The Forging of Braves: The Cherokee and the American Civil War

Lauren Letizia ’23

The American Civil War is one of the most widely studied areas of the United States’ history. Its battlefields are popular tourist sites, and its soldiers and generals are depicted in textbooks, paintings, and memorials across the country. The basic facts of America’s bloodiest conflict are well-documented: The Civil War between the Northern Union and the Southern Confederacy was a battle over the future of the mass enslavement of human beings and the fate of American democracy. After four gruesome years, three-quarters of a million soldiers and 50,000 civilians died, and 4 million African Americans were freed from slavery.

However, another hostile conflict exploded during the Civil War. Fueled by resentments and political angst from 20 years prior, the Cherokee Nation exacted revenge against the United States and the Southern states (respectively) that had destroyed their communities by participating in many battles on behalf of both the Confederacy and the Union.Not long before the war, the federal government had removed the Cherokee from their southern homes with the help of the soon-to-be Confederate state officials; by alternately taking up sides with each, the Cherokee were able to take out their anger against those whom they considered the prime oppressor of natives.  As a result of that participation, however, the Cherokee Nation emerged as the second-most devastated citizenry, behind the Southern Confederacy. Already struggling from their forced removal from the southern Appalachians to Oklahoma in 1838 and 1839 during the Trail of Tears (1830-1850), the Cherokee people continued to die from diseases, hunger, exposure, and loss of land during the Civil War. Approximately one-third of the Cherokee population died between 1861 and 1865.[1]

The reasons for which the Cherokee and other Native Americans participated in the Civil War were quite different from those of white and black soldiers. Many nations chose sides or remained neutral to maintain the little land and property the government had given them. The Cherokees were the most populous of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee, Chickasaw, and Seminole). They were also considered the most assimilated of the tribes, commonly dressing in “white” clothing, using European farming techniques, and creating the only written Native language and newspaper.[2] Moreover, wealthy Cherokees often owned enslaved people and operated plantations. Of the 100,000 residents in western Indian Territory, 14 percent were enslaved Black Americans.[3] Because of the Cherokees’ heavy reliance on slavery, the Confederacy figured they could count on Cherokee support during the war. Additionally, some Native American nations cast their allegiance with the South because they deeply distrusted the United States federal government. This distrust, coupled with the similarities in their slaveholding political economy, resulted in the majority of the Cherokee Nation siding with the Confederacy. On 28 October 1861, a published declaration explained the Cherokee-Confederate alliance:

The Cherokee people had its origin in the South; its institutions are similar to those of the Southern States, and their interests identical with theirs. Long since it accepted the protection of the United States of America, contracted with them treaties of alliance and friendship, and allowed themselves to be to a great extent governed by their laws……

In now carrying this resolution into effect and consummating a treaty of alliance and friendship with the Confederate States of America the Cherokee people declares that it has been faithful and loyal to is engagements with the United States until, by placing its safety and even its national existence in imminent peril, those States have released them from those engagements.

Menaced by a great danger, they exercise the inalienable right of self-defense, and declare themselves a free people, independent of the Northern States of America, and at war with them by their own act. Obeying the dictates of prudence and providing for the general safety and welfare, confident of the rectitude of their intentions and true to the obligations of duty and honor, they accept the issue thus forced upon them, unite their fortunes now and forever with those of the Confederate States, and take up arms for the common cause, and with entire confidence in the justice of that cause and with a firm reliance upon Divine Providence, will resolutely abide the consequences.[4]

After the war began and an alliance was declared, previous internal wounds within the Cherokee Nation began to reopen between old rivals. Before the ethnic cleansing of the Five Tribes during the Trail of Tears, Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross had refused to sign over his nation’s land. He had relocated to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) only under President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. Though many Cherokees saw Ross’s stance as solid and justified, an opposition group had emerged under the leadership of brothers Stand Watie and John Ridge. Calling themselves the Treaty Party, Watie recruited only 2 percent of the population to support signing over Cherokee land and relocating out west.[5] Watie and the Treaty Party signed the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, selling the nation’s territory to the federal government for $5 million. Ross and his 16,000 supporters were essentially forced to make this decision and ultimately traversed the country with the other Cherokees on the Trail of Tears.[6]

