Read more about Stand Watie
Learn more about Black Beaver
An eyewitness account of the Sand Creek Massacre
The Unknown Story: Native Americans during the Civil War
Does the name Stand Watie ring a bell? How about Black Beaver? If you had to guess, would you say they were a) men's cologne; b) small towns in Kansas; or c) Indian leaders during the Civil War? If you answered "c", then congratulations - you're smarter than I am. Until very recently, I would've failed this little quiz miserably. Although I knew quite a bit about the Civil War, I couldn't name a single thing about how it affected the Indians. Can you?
Probably not. Unfortunately, the role of Indians throughout US History - not just during the Civil War - is often ignored or minimized. Did you ever hear Al Gore or George W. Bush mention them during the Presidential campaign? Have you seen anything about them in the news lately? I haven't, and I've been looking! So imagine my reaction when I was told to find out how they participated during the war that divided a nation. Where to go? What to do? Help!
Stephanie and I started out in Oklahoma, home of the Cherokee (one of the most active tribes during the Civil War). There, we learned about a few of the myths surrounding their role in the war. Ready? There are quite a few: First, all Indians were pro-Confederacy. Second, they ran away as soon as they lost a battle. Third, they were lazy and uncooperative. No, no, no! Far from the truth! Hogwash! Let me explain…
For most tribes, choosing a side was not a matter of ideology; it was a matter of survival. While Southerners fought to preserve slavery and Northerners fought to abolish it, Indians fought to survive. At the onset of the war, the Cherokees, for instance, were torn right down the middle. Their territory was bounded by the strong pro-Union state of Kansas on the north, on the northeast by the divided state of Missouri, and on the east by the Confederate state of Arkansas. Its southern boundary was the pro-Confederate Choctaw and the Creek nation. Although the leader of the Cherokee, John Ross, was pro-Union, he had to deal with the tribe's other major player, Stand Watie, who was very much pro-Confederacy. Their quarrels led to all sorts of trouble, but eventually Ross had to give in and sign a treaty with the Confederacy.
The Cherokee weren't the only ones caught between a rock and a hard place. The Choctaw and Chickasaws were located between Texas and Arkansas and were also forced to "choose" the Confederate side. By the end of 1861, the Creeks, Seminoles, Quapaws, Senecas, and Great Osages also signed with the South. For the most part, these tribes were divided between Northern and Southern sympathizers. The Civil War caused irreparable rifts between blood brothers.
The tribes that fought for the Union included the Caddos, Wichitas, Osages, Shawnees, Delawares, Senecas, and Quapaws, most of whom had a long history of allegiance to the government. The Pimas, a tribe who lived off agriculture in Arizona, not only sent some of its men to defeat Confederate troops, but also provided much of the fresh supplies for the western front of the war. All in all, about 3,600 Native Americans served in the Union army.
The consequences for the pro-Confederate (and neutral) tribes were devastating. They were considered traitors to the Northern cause and treated as such. The Union commander in New Mexico, for example, presented a plan to bring all hostile Indians under control by placing them on reservations where they would be Christianized and taught agricultural skills. He appointed Kit Carson to the task. Carson managed to defeat the Mescalero Apache and the Navajo (by destroying their food supply) and confine both tribes at the new Bosque Redondo Reservation, even though the Mescalero Apache and the Navajo were enemies!
The Union also used Indian support of the Confederacy as an excuse to take their lands. Unofficially, the US practiced a policy of 50-50 genocide - the idea was that if 50% of the warriors were killed or destroyed, then the rest of the tribe would have to give in to a permanent peace. Given these atrocities, it's amazing any Indians would fight in the first place!
But fight they did, and valiantly, at that. One of the bravest soldiers was Black Beaver, a Delaware Indian scout who volunteered his services to the Union and whose help made it possible for Colonel Emory to capture a contingent of Texas Mounted Rifles at the start of the war. Black Beaver then guided everyone - Union troops and their Confederate prisoners - on a 500-mile trek across open prairie to northeastern Kansas, without the loss of a single man, horse or wagon.
Stand Watie is the other name I came across time and time again. He is famous for being the last Confederate general to surrender, on June 23, 1865, several months after the war had ended! He was a Cherokee, and led the pro-Confederate faction against Ross and his Union allies. Watie is known for leading many Cherokee attacks on Union lines, often engaging his men in unconventional tactics. For instance, the Indians thought the white man's strategy of standing still and allowing people to shoot at them was very strange. Although his Cherokee soldiers were very brave, they didn't wait around to see what happened once the artillery began to fire. They ran and climbed trees! (Good idea - I would too.) And at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Watie's regiments captured three cannons and got so excited that instead of turning the cannons on the Union troops, they scalped them.
These are all stories I have unearthed since starting my research on Indian involvement during the Civil War. The most tragic one is this: on November 29, 1864, the Sand Creek Massacre took place. White Colorado settlers, frightened by raids made by warriors, asked Colonel Chivington (a Union guy) to punish the raiders. Chivington, with 900 volunteer militiamen, attacked a peaceful village of some 500 or more Arapaho and Cheyenne natives, killing women and children as well as warriors.
For most Native Americans, the US Civil War brought them more misery and death. They fought out of fear, not conviction. As Cathy, member of the Cherokee Nation explained, "John Ross signed an agreement with the Confederacy to protect the Cherokee from total devastation." They were punished severely for their allegiances and robbed of their land. And they suffered under a system that considered them second-class citizens, not worthy of their customs and traditions. Even President Lincoln was guilty of this: in 1863, he met with representatives from several major tribes and informed them he felt they would never attain the prosperity of the white race unless they turned to farming as a way of life.
How to rectify this? What can we do? Well, we can start by uncovering the untold stories of the Civil War; the ones that involved - and affected - thousands of Indians. Stand Watie and Black Beaver aren't the only names worth knowing. There's Ely S. Parker. There's Captain Falleaf. They're not men's cologne, or small towns in the Midwest. If you guess "c" you're right. If you know what they did, you're on the right track
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Links to Other Dispatches
Irene - Was the Civil War really about freedom
Nick - The bloodiest square mile in America
Stephanie - I'm nine but I can still fight!
Teddy - It's never enough to just get by
Making A Difference - When our wars destroy our children