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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Choosing Sides

After the exchange of letters, Chief Ross attempted to keep the Cherokee Nation out of the Civil War. However, two developments gradually pushed the Cherokee towards the South. Soon after South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumter, Federal soldiers in Indian Territory were recalled to the east. Any tribe wishing to remain neutral felt it had been left defenseless against Southern soldiers and sympathizers, a feeling that grew in August 1861 when the Confederates scored a major victory at Wilson's Creek in southwestern Missouri. A Cherokee leader named Stand Watie added to the pressure to support the South by leading slave-owning members of the tribe in an effort to recruit men to join the Confederate Army. By October 1861 Chief Ross reluctantly allied his nation with the Confederate States of America (C.S.A.).

By this time the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole had allied themselves with the Confederacy. Now it was the C.S.A. who promised to protect the people and property of these five nations; it also said it would continue the trust fund payments previously made by the federal government. The tribes agreed to supply troops to defend the South from Union attacks, but the treaties said these soldiers would not be ordered to fight outside Indian Territory.

Yet such agreements could not ensure that all the members of the Five Civilized Tribes would support the Confederacy. Many Creek and some Seminole, for example, formed a band of 6,000 men, women, and children sympathetic to the Union who decided to flee north towards Kansas. The first fight of the Civil War in Indian Territory occurred on November 19, 1861, when a Confederate force commanded by a former federal Indian agent attacked this group. After two more battles they finally made it to Kansas, but only after many had died from exposure and starvation.

In 1862 the Confederacy's position in Indian Territory began to deteriorate. In March, Confederate commanders ordered Indians to a battle outside the territory at Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Although two Cherokee regiments fought reluctantly, a Creek regiment and a Seminole battalion refused to go because the Confederates were overdue in making promised payments. This violation of treaty terms alienated many Native Americans, as did the decision to transfer many of the Southern troops protecting the area to east of the Mississippi. During the summer, a Union Army detachment that included Creek and Seminole soldiers invaded Indian Territory. The U.S. wanted control of the territory, in part to keep its resources from the Southern war effort, in part so that Native American refugees in Kansas and Missouri could return home. The Northern troops won two easy victories and added to their ranks many Cherokee originally recruited by Chief Ross for the Confederacy. When this army withdrew in late summer, the territory had neither Union nor Confederate troops to keep order. Some Native Americans on both sides used this opportunity to settle scores by burning homes, destroying crops, slaughtering livestock, and killing their enemies.

By 1863 President Lincoln and his military leaders had decided on a "Grand Strategy" that tried to "turn back the Rebels at every opportunity." The Union began a new attempt to control Indian Territory when in the spring the Federal Army of the Frontier, commanded by Maj. Gen. James Blunt, captured Fort Gibson near the Creek-Cherokee border. The Army of the Frontier included not just white troops, but a large number of Native Americans and the 1st Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Colored), a regiment recruited from ex-slaves. It was the first African-American regiment organized, and the fourth to be mustered into Federal service.

Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Cooper, commander of the Confederate forces in the area, resolved to regain strategically located Fort Gibson. Native Americans, including Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw, made up the majority of his troops. Cooper's men also included a regiment of Texans who brought leg-irons and hand-cuffs, since they expected to capture and return to slavery any African Americans who lived through the battle. Their base was at Honey Springs, named after the natural water supply that for years had made it a stop for travelers. Cooper organized his forces and waited for reinforcements to arrive from Fort Smith in Arkansas.

There were frequent skirmishes between the two sides during the early summer. Blunt, well supplied with information from Confederate deserters and Union spies, concluded that Cooper's forces would attack as soon as his reinforcements arrived. Blunt decided to attack first. By the morning of the 17th, his troops, soggy from marching south all night through intermittent rain, had halted behind a ridge to rest and eat. They stopped there in large part because less than half a mile away were Confederate troops, who concealed themselves in the trees that hugged the bank of a nearby creek. They too had been out all night in the rain.

Questions for Reading 2

1. How did both governments treat the Five Civilized Tribes?

2. Why did the Cherokee sign an alliance with the Confederate States?

3. Why did the Confederacy start to lose support among the Five Civilized Tribes?

4. Why did the battle of Pea Ridge upset so many Cherokee? What did many of the men do in response? Do you think it was right or wrong for them to switch sides? Why?

5. Why was there renewed interest in the Indian Territory in 1863?

6. What was significant about the 1st Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment? What consequences were they likely to face if the Federal Army of the Frontier lost the battle?

Reading 2 is compiled from Steve Cottrell, Civil War in the Indian Territory (Gretna, LA: Pelican Press, 1995); Dudley Taylor Corinth, The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1987), 75-78; Wiley Britton, The Union Indian Brigade in the Civil War (Kansas City, KS: F. Hudson Publishing, 1922) 282-83.

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