Native Americans in the Civil War

Native Americans in the Civil War

Although in principle unaffected by the civil war that was tearing apart a nation that did not really admit them into its midst, the Amerindians also suffered the consequences of the conflict. This was especially true for those, partly acculturated, who were established in the "Indian territory - an unorganized area in western Arkansas that is now the state of Oklahoma. These populations themselves found themselves divided, thus experiencing their own civil war.

A huge reserve

During the late XVIIIth century and the first half of the following century, the increasing expansion of the United States to the west clashed with the original inhabitants of the area, the Amerindians. Gradually subdued by force of arms or negotiation, they were gradually dispossessed of their lands. The more cooperative obtained the "privilege" of remaining more or less in the land of their ancestors in tiny reserves, from which they were hardly allowed to leave. In the east, many of these Indians eventually adopted the religion and culture of the people of European descent.

Those who resisted were treated bluntly. The War of 1812, when many had tried to ally with the British to counteract the rise of the United States, accelerated their decline. During the next thirty years, the Indian question would become one of the main concerns of the government in Washington. The "Frontier" had to be pushed further west, and the presence of the natives was an obstacle to the accomplishment of the "manifest destiny Of the American people to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Recalcitrant tribes, especially those in the Midwest, began to be deported to reserves located in the territory west of Arkansas, then empty of whites and of no interest.

In the South, too, the settlement of ever-growing white settlers had led to the coveting of the still relatively large lands that had been left to the local tribes by treaties previously concluded with Washington. At the same time, part of these tribes had been Christianized, adopting elements of European culture. This was particularly the case for the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole Nations. These peoples, partially integrated into American society, came to be known to whites as the "Five civilized nations ". Among the elements borrowed by them from the southern way of life were farming in plantations and the use of slavery.

This did not prevent the federal government from finally forcing them, between 1830 and 1835, to exchange their territories in the South for others located in present-day Oklahoma. Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Cherokees were gathered, willingly or by force, in camps, where they were subsequently deportees westward in deplorable conditions. Several thousand of them died of disease or deprivation on the paths of exile, known since under the name of Trail of Tears, the trail of tears. The Seminoles suffered the same fate, not without forcing the Federal Army to wage three wars for the conquest of Florida.

Indians and the Civil War

In the 1860 census, there were approximately 110,000 Native Americans on reservations, including less than 10,000 east of the Mississippi. The Census Bureau estimated that 230,000 Indians live off reserves, mostly in the Old West. Of the 110,000 “submissive” Indians living in reserve, 65,000 lived in the Indian Territory, which mainly belonged to the Five Civilized Nations. Despite their deportation, they had retained their way of life: they owned more than 7,000 black slaves. So much so that when the Civil War broke out, the inhabitants of the Indian Territory were culturally and economically close to the Confederation - not to mention the resentment that some felt vis-à-vis the federal government.

This proximity of interests was not lost on the Confederate government. As early as May 1861, the Southern Secretary of War, Leroy Walker, mandated a former agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Douglas Cooper, to obtain the support of the Five Civilized Nations. Well known to the Choctaws and Chickasaws, Cooper raised volunteers into their ranks, quickly becoming a general in the Confederate Army. Many Indians took up the cause of Confederation, including an influential member of the Cherokee community, Watie stand. They accepted that the Confederation annex the Indian Territory in exchange for its protection from the federal government.

Several tribal chiefs, more circumspect but in the minority, refused this proposal. This was particularly the case with the leader of the Creeks, Opothleyahola, who asked Washington for help in August. The federal army then had no forces to allocate to support the loyalist Indians, so Opothleyahola was asked to fall back, with his supporters, in the direction of Kansas, located further north and remained faithful to the Union. While regrouping his supporters, Chief Creek was assaulted by pro-southerner Indians from Cooper, reinforced by Confederate elements from Texas. A first skirmish at Round Mountain, on November 19, 1861, forced him to anticipate his departure.

Opothleyahola attempted to improvise a defensive position at Chusto-Talasah on December 9. But his men, badly organized and without support, lacked ammunition and had to withdraw again. The Southerners eventually caught up with the Unionist column, swelled by thousands of refugees, in its camp established in Chustenanlah. The assault, launched on December 26, quickly turned into a rout for the defenders. The Loyalist Indians had to flee in haste, abandoning all their possessions, marching into Kansas through snow and blizzard. Hundreds died of cold and hunger en route as the Confederacy established solid control over Indian Territory.

The reconquest

This success was to be short-lived, however. By March 1862 the Confederates had been defeated at Pea Ridge, and the Northerners were now threatening Arkansas. The Southerners could hardly support their Indian partisans any longer, and Stand Watie, in the meantime appointed general in the Confederate army, was largely on his own, as was Cooper. During the year 1862, the Federal Army gradually reoccupied the northeastern Indian Territory, notably Fort Gibson, despite attacks sporadically carried out by the Southerners. A war of skirmishes, advances and withdrawals ensued for over a year.

A civil war also, because the Unionist Indians who had survived the retreat from Chustenanlah had formed a Indian Home Guard composed of three regiments, ready to do battle with their pro-southerner compatriots. In the summer of 1863, the Confederates sent William Cabell's brigade in reinforcement, and Cooper took advantage of this to attempt to retake Fort Gibson. Unfortunately for him, the bad weather was going to benefit the Federals. As thunderstorms swelled the rivers and slowed Cabell's march, a northern supply convoy destined for Fort Gibson managed to force their way through an ambush at Cabin Creek (1er July).

Informed of the imminent arrival of enemy reinforcements, Northern General James Blunt then decided to attack first. He marched his 3,000 men on the main deposit Confederate of Indian Territory at Honey Springs, where Cooper commanded an equivalent force. Blunt realized from the first skirmishes, on July 17, that the Southerners had virtually no ammunition: due to lack of adequate equipment, they could not protect their cartridges from the rain and their powder was wet. He immediately pushed his advantage, seizing Honey Springs and driving the enemy army to flight.

This victory dealt a fatal blow to southern control of Indian Territory. Blunt then turned on Cabell. In late August, he occupied Fort Smith, the main Confederate base in northwest Arkansas. Cabell was defeated at Devil’s Backbone on 1er September, and it became virtually impossible for the Confederacy to help its Indian supporters. Stand Watie continued the fight alone, mostly in the form of guerrilla, while the Federal Army reoccupied the Indian Territory. Despite the growing number of defections, his men still fought for almost two years. Watie was the last Southern general to surrender, not laying down his arms until June 23, 1865.

He was the only Native American to be made a general during the war. Northern Staff Officer Ely Parker, a Seneca from New York State, was admittedly made Brigadier-General for his role in General Lee's surrender in April 1865 - he had drafted the terms. This was, however, a promotion by commission, and Parker remained, in effect, a lieutenant colonel. Outside the Indian Territory, a few thousand Native Americans served in the armies of both camps. There were other military operations involving Indians, such as those carried out by both the Feds and the Confederates against the Apaches in New Mexico, or the Sioux uprising in Minnesota in 1862 - but unlike the conflict that had divided the Five civilized nations, these were contemporary events of the Civil War, rather than directly related to it.


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