A Rebel Chief

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Americans have always known the stories of Indian chiefs like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo and their wars against the U.S. government. Their struggles to preserve their way of life are legendary. There was another great Indian chief, unknown to most, who also fought against the United States in order to preserve his lifestyle. He committed himself to resisting the subjugation of his homeland. He was different from other Indian chiefs though. He was a general in the army of the Confederate States of America. He was Cherokee Chief Stand Watie. This is the story of the honorable and brave service of an American Indian in an unlikely war.

Despite being a Native American, Stand Watie was fiercely dedicated to the Southern way of life. Born on December 12, 1806 near Rome, Georgia, he was the son of a half-white mother and a Cherokee warrior. He grew up in Georgia where he watched many Cherokee adopt the lifestyle of Southern planters. At age twelve he attended school in Tennessee where he learned to speak English. He returned to Georgia to help his brother run the local newspaper, the Phoenix. By the early 1830s, however, he saw the U.S. government was determined to evict the Cherokee from their land. Along with the other mixed-blood Cherokee, he followed the “Trail of Tears” to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. He and his fellow mixed-bloods soon established a society mirroring the one in Georgia. Some Cherokee even kept African-American slaves. For himself, Watie dressed like a Southern aristocrat and established a Southern-style plantation. Like many Southerners he grew to despise the abolitionists living in nearby Kansas. He considered them a threat to his homeland and his way of life. He even organized a Cherokee branch of the pro-Southern Knights of the Golden Circle. Following Abraham Lincoln’s election and the secession of the Southern states, Watie determined to cast his lot with the South.

After the Confederacy formed in February 1861, Stand Watie urged the Cherokee to join the ranks of the Confederate army. Confederate officials similarly understood the value of having the Indians on their side. President Jefferson Davis dispatched Indian Commissioner Albert Pike to negotiate with the “Five Civilized Tribes,” as they were known — the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. Arriving in the Cherokee Nation, Pike joined with Watie to persuade Principle Chief John Ross to join the Confederate cause. Ross finally agreed, but he always remained lukewarm to the cause. Meanwhile General Benjamin McCulloch was appointed to command Confederate forces in the territory. In turn, McCulloch assigned Watie command of a regiment to defend the region bordering Missouri. The regiment was known as the Cherokee Rifles. In early August Watie’s regiment joined a Confederate army marching north into Missouri to stop the Union invasion of Confederate Arkansas. On August 10th, he led his warriors in the attack of General Nathaniel Lyon’s army at Wilson’s Creek. Thanks in part to Watie’s efforts, the Union army was defeated and General Lyon was killed. Shortly after the Confederate victory, on October 7, 1861, the Cherokee Nation signed a treaty of alliance with the Confederacy in hopes of maintaining “unbroken the ties created by identity of interests and institutions.”

It was clear to both Cherokee and Confederate leaders that they should “cooperate against a common enemy…and drive them from our borders whenever they dare approach us.” At the moment, the primary threat were those Indians who were loyal to the Union. Watie organized an expedition to drive those Indians out of the territory. Throughout winter 1861 Watie and his Confederates pursued Unionist Indians across the plains. They showed mercy to those who surrendered, but they were just as willing to kill those who resisted. The result was that by early 1862 most Unionist Indians were in exile in Kansas. Many exiled warriors willingly enlisted in Union regiments in hopes of returning to liberate their nation. With the immediate threat of the Union Indians removed, Watie and his soldiers prepared to cross over into Arkansas.

As 1862 began, the Federals were once again preparing to invade Confederate Arkansas. Southern General Earl Van Dorn gathered troops from all over the region, including Watie’s Cherokee Rifles. To the chief’s delight, he was reunited with his old friend Albert Pike, who now commanded all Confederate Indians. On March 7, 1862 Watie found himself at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Along with the rest of the Indians, he was ordered to strike the left flank of the Union army. Leading from the front, as he always did, he and his soldiers gave the Indian Rebel Yell and charged toward the enemy. The charge broke the Union lines and captured an artillery battery. That night they were pulled back and posted along the ridge itself. The next morning Union soldiers charged the ridge and, after fierce fighting, managed to drive the Confederates from the field. As the Confederates withdrew, Watie’s command was ordered to serve as the rearguard. Watie and the Confederate Indians regrouped at the small town of Cincinnati, Arkansas. Though the Confederates were forced back, Watie had distinguished himself as a fighter. In recognition of his abilities, Southern leadership put him in command of defending Indian Territory from Union occupation.