Once the Cherokees had settled into their new territory in Oklahoma, violence ensued between the two rival groups. On June 22, 1839, John Ridge, his uncle, and his cousin were murdered, most likely by Ross supporters. In response, those who supported Ridge allegedly raised funds to hire killers to murder Ross.[7] This plan was never enacted but solidified a blood feud between Watie and Ross. Moreover, the rivalry became subjected to racial tension between the Cherokees of “mixed-blood” and “full-blood.” Because Watie and members of the Treaty Party were mostly mixed-raced, Ross and his supporters questioned their loyalty to the nation and indigenous interests.[8] A fierce political fight for tribal control persisted until 1860, but Ross and the “full-blood” Cherokees maintained the nation’s leadership. An uneasy peace between Ross and Watie took hold.

Cherokee Chief John Ross (1858)
Encyclopedia Britannica,

When the Confederate government was formed in February 1861, the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, sought support from indigenous communities. Southern strategists knew protecting the Mississippi River and its surrounding fertile soil was vital to the war effort. Davis wanted to use Indian Territory and the west as a breadbasket and launching pad for military expeditions for Southern expansion. In late 1861, the Confederates made overtures to Chief Ross and the Cherokee Nation. Davis appointed the former Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Albert Pike of Arkansas, as the negotiator and Southern messenger. He was well received by the Five Tribes and found them enthusiastic about a new country.[9] Within the Cherokee Nation, Stand Watie emerged as an ardent supporter of the Confederacy. An owner of approximately 100 enslaved people, he was motivated by many of the same political and economic interests as white Southerners. On July 12, 1861, he was granted a colonel’s commission in the Confederate Army and raised 300 indigenous soldiers into the 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles.

CSA Colonel Stand Watie
“The Cherokee Registry,”

However, the leadership of the Cherokee Nation was much less enthused by the impending conflict. Principal Chief Ross vocally promoted neutrality. He stated, “We [the Cherokee Nation] do not wish our homes to become a battleground between the states and our soil to be rendered desolate and miserable by the horrors of civil war.”[10] Ross believed that maintaining the federal treaties with the United States would allow the Cherokees autonomy over their land and community. The Northern government, unfortunately, chose a lackluster approach to secure the alliance or neutrality of the Cherokees and the rest of the Five Tribes. The Lincoln administration and Congress gave Ross little financial or political incentive, weakening Cherokee and broader native acceptance of neutrality. As a result, Chief Ross dramatically shifted his view of the war. After calling a conference of tribal leaders, Ross urged his people to accept an allegiance with the South.[11] A treaty was signed on October 7, 1861. Ross’s decision has been highly criticized by modern historians. However, his nation had little to no support from the United States government and was surrounded by tribal nations already aligned with the Confederacy. Additionally, Ross received pressure from the rowdy minority of Stand Watie.

Though the Cherokee Nation was finally united in its alliance with the Confederacy, internal tensions continued to mount over the question of abolition. Stand Watie was a slaveholder, and many other Cherokee elite also owned or profited from slavery, including Chief Ross. On the other side, some Cherokee opposed slavery, such as the members of the traditionalist Keetoowah Society. This political animosity further deepened the existing schism between Watie’s mixed-bloods and Ross’s full-bloods, as Watie was much more vocal about preserving the “peculiar institution.” Consequently, Cherokee men served on both sides of the American Civil War.

