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STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY AT COLUMBIA
Cherokee Chief John Ross, who led the pure-blood Cherokees, advocated neutrality when the Civil War broke out.
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STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY AT COLUMBIA
Stand Watie, the leader of the mixed-race Cherokee and the only American Indian to attain the rank of general in the Civil War, was Ross’s main rival.
Choosing Sides: American Indians square off in Southwest Missouri
“One of the most unknown aspects of the Civil War,” according to historian Arnold Schofield, “is the participation of American Indians as soldiers in the Union and Confederate armies.”
Although American Indian participation in the war was mainly confined to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and other tribal lands such as the Osage territory of southeastern Kansas, the Indians occasionally marched into the adjoining states of Arkansas and Missouri. In fact, Missouri holds the distinction of having been the stage for the only conflict of the war, the First Battle of Newtonia, in which American Indian units of regimental strength faced each other in combat. During the period leading up to the Civil War, most American Indians had little interest in taking sides in the mounting conflict between the Northern and Southern states, and Chief John Ross of the