Native Americans in the War

During the antebellum years the United States government "relocated" many eastern Indian tribes to an area west of the Mississippi River designated the Indian Territory. This vast tract initially included parts of Arkansas and Kansas, but by the middle of the nineteenth century it had been reduced to roughly present-day Oklahoma. When the Civil War erupted the United States withdrew its Indian agents and military forces from Fort Smith, Fort Washita, and other posts inside the Indian Territory. The Confederacy moved quickly to fill this vacuum and establish diplomatic and military relations with the Indians.

Albert Pike, Confederate Commissioner of Indian Affairs, negotiated treaties of alliance with the so-called Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. The treaties required the Indians to support Confederate war aims and raise military forces for their own defense. The Confederacy pledged to arm, equip, and pay these forces and provide reinforcements as needed. The Confederacy also promised that the Indians would not be called upon to operate outside the boundaries of the Indian Territory. From the Confederate perspective, the treaties secured the western boundary of the new nation and allowed the government in Richmond to concentrate on other fronts.

Support for the treaties in the Indian Territory was far from unanimous because it was not clear how the Indians would benefit from an alliance with the Confederacy. The vast majority of Indians had no ideological or emotional attachment to either the United States or the Confederacy and simply wanted to be left alone. Many were wary, and rightfully so, of being dragged into a conflict not of their own making. Public opinion was complicated by the tangle of politics and personal allegiances within each tribe. The Cherokees, for example, were still bitterly divided over the decision to abandon their traditional lands in the east decades earlier. The two feuding factions disagreed violently about everything, including which side to support in the Civil War.

Despite uncertainty and disaffection, pro-Confederate Indians seized the initiative and organized themselves into an impressive array of regiments and battalions. But this paper army was little more than an ill-disciplined militia. Training was sketchy. Arms, ammunition, uniforms, tents, blankets, and camp equipment were in short supply. Officers and men came and went largely as they pleased. Confederate authorities recognized these weaknesses and dispatched several Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas units to the Indian Territory to bolster their Indian allies.

These developments led thousands of Indians to abandon homes and livelihoods and seek refuge outside the Indian Territory. The sanctuary of choice was Kansas but the sparsely populated frontier state was overwhelmed by the sudden influx of refugees. Thousands of Indian men, women, and children huddled in tents or other makeshift shelters and suffered terribly from cold, hunger, and disease during the winter of 1861-62. Untold numbers died before effective relief measures were instituted.

The first substantial clash involving Indians was part of the exodus to Kansas. Creek Chief Opothleyoholo wanted no part of a Confederate alliance and headed north with several thousand followers in late 1861. Instead of allowing the disgruntled Creeks to depart, Confederate authorities launched a relentless pursuit. A column of fast-moving Arkansas, Texas, and Cherokee troops overtook the Creeks at Chustenahlah on December 26-27. In the one-sided fight that followed, the Confederates killed hundreds of Creek men (many murdered as they lay wounded) and rounded up hundreds of women and children. Opothleyoholo and most of his people escaped into the brush and eventually made their way to Kansas. The appalling loss of life sent shock waves through the Indian Territory and deepened the animosity between pro-Union and pro-Confederate Indians. It also convinced many Indians to leave.

After Chustenahlah the Confederacy seemed to have a firm grip on the Indian Territory, but everything changed a few months later when a Union army drove into northwest Arkansas. The Confederate commander, Earl Van Dorn, was desperate for manpower and ordered Pike to convince the Indians to cross into Arkansas and join his Confederate army. Pike appealed to the Indians, some of whom agreed to leave the Indian Territory if paid in advance for their services. The negotiations took so much time that only two Cherokee regiments were present at the battle of Pea Ridge on March 7-8, 1862. The Cherokees played only a marginal role in the fight but created a national scandal by scalping and mutilating fallen Union soldiers. Pea Ridge was a Union victory and the Indians returned to their homes, rattled by the scale and intensity of a pitched battle and abashed by their poor showing. Many were disillusioned by the defeat of their Confederate allies and began to question whether they were on the winning side. Confederate influence began to wane.

The Indian Territory was gripped by serious turmoil in the months following Pea Ridge. In Kansas, Union commander James G. Blunt recruited disaffected refugees into the First and Second Indian Home Guard. Some people questioned the wisdom of incorporating "savages" into "civilized warfare" but Blunt believed Indians would make good soldiers. He was proved right. Union Indian regiments were handicapped to some degree by absenteeism and squabbling, but they were better armed and equipped, better trained, and probably better motivated than their Confederate counterparts. There were other differences as well. Officers in Confederate Indian units usually were Indians, while in Union regiments the field officers (colonels, majors) generally were white, as were many of the line or company officers (captains, lieutenants). As the war went on, however, Union Indians worked their way up the chain of command.

