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Why did the Cherokee fight with the Confederacy in the Civil War?


July 4, 2016

Why the Cherokee Nation Allied Themselves With the Confederate States of America in 1861

Many have no doubt heard of the valor of the Cherokee warriors under the command of Brigadier General Stand Watie in the West and of Thomas’ famous North Carolina Legion in the East during the War for Southern Independence from 1861 to 1865. But why did the Cherokees and their brethren, the Creeks, Seminoles, Choctaws, and Chickasaws determine to make common cause with the Confederate South against the Northern Union? To know their reasons is very instructive as to the issues underlying that tragic war. Most Americans have been propagandized rather than educated in the causes of the war, all this to justify the perpetrators and victors. Considering the Cherokee view uncovers much truth buried by decades of politically correct propaganda and allows a broader and truer perspective.

On August 21, 1861, the Cherokee Nation by a General Convention at Tahlequah (in Oklahoma) declared its common cause with the Confederate States against the Northern Union. A treaty was concluded on October 7th between the Confederate States and the Cherokee Nation, and on October 9th, John Ross, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation called into session the Cherokee National Committee and National Council to approve and implement that treaty and a future course of action.

The Cherokees had at first considerable consternation over the growing conflict and desired to remain neutral. They had much common economy and contact with their Confederate neighbors, but their treaties were with the government of the United States.

The Northern conduct of the war against their neighbors, strong repression of Northern political dissent, and the roughshod trampling of the U. S Constitution under the new regimeand political powers in Washington soon changed their thinking.

The Cherokee were perhaps the best educated and literate of the American Indian Tribes. They were also among the most Christian. Learning and wisdom were highly esteemed. They revered the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as particularly importantguarantors of their rights and freedoms. It is not surprising then that on October 28, 1861, the National Council issued a Declaration by the People of the Cherokee Nation of the Causes Which Have Impelled them to Unite Their Fortunes With Those of the Confederate States of America.

The introductory words of this declaration strongly resembled the 1776 Declaration of Independence:

“When circumstances beyond their control compel one people to sever the ties which have long existed between them and another state or confederacy, and to contract new alliances and establish new relations for the security of their rights and liberties, it is fit that they should publicly declare the reasons by which their action is justified.”

In the next paragraphs of their declaration the Cherokee Council noted their faithful adherence to their treaties with the United States in the past and how they had faithfully attempted neutrality until the present. But the seventh paragraph begins to delineate theiralarm with Northern aggression and sympathy with the South:

“But Providence rules the destinies of nations, and events, by inexorable necessity, overrule human resolutions.”

Comparing the relatively limited objectives and defensive nature of the Southern cause in contrast to the aggressive actions of the North they remarked of the Confederate States:

“Disclaiming any intention to invade the Northern States, they sought only to repel the invaders from their own soil and to secure the right of governing themselves. They claimed only the privilege asserted in the Declaration of American Independence, and on which theright of Northern States themselves to self-government is formed, and altering their form of government when it became no longer tolerable and establishing new forms for the security of their liberties.”

The next paragraph noted the orderly and democratic process by which each of the Confederate States seceded. This was without violence or coercion and nowhere were liberties abridged or civilian courts and authorities made subordinate to the military. Also noted wasthe growing unity and success of the South against Northern aggression. The following or ninth paragraph contrasts this with ruthless and totalitarian trends in the North:

“But in the Northern States the Cherokee people saw with alarm a violated constitution, all civil liberty put in peril, and all rules of civilized warfare and the dictates of common humanity and decency unhesitatingly disregarded. In the states which still adhered to the Union a military despotism had displaced civilian power and the laws became silent with arms. Free speech and almost free thought became a crime. The right of habeas corpus, guaranteed by the constitution, disappeared at the nod of a Secretary of State or a general of the lowest grade. The mandate of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was at naught by the military power and this outrage on common right approved by a President sworn to support the constitution. War on the largest scale was waged, and the immense bodies of troops called into the field in the absence of any warranting it under the pretense of suppressing unlawful combination of men.”