Like other Confederate leaders, General Van Dorn recognized the strategic importance of Indian Territory. Many of the tribes were loyal to the Confederacy, but more importantly, the territory allowed for raids into Union-occupied Missouri. Watie was ordered to disrupt the movement of supplies and troops as much as possible. In compliance with his orders, he and his Cherokee Rifles attacked Missouri forces throughout the state. Often he would appear, attack and disappear over the border in quick order. His enemies learned to be on guard against this Cherokee Confederate, but he still managed to surprise them. Union commanders repeatedly tried to capture him, but each time he eluded their grasp, sometimes only by seconds. With each attack, his reputation increased exponentially. It was only logical then that Watie replaced Chief John Ross as Principle Chief after Ross was captured and moved to Philadelphia. Though he oversaw civil affairs, most of his energy was still directed at leading raids against Union soldiers in Missouri and their Indian allies. He enthusiastically fought against those Indians who chose to wear Union blue. Watie was a superb commander, but even he could not keep Union forces from invading Indian Territory.

By mid-1863, the Federals were massing for an invasion of Indian Territory. The Union army first captured Fort Smith, Arkansas before crossing the border and securing control of Fort Gibson, Indian Territory. Union forces then attacked Watie’s soldiers and drove them out of the Cherokee Nation. Despite the fact that his soldiers were ill-supplied, Watie planned an immediate counterattack. His daring advance recaptured the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah, but he was unable to drive the Federals out of the Cherokee Nation completely. He resumed raiding Missouri and even threatened to ride into Kansas several times. Despite these displays of power, his real goal was liberating Fort Gibson. As he planned the fort’s capture, he learned he had been promoted to brigadier general and given command of the Indian Brigade, comprising Cherokee, Creek, Seminole and Osage warriors. With his new command, Watie realized his best option for securing control of Indian Territory was to destroy the enemy’s supply lines.

Brigadier General Stand Watie loved attacking the enemy, but he realized attacks alone would not bring the Confederacy victory. He still raided Union territory when possible, like battling and capturing the Sixth Kansas Cavalry outside Fort Smith, Arkansas. Destruction of supplies though could accomplish more than capturing enemy regiments. With his brigade following him, he launched a campaign to destroy Union supply centers and to kill the defenders, primarily African-Americans. His greatest victory came at Cabin Creek in July 1864. After learning of a million dollar wagon train heading for Fort Gibson, he targeted the train and the accompanying Second Kansas Cavalry. He viciously attacked the cavalrymen and succeeded in cutting off their line of retreat. He then ordered his men to assault the Union right flank. The Union soldiers fled in all directions, and Watie took possession of the wagon train and mules. Despite this grand victory, it seemed apparent that Confederate fortunes in Indian Territory, like elsewhere, were beginning to fade. Still, Stand Watie refused to give up.

Throughout the fall and winter of 1864 Watie stepped up his attacks against Northern forces in an effort to provide one last hope for the foundering Confederacy. In February 1865 he was placed in command of all Confederate Indian forces and initiated efforts to unite the Civilized tribes with the Plains tribes. He intended to use this grand coalition to achieve victory for the Confederacy. His hopes for victory faded as report after report came in of successive Confederate commanders capitulating to their Union counterparts. He continued the fight as long as he could, longer than any other Confederate officer. On June 23, 1865, over two months after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, General Stand Watie became the last Confederate general to lay down his arms.

Just as he led his warriors in battle, Stand Watie led the Cherokee Nation in peace. His first responsibility was to reach an amicable settlement with Union authorities, including those Indians who fought under the Stars and Stripes. In September U.S. commissioners confirmed him as Principle Chief of the Cherokee. His long-time opponent, Chief John Ross, succeeded in overturning the decision though and negotiated his own treaty with the U.S. government. The treaty restored full rights and privileges to those Cherokee who fought for the Confederacy, but it also required them to equally distribute land among their former slaves. After the treaty was signed, Watie settled down on his farm where he cultivated corn and helped operate a tobacco factory. Like other Cherokee leaders, he struggled financially and was dealt the double blow of losing both his sons. He retained the affection of his tribesmen until the end. That end came on September 9, 1871 when Stand Watie, the Confederate “Swamp Fox,” drew his last breath.

Stand Watie’s exploits in the Civil War demonstrated his fierce dedication to preserving his way of life. His skin may not have been white, but his commitment to the Confederate cause was as strong as the most ardent of Southerners. His bravery in battle and his skilled leadership made him the top Indian commander of his day. A veteran who served under Watie called the general “one of the bravest and most capable men, and the foremost soldier ever produced by the North American Indians.” He served his cause just as fervently as did those Native Americans who resisted efforts to place them on reservations. General Stand Watie deserves to take his place beside such warriors as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo. He stands proudly as the Indian General of the Confederacy.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A Rebel Chief

  1. Eric Brown

    You’re right Jake … Stand Watie was unknown to me. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and I certainly appreciate you bringing it to me. Great job!

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