The war was particularly fierce in Indian Territory. For three years, the Union and the Confederacy bludgeoned each other for control of the land and the allegiance of the tribes who occupied them; neither side could obtain absolute dominance in the region. The combat intensified as the Confederates utilized the Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Choctaws in their pursuit of Arkansas. Initially, Native Americans were wary of leaving their land because they wished to use their new military status to protect their communities at home. In response, the Confederates tried to convince them to leave Indian Territory for Arkansas through lucrative economic offers, such as ensuring that the Native American soldiers promptly received their owed soldier’s pay.[12]

Flag of the Colonel Watie’s Mounted Rifles
“Cherokee Braves Flag,” Civil War Virtual Museum,

Under the command of Confederate negotiator, Albert Pike, two Cherokee mounted rifle units, a Choctaw-Chickasaw regiment, and a Muscogee regiment merged together to become what is known as Pike’s Indian Brigade, comprised of 2,000-3,000 indigenous soldiers. The most infamous engagement for the Cherokee was the Battle of Pea Ridge on March 7 and 8, 1862. Of the 2,500 Confederate troops involved in the Arkansas clash, almost 900 were Cherokee. The Cherokees, joined by some Texans, surprised Iowan cavalry regiments stationed on a small farm, severely wounding their lieutenant and capturing three Union guns. Notoriously, the Cherokees allegedly engaged in the scalping of dead and wounded Iowan soldiers to celebrate their small victory. However, while the Confederates celebrated, more Union troops arrived at Pea Ridge and ultimately pushed the Confederates into a retreat.

The Cherokees’ mutilations were said to have taken place in the woods, but Northern newspapers and military leaders decried the breach of conduct and pilloried Pike. He resigned from his commission in July of 1862. After the war, Pike was indicted in federal court for inciting war atrocities.[13] In the minds of Union troops, retaliation for these atrocities was the only solution. Captain Oliver Hazard Perry Scott of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry fumed, “There was two of them infernal Indians taken prisoner, and we have seen one that was killed. I wish it had been the last of that race. There was quite a number of our men scalped by them, two of our company…. There will be no quarter shown them after this, that is certain.”[14]

As the war continued, the Cherokee Nation remained burdened with political divisions. While Watie and his 2nd Mounted Rifles remained fervently loyal to the Confederate cause, Ross and the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles began to waver after the Confederate victories in the West began to slow in the Fall of 1862. Ross and Union-leaning natives thought of recasting their lots with the North.  As a result, a majority of the 1st Cherokee soldiers deserted and allied with the United States in October of 1862. The  rest of their regiment was dissolved and absorbed into that Colonel Watie’s command. Chief Ross traveled to Washington, D.C. one year later to ask President Lincoln for clemency, which he received. Ross’s three sons soon joined the Union Army. In contrast, Watie was the last Confederate colonel to surrender at the war’s end.

The 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles
“A Guide to Cherokee Confederate Military Units, 1861-1865,” The People’s Path,

Less than 30 years after the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee Nation and other Native Americans had been dealt another deadly blow. Thousands of indigenous people had died due to the American Civil War. Because there were no thorough census records of the native population in Indian Territory, it is unknown how many indigenous people perished, but some historians estimate the death rate was 50 percent of the populations in Oklahoma and Arkansas. After the war, the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) calculated 14,000 surviving Cherokees in Indian Territory, a decline from 21,000 before the Nation joined the conflict. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, D.N. Cooley laid bare the harsh reality of the war’s repercussions for the nation, stating, “[The Cherokee] need food, clothing, tools, everything in fact, to begin life again.”[15]

In addition to their physical and material losses, the Cherokee faced stark social deterioration. Unionist supporters and former Confederate allies exacted violence and retribution against one another. The OIA Southern superintendent stated that the Cherokee Nation’s enmity was so potent that “no human power can reconcile” the fractious community. He estimated that 10,500 Cherokees remained loyal to the United States while 6,500 had joined the Confederacy. Many pro-Confederate Cherokees remained estranged from the larger Cherokee Nation and Indian Territory altogether during the postwar years, including Stand Watie. He would die during the legal process to retain his pre-war home on September 16, 1871, in present-day Delaware County, Oklahoma.[16] His archrival, Chief Ross, died in Washington, D.C., on August 1,1866. Despite the significant indigenous death toll as a result of the war, neither the Confederate states  nor the federal government ever officially  acknowledged the vital role of indigenous military participation in the conflict. Particularly after the alleged atrocities at Pea Ridge,  white government officials once again saw Native Americans as “savages” in need of taming.