The tenth paragraph continues the indictment of the Northern political party in power and the conduct of the Union Armies:

“The humanities of war, which even barbarians respect, were no longer thought worthy to be observed. Foreign mercenaries and the scum of the cities and the inmates of prisons were enlisted and organized into brigades and sent into Southern States to aid in subjugating a people struggling for freedom, to burn, to plunder, and to commit the basest of outrages on the women; while the heels of armed tyranny trod upon the necks of Maryland and Missouri, and men of the highest character and position were incarcerated upon suspicion without process of law, in jails, forts, and prison ships, and even women were imprisoned by the arbitrary order of a President and Cabinet Ministers; while the press ceased to be free, andthe publication of newspapers was suspended and their issues seized and destroyed; the officers and men taken prisoners in the battles were allowed to remain in captivity by the refusal of the Government to consent to an exchange of prisoners; as they had left their dead on more than one field of battle that had witnessed their defeat, to be buried and their wounded to be cared for by southern hands.”

The eleventh paragraph of the Cherokee declaration is a fairly concise summary of their grievances against the political powers now presiding over a new U. S. Government:

“Whatever causes the Cherokee people may have had in the past to complain of some of the southern states, they cannot but feel that their interests and destiny are inseparably connected to those of the south. The war now waging is a war of Northern cupidity and fanaticism against the institution of African servitude; against the commercial freedom of the south, and against the political freedom of the states, and its objects are to annihilate the sovereignty of those states and utterly change the nature of the general government.”

The Cherokees felt they had been faithful and loyal to their treaties with the United States, but now perceived that the relationship was not reciprocal and that their very existence as a people was threatened. They had also witnessed the recent exploitation of the properties and rights of Indian tribes in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oregon, and feared that they, too, might soon become victims of Northern rapacity. Therefore, they were compelled to abrogate thosetreaties in defense of their people, lands, and rights. They felt the Union had already made war on them by their actions.

Finally, appealing to their inalienable right to self-defense and self-determination as a free people, they concluded their declaration with the following words:

“Obeying the dictates of prudence and providing for the general safety and welfare, confident of the rectitude of their intentions and true to their obligations to duty and honor, they accept the issue thus forced upon them, unite their fortunes now and forever with the Confederate States, and take up arms for the common cause, and with entire confidence of the justice of that cause and with a firm reliance upon Divine Providence, will resolutely abide the consequences.

The Cherokees were true to their words. The last shot fired in the war east of the Mississippi was May 6, 1865. This was in an engagement at White Sulphur Springs, near Waynesville, North Carolina, of part of Thomas’ Legion against Kirk’s infamous Union raiders that hadwreaked a murderous terrorism and destruction on the civilian population of Western North Carolina. Col. William H. Thomas’ Legion was originally predominantly Cherokee, but had also accrued a large number of North Carolina mountain men. On June 23, 1865, in what was the last land battle of the war, Confederate Brigadier General and Cherokee Chief, Stand Watie, finally surrendered his predominantly Cherokee, Oklahoma Indian force to the Union.

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The issues as the Cherokees saw them were 1) self-defense against Northern aggression, both for themselves and their fellow Confederates, 2) the right of self-determination by a free people, 3) protection of their heritage, 4) preservation of their political rights under a constitutional government of law 5) a strong desire to retain the principles of limited government and decentralized power guaranteed by the Constitution, 6) protection of their economic rights and welfare, 7) dismay at the despotism of the party and leaders now in command of the U. S. Government, 8) dismay at the ruthless disregard of commonly accepted rules of warfare by the Union, especially their treatment of civilians and non-combatants, 9) a fear of economic exploitation by corrupt politicians and their supporters based on observed past experience, and 10) alarm at the self-righteous and extreme, punitive, and vengeful pronouncements on the slavery issue voiced by the radical abolitionists and supported by many Northern politicians, journalists, social, and religious (mostly Unitarian)leaders. It should be noted here that some of the Cherokees owned slaves, but the practice was not extensive.

The Cherokee Declaration of October 1861 uncovers a far more complex set of “Civil War” issues than most Americans have been taught. Rediscovered truth is not always welcome. Indeed some of the issues here are so distressing that the general academic, media, and public reaction is to rebury them or shout them down as politically incorrect.

The notion that slavery was the only real or even principal cause of the war is very politically correct and widely held, but historically ignorant. It has served, however, as a convenient ex post facto justification for the war and its conduct. Slavery was an issue, and it was related to many other issues, but it was by no means the only issue, or even the most important underlying issue. It was not even an issue in the way most people think of it. Only about 25% of Southern households owned slaves. For most people, North and South, the slavery issue was not so much whether to keep it or not, but how to phase it out without causing economic and social disruption and disaster. Unfortunately the Southern and Cherokee fear of the radical abolitionists turned out to be well founded.

After the Reconstruction Act was passed in 1867 the radical abolitionists and radical Republicans were able to issue in a shameful era of politically punitive and economically exploitive oppression in the South, the results of which lasted many years, and even today arenot yet completely erased.

