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By Stanley Bowling,
Supervisor, Content Operations
When we last left the Civil War, Lee, Johnston and Smith had surrendered. The long bitter struggle was almost over, but not quite. There was still one army in the field as June, 1865 began. Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, with a hearty “Hi-yo Silver,” -- oh, wait, wrong part of history.
But, much like the Lone Ranger, the last Confederate general in the field was battling alone, against not just the Union, but against his own Nation. The last Confederate general to surrender the last Confederate army was General Stand Watie, a citizen not of the defunct Confederacy, but of the Cherokee Nation. In fact, at the time of the war, Stand Watie had been elected as the principal chief of the Cherokees, inclining towards the Confederacy because of the plantations they owned, and the nearly 3,000 slaves held by the Cherokees.
Other tribal nations also held slaves and owned plantations, and it was this desire to hold onto the slaves that split the Cherokee nation. While most sided with Watie, a minority sided with the United States. In order to protect their holdings, Watie recruited and formed a Calvary Regiment of Native Americans to serve in the Confederacy. Nearly 1,000 men fought in several battles west of the Mississippi River. He was operating in Texas and Oklahoma with his troops as the war drew to a close. They signed formal surrender papers on June 23, 1865. “Peace had finally come to the Cherokee Nation, and the exiled pro-Southern Indians were also permitted to return to their desolated homes. But it was a peace in name only.”1
While the actual impact of this army was small in the scheme of the Civil War, it had a large impact on relations with the Native Americans going forward, and on the freed slaves. A report published in The New York Herald helps sum it up: “The Indian, like the whipped rebel, now pretends to a loyalty he does not really possess, but because he is awed by our power fears more than he respects it, and finds it to his immediate interest to flatter his ‘great, white brethren of the North.’”2 Unfortunately, prejudice is not new or unique!
There was however, agreement that the tribal lands had been devastated and the tribes were now impoverished, but there was still a desire by the government to force compliance. This feeling was not just directed towards the tribes that sided with the Confederacy, and although the government negotiated further agreements and treaties only with the tribes that sided with the United States, there was general disgust for the Indians on both sides. In contrast, the feeling toward the freed slaves was slightly more positive, but still not a welcome to full rights and equality.
When these slaves were emancipated, it was because the surrender terms included them as members of their respective nation (Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, or Osage), not as citizens of the United States. Up to that point, tribes had prohibitions against Native Americans marrying African-Americans, with punishment ranging from having an ear cut off, to death. The surrender terms broke this prohibition and allowed marriage because these freed slaves were considered members of the tribe.
Past events often trigger modern actions. The terms of the surrender of 1865, specifically those related to the freedmen, led to a ruling by the Cherokee nation in 2006 that only direct descendants of “Cherokee blood” were tribal members, not descendants of freed slaves. This issue is still making its way through the courts, both Cherokee and Federal, and impacts about 25,000 descendants of the slaves that are considered -- by treaty -- to be part of the Cherokee Nation but are being excluded.
And what was Watie’s legacy beyond this? The Atlanta Constitution commented on his death by calling him “a soldier, a statesman and a writer. His character was heroic and his genius undeniable.”3 Perhaps this is a nostalgic view, but there is no doubt that Stand Watie had an impact on history.
History never dies, it just changes times and shape, and we help preserve that history for future generations.
You can find out more about Stand Watie, the Cherokee and Freedman controversy, and the Civil War in many ProQuest databases, including Indian Claims Commission and ProQuest History Vault: American Indians and the American West, 1809-1971— both releasing this fall — plus, History Vault: Southern Life and African American History, 1775-1915, Plantation Records, Part 1; ProQuest Historical Newspapers™; ProQuest Civil War Era; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global; Fold3 Library Edition; and Research Collections in Microform.
1. Stand Watie and the Agony of the Cherokee Nation, Kenney Arthur Franks, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 000591
2. The Indian Tribes, The New York Herald, July 16, 1865, pg. 1
3. General Stand Watie, The Atlanta Constitution, October 31, 1871