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General Stand Watie and Cherokee Confederates

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On June 23, 1865, the last formal surrender of Confederate troops occurred at Doaksville in the Choctaw Nation (what is now Oklahoma). The brigadier general who signed the ceasefire agreement with Union troops was Stand Watie, the only Native American to attain the rank of general in the Confederate Army and one of the most powerful political figures in Cherokee politics at the time.

Where to begin? Let’s start with sovereignty. Up until the end of the Civil War, the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma was designated by the federal government as a place for the Five Civilized Tribes - Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw - to govern themselves far from European settlement. The lands were guaranteed to be protected, again by the federal government, from white settlement and the tribes were considered to be sovereign nations by Washington.

When the Civil War began, the Five Civilized Tribes were split on which side to support. The Seminoles and Creeks supported the Union, while the Chickasaw and Choctaw supported the Confederacy. (The latter two tribes were punished harshly by Washington at the end of the war.) The Cherokee were split between the Union and Confederacy, so much so that a civil war within a civil war was fought in Indian Territory between pro-Union and pro-Confederacy forces.

Stand Watie was a slave and plantation owner whose family had been in Indian Territory long before the Trail of Tears took place in 1838. His family, long politically powerful, had signed a treaty with the federal government and had voluntarily moved to Oklahoma as part of the deal. His family was also paid handsomely, and many Cherokees who remained (the ones who were forcibly removed in the Trail of Tears) viewed Watie’s family as traitors. The Cherokee politicians who signed away the last remnants of Cherokee land in the Old South became known as Treaty Party Men in Indian Territory.

In 1839, just one year after the Trail of Tears took place, the newly-formed Cherokee government sentenced the Treaty Party Men to death, and many of the members were a part of Watie’s family. The government of the Cherokee implemented a policy of execution-on-sight for Treaty Party Men, and Watie was the only condemned man to survive the executions. Watie wasn’t content with survival, though, and for the next 10 years, he spent a good deal of time hunting down the men who carried out the Cherokee government’s executions.

By 1845, Watie had regained his status as a leader in elite Cherokee circles, and was elected to the Cherokee Council (the legislative branch of the Cherokee government). A rivalry had formed between himself and John Ross, the alpha dog of the Cherokee Nation for much of the early 19th century and a supporter of the Union.

Ross was critical of the success of the death warrants against the Treaty Party Men, but the most interesting aspect of the two mens’ rivalry was the fact that they used the rule of law to fight their battles. Now, the rule of law in the 19th century meant the use of violence between factions (think here about Tombstone, Ariz., where Wyatt Earp and his friends were U.S. Marshalls and the friends of the Clantons were Sheriffs), but there was a belief held at the time that violence could only be used by civilized men if the law was on their side. Ross and Watie were both firm believers in this form of rule of law.

When the Civil War began officially, the Cherokee Nation was mostly supportive of the Confederacy. While some Cherokees owned slaves, including Watie, this was not the main reason for their support of the Confederacy. The Cherokees were more interested in keeping their sovereignty intact, and most viewed the Confederacy as the more promising ally than Washington. However, some Cherokee, led by John Ross, supported the Union, argued that survival was more important than sovereignty. For Ross and his supporters, the Union’s plans for the Five Civilized Tribes meant less self-governance than the Confederacy’s, but if the Confederacy did lose the war - and most people in most parts of the world that followed the American Civil War at the time believed it was likely to - then the Cherokee Nation would stand to lose much more than self-governance.

So, the Cherokees split into factions and fought a civil war within a civil war.

Watie’s troops, for their part, played a major role in keeping Union soldiers out of Indian country and north Texas, and performed admirably throughout the four-year bloodbath. While Watie and his troops fought the Union in some battles, most of the action they saw was against other, Union-supporting Cherokees. This civil war within a civil war was the main reason why the Cherokees did not end up like the Confederacy-supporting Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, who are now almost unheard of today. (The Seminoles, Cherokees, and Creeks are well-known in households with history nerds in it; the Chickasaw and Choctaw? Not so much.)

In 1866, Watie was a member of the Cherokee delegation that went to Washington to argue on behalf of “southern Cherokees” and to discuss the fate of freedmen in Indian Territory. That debate, though, will be the subject of a future Historiat post.

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