The Cherokee were and are a remarkable people who have impacted the American heritage far beyond their numbers. We can be especially grateful that they made a well thought out and articulate declaration for supporting and joining the Confederate cause in 1861.

PRINCIPAL REFERENCES:

 

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January 7, 2004

Leonard M. Scruggs [send him mail] is a former Republican county chairman.

Reposted by Reagangirl.com 7/4/16


  1. I had previously read of the Cherokee involvement in the War of Northern Aggression, but not to the extent portrayed in this article. The Cherokee and their kinsmen, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole carefully examined their options given the US government’s savage and uncalled for aggression against all the peoples of the 13-southern states and decided to fight for their rights together with their southern bretheran. They did not take their decision lightly and I salute them for what was most certainly a difficult course of action. This is a fascinating article that brings to light yet another aspect of a war that most Americans know nothing about.
    God Bless the Confederacy!

    • Patrick J. Germany

      BRINGS BACK THE QUESTION AS TO THE BACK STORY…TO THE AMERICAN SLAVE STORIES ..AS TO WHO’S HISTORY !! ..IS IT AND IS THIS WHY OUR RED BROTHERS AT TIMES SEEMS TO BE AS RACIST TO AFRICAN AMERICAN WHOM LIVE ON A LOT OF THE RESERVATIONS AS HALF BREED LIVE LIKE SECOND CLASS CITZENS AMONG THERE PEOPLE… AS WHAT WE CALL BIGOTRY OF SOME WHITE RACIST ..I NEVER SAW THIS IN ANY HISTORY BOOKS IN GRAMMAR SCHOOLS I WENT TO HERE IN CALIFORNIA…!!!! # LET THE TRUTHS BE TOLD AMERICA STOP HIDING THE FACTS>>>

  2. Jeremiah Tucker

    The same reason the fresh off the boat Irish immigrant joined the Union they were lied too,Andrew Jackson was a scumbag.

    • 2War Abn Vet

      Twenty-first century Americans can smugly shake their heads about the treatment Jackson gave the poor innocent Native Americans, but they cannot understand events from the perspective of an eighteenth century man. The Indian Wars in South Carolina were an off-and-on proposition from the arrival of white settlers. They continued through 1776 when a combination was entered into by the Tories and Indians for a general massacre of the Whigs residing along the frontiers from North Carolina to Georgia.
      Jackson was born in backcountry South Carolina in 1767. He grew up in fear of the Indian menace. Naturally, he did not see them as “poor innocent Native Americans”, but as bloodthirsty savages. As an adult he confronted them while he commanded forces during the Indian uprising of the Creek War 1813-1814.
      His antipathy toward Native Americans was no more or less that which he felt toward the British, both of which he had faced in combat. He was a hard and unforgiving man, as was necessary for survival during his place and time. Given the power, he’d just as readily sent the British on that “trail of tears” alongside the Cherokee.

  3. Their lands in the East had been confiscated illegally by Andrew Jackson whose greed for the gold found within Cherokee boundaries overcame what little integrity he possessed. He (Jackson) defied a SCOTUS decision and used his powers as CIC to forcibly remove and murder the Native Americans he so feared and hated.

  4. Cliff Ham

    I shared your article to my Facebook page and The Sons of the Confederacy page (of which I count myself) and it has blown up. 491 shares. Great article!

    • Thank you. It’s critical that we teach the FULL TRUTH of our history.

      • Patrick J. Germany

        BRINGS BACK THE QUESTION AS TO THE BACK STORY…TO THE AMERICAN SLAVE STORIES ..AS TO WHO’S HISTORY !! ..IS IT AND IS THIS WHY OUR RED BROTHERS AT TIMES SEEMS TO BE AS RACIST TO AFRICAN AMERICAN WHOM LIVE ON A LOT OF THE RESERVATIONS AS HALF BREED LIVE LIKE SECOND CLASS CITZENS AMONG THERE PEOPLE… AS WHAT WE CALL BIGOTRY OF SOME WHITE RACIST ..I NEVER SAW THIS IN ANY HISTORY BOOKS IN GRAMMAR SCHOOLS I WENT TO HERE IN CALIFORNIA…!!!! # LET THE TRUTHS BE TOLD AMERICA STOP HIDING THE FACTS>>>

  5. Ed Thompson

    I suggest reading the actual secession documents of the Confederate States, particularly those of SC, GA, MS and TX. When those states wrote down their reasons for secession, there is little else in the text that indicates that the primary reason was anything BUT slavery – or was not directly tied to slavery.