The first Union incursion into the Indian Territory occurred in the summer of 1862. A sizable column that included the First and Second Indian Home Guard marched south from Kansas in an attempt to return Indian refugees to their homes. On July 3 the Federals won a small victory at Locust Grove that convinced more than a thousand Cherokees, most of whom had been at Pea Ridge, to change sides. They were formed into the Third Indian Home Guard. The swelling Union column occupied Fort Gibson but failures in leadership and logistics brought the offensive to a halt. Before returning to Kansas, the Federals arrested Cherokee Chief John Ross, who had reluctantly signed a treaty of alliance with the Confederacy the previous year, and seized the Cherokee treasury and archives. The Indian Expedition, as the operation was known, failed in its objective but demonstrated that Union forces could come and go as they pleased in the Indian Territory.

Meanwhile, a new Confederate commander arrived in the Trans-Mississippi. Thomas C. Hindman was determined to revive Confederate fortunes. He had great hopes for his Indian allies, as did Douglas C. Cooper, the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs. In the late summer of 1862 Hindman and Cooper moved north from the Arkansas River with a force of Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, and Indian troops and established a foothold in the southwest corner of Missouri. Blunt rushed troops to the area and the two armies clashed at Newtonia, Missouri, on September 30-October 1, 1862. The Third Indian Home Guard fought for the Union while the First Choctaw and the Chickasaw fought for the Confederacy. At one point the opposing Indian forces engaged each other in a firefight. Newtonia was another Union victory and the Confederates again retreated.

Blunt pursued and caught up with Cooper on October 22 at Old Fort Wayne, near Maysville on the boundary between Arkansas and the Indian Territory. The Confederates had an advantage in numbers but Blunt's aggressive tactics drove them off the field. Arkansans, Cherokees, Missourians, Choctaws, Texans, and Creeks fled in wild disorder with the Third Indian Home Guard and other Union troops in hot pursuit. The humiliating defeat cost Cooper hundreds of his men and all of his artillery. It further eroded Confederate prestige and encouraged more Indians to join the Union ranks. Blunt celebrated his victory by grouping the First, Second, and Third Indian Home Guards in a new formation he called the Indian Brigade, the only organization of its kind in the Union army.

Undeterred by the fiasco at Old Fort Wayne, Hindman surged north again and fought Blunt to a draw at the battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862. To Blunt's great satisfaction, the First Indian Home Guard and a portion of the Third Indian Home Guard fought alongside Kansas and Missouri regiments and acquitted themselves well. Hindman retreated and soon abandoned northwest Arkansas altogether.

Blunt seized the initiative. Determined to return the thousands of Indian refugees in Kansas to their homes as soon as possible, he ordered William A. Phillips, commander of the Indian Brigade, to restore Union authority in the northern half of the Indian Territory and pave the way for resettlement. Phillips occupied Fort Gibson in April 1863. Cooper tried to drive Phillips away, but Blunt arrived with reinforcements and went after Cooper instead. On July 17, 1863, Blunt and Phillips clashed with Cooper at Honey Springs in the largest battle ever fought in the Indian Territory. All three Union Indian regiments were in the fight, but the five Confederate Indian regiments—the First and Second Cherokee, First and Second Creek, and First Choctaw and Chickasaw—played only a minor supporting role. The Confederates lost and withdrew to the south side of the Arkansas River. Blunt followed up his victory by occupying Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Stand Watie, the Confederate Cherokee commander north of the Arkansas River in the final year of the war, switched to a quasi-guerrilla style of warfare intended to disrupt Union logistics and prevent the resettlement of refugees. Watie experienced some success, notably at Second Cabin Creek on September 19, 1864, where his troops captured a large Union supply train hauling food and clothing to the refugees crowded around Fort Gibson, but his depredations had no effect on the course of the war except to increase the level of misery. Nothing of a military nature took place south of the river, so the First Choctaw and Chickasaw crossed into Arkansas and fought at Poison Spring on April 18, 1864. The battle was notable for the murder of many captured soldiers of the First Kansas Colored Infantry and some accounts blamed the Indians.

The Civil War was a disaster for the people of the Indian Territory. In addition to the horrific loss of life, immense amounts of property were destroyed and agricultural production was brought to a standstill. Recriminations, feuds, and revenge killings plagued the tribes for decades. But perhaps worse of all, the United States government punished the Indians for their alliances with the Confederacy by reducing their autonomy and eventually abolishing the Indian Territory altogether.

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