comanche Empire”. Pekka Hamalainen. 2009

“Tonkawa Massacre”. Entry, Oklahoma Historical Society. Online

“10 American Indians Who Made Their Mark as Leader of Their People”. Larry Holzwarth. History Collection. February 21, 2018

“Contributions of American Indians to the US Navy”. Article, Naval History and Heritage Command. Online

“We are all Americans – Native Americans in the Civil War”. Article, City of Alexandria, Virginia. Online

“The Sioux Uprising of 1862”, Kenneth Carly. 1976

“The Fighting Cheyenne”. George Bird Grinnell. 1956

“Unforgotten Threat: Florida Seminoles in the Civil War”. Robert A. Taylor, Florida Historical Quarterly. January, 1991

“Biography of Ely S. Parker”. Daryl Watson, Galena and US Grant Museum. Online

“Thomas’ Legion”. William Anderson, NCPedia. 2006. Online

“Cabin Creek Battlefield”. Entry, Oklahoma Historical Society. Online

“Civil War in the Indian Territory”. Steve Cottrell. 1995

“Stand Watie and the agony of the Cherokee Nation”. Kenny A. Franks. 1979

“Native Americans and the Civil War”. Arrell Morgan Gibson, American Indian Quarterly. 1985

“10 Famous Captives of American Indians Who Became One With Their Kidnappers”. Larry Holzwarth. History Collection. December 23, 2017