    A few excerpts:

    MS: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

    TX: “…[Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.

    …We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

    That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states. ”

    None of this means the North didn’t have it’s own racist attitudes and few northerners deemed abolition a cause for which to send their sons, fathers or husbands off to die, but to claim that slavery was not THE primary cause of the war is historical error. The men who wrote down the reasons for secession explicitly stated otherwise.

  6. Jimmy L. Shirley Jr.

    The State Secession documents…actually, referring to the Declarations of the Causes of Secession issued by four of the States seceding from the Union (the rest did not explain their reasons)…do cite slavery as the prime reason for secession. Southerners often cite conflicts over high tariffs and other economic issues as the cause of secession, and a superficial reading of these Declarations of the Causes of Secession does seem to contradict this. However, what these Declarations were doing was providing a legal basis for secession, just as the original Declaration of Independence set out the legal basis for America’s secession from the British Empire. The Southern States needed a clear, unambiguous violation of the Constitution by the Northern States to justify their “breaking of the contract” represented by the Union. It was not unconstitutional for Congress to levy tariffs on imported goods bought by Southerners, or to spend the money thus raised on internal improvements and business subsidies for capitalists in the Northern States. So although the South might have liked to secede over these issues (the Republican Party platform called for high tariffs, internal improvements, and business subsidies, and indeed, soon after taking control, they passed the highest tariff in American history, which would have devastated the South economically), legally, they could not have justified “breaking the contract” between the Southern States and the rest of the Union on that basis. However, the Northern States were in clear violation of the Constitution by acts of their legislatures and decisions by their State Courts which nullified and prevented enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution (and the various Fugitive Slave Acts which were passed for the enforcement of said Clause). And it is this which is prominently cited in the Declarations of the Causes of Secession. Also, it is noteworthy that the Declaration issued by the State of Georgia does, in fact, talk about the tariff issue as well as slavery…indeed, it states that it was the alliance of Northern anti-slavery agitators with the Northern mercantilist/high tariff faction (represented by the Republican Party) which had allowed the election of Abraham Lincoln, thus creating the need for secession. So slavery is not the ONLY issue discussed in these declarations.

  7. Patrick J. Germany

    BRINGS BACK THE QUESTION AS TO THE BACK STORY…TO THE AMERICAN SLAVE STORIES ..AS TO WHO’S HISTORY !! ..IS IT AND IS THIS WHY OUR RED BROTHERS AT TIMES SEEMS TO BE AS RACIST TO AFRICAN AMERICAN WHOM LIVE ON A LOT OF THE RESERVATIONS AS HALF BREED LIVE LIKE SECOND CLASS CITZENS AMONG THERE PEOPLE… AS WHAT WE CALL BIGOTRY OF SOME WHITE RACIST ..I NEVER SAW THIS IN ANY HISTORY BOOKS IN GRAMMAR SCHOOLS I WENT TO HERE IN CALIFORNIA…!!!! # LET THE TRUTHS BE TOLD AMERICA STOP HIDING THE FACTS>>>

  8. Billy Bearden

    Another reason was the North would hunt them down and slaughter their families, a lot of anger toward the North, so they joined the south to fight with us.

  9. Alan

    The Indian Nations decision to side with the Confederacy and the ferocity of their fight during the War led to their ultimate destruction by the US Cavalry in the late 1800’s. The reason so many Confederate forces were able to escape to Texas and Mexico after the War was due to the Indian Nations allowing them safe passage. The “Grey Riders” were not attacked by the Indians as they escaped through the Oklahoma Territory.

  10. “Disclaiming any intention to invade the Northern States,

    Wasn’t Pennsylvania a Northern state? Has it moved?

    • Darren Wheeler

      Miriam Sawyer…. At the time the Cherokee Nation issued their alliance with the Confederate States, there had been no military activity outside the states in the Confederacy. U.S. troops marched into Virginia to start the war. The first battle took place at Manassas, Virginia.

      Not until over a year into the war, and there having been multiple battles taking place, exclusively in the Confederate States, did General Robert E. Lee determine to take the war into U.S. states, as a tactical measure, to put the reality of the war in front the people in the U.S. The Battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland took place in September of 1862. The Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania did not take place until July of 1863, two years into the war.

      The Cherokee Nation’s formal alliance with the Confederate States took place, by way of treaty, in October of 1861, well before any actions took place across the lines, in the U.S.

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