The struggle to rebuild the Cherokee Nation continued for decades after the Civil War. Because of federal reconstruction treaties foisted onto the Five Tribes, the Cherokee and other indigenous communities lost more of their autonomy and strength. The first treaty abolished African slavery in tribal nations—a necessary measure, but one which dealt a heavy economic blow to many Cherokee. The second treaty concession established an intertribal council on which the superintendent of the OIA would serve as chief executive. The third treaty demanded that all five nations acquiesce their land in various locations for the construction of railroads.[17]The United States exploited the nations’ vulnerable positions to extract more land concessions. The Cherokee Nation was forced to concede more territory to the federal government to relocate additional, unwanted indigenous communities from across the country into Indian Territory. Moreover, the Five Tribes were no longer in control of the distribution of their land and were forced to give tribal citizenship to Native Americans of other tribes as the United States government pushed indigenous people of different regions into Indian Territory. OIA and government officials believed this policy would lessen chances of intertribal warfare and harassment. To add insult to injury, no federal preference was given to those who remained loyal to the United States. All Native Americans were seen as equally fastidious and expendable. In 1865, the federal government told the chiefs of the Five Tribes that they had forfeited any tribal rights, land claims, and compensation once they joined the Confederacy. All members of the tribe who allied with the South were punished as traitors.

Freedmen camped in Cherokee territory
“Cherokee Nation Seeks Cherokee Freedmen Stories, Photographs,” Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Soul, February 4, 2022,

The American Civil War enveloped the entirety of the United States. Native Americans were too often caught in between two belligerent nations who did not truly care for their interests. The United States government had repeatedly violated treaties, while the Southern states had pushed the Five Civilized Tribes out of the region. Wedged between a rock and a hard place, the Cherokee and other nations tried to retain some semblance of unity, heritage, and autonomy as they were yanked between two self-serving actors. The Civil War considerably altered the fragile socio-political system of the Cherokee Nation, as it reopened existing wounds between two diametrically opposed leaders. Seen as mercenaries or convenient cannon fodder, the Cherokee Nation and other Native American tribes gained very little from their participation in the American Civil War. Furthermore, in an ironic twist, now that the nature of future western settlement had been determined through a war in which natives had played a significant role, native lands became tantalizing targets for national expansion and beacons for individualistic profiteering in the newly reunited America. As such, the war for indigenous rights and freedom would continue for centuries.

Cherokee Family (1935)
Domain unknown–466826317626266124/

[1] Grace Steele Woodward, The Cherokees, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963).

[2] “Cherokees at Pead Ridge,” American Battlefield Trust,

[3] “Five Civilized Tribes and the American Civil War,”

[4] “Declaration by the People of the Cherokee Nation of the Causes Which have Impelled Them to United Their Fortunes with Those of the Confederate States of America,” October 28, 1861, Cherokees and the American Civil War,

[5] Clarissa W. Confer, The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 20.

[6] Danna Bell, “The Cherokee Nation and the Civil War,” Library of Congress Blogs, November 10, 2022,

[7] Bell, “The Cherokee Nation,”

[8] “Five Civilized Tribes and the American Civil War,”,

[9]“Five Civilized Tribes and the American Civil War,”

[10] Confer, The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War, 42.

[11] Confer, The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War, 50.

[12] Robert Pahre, “How the Cherokee Fought the Civil War,” Indian Country Today, September 13, 2018,

[13] “Cherokees at Pea Ridge,” American Battlefield Trust,

[14] “Cherokees at Pea Ridge,”

[15] Confer, “The Cherokee Nation and the Civil War,” 144.

[16] Confer, The Cherokee Nation and the Civil War, 147.

[17] “Reconstruction Treatises,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, Oklahoma Historical Society,,federal%20government%20and%20settled%20elsewhere.

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