Rifles for Watie

by Harold Keith

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How did the Cherokee assist the Confederacy in the American Civil War?

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I did a little searching and found a review of thebook The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War by Clarissa W. Confer (in the Journal of Southern History, Nov. 1, 2008).

She notes that many Cherokee owned slaves and were in favor of secession. However, joining the Confederacy would mean breaking their treaties with the US, which would be treated as an act of war. John Ross, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, hoped to remain neutral, but his rival, Stand Watie, openly supported the Confederacy by forming and accepting command of a Cherokee regiment. Eventually, when US troops withdrew from Indian Territory and left the Cherokee and other tribes virtually unprotected, Ross had no choice but to side with the Confederacy.

Initially, the Cherokee troops were meant to serve as home guards, meaning that they were only to protect their own people and property. So when they were ordered to attack pro-Union Creeks who were fleeing southern forces, many Cherokee chose to desert rather than fight their former neighbors who had done them no harm. When it became clear that the Union would likely prevail, many of the Cherokee regiments switched sides. John Ross even allowed himself to be captured by Union forces and spent the final years of the war in captivity, trying to restores relations with the United States government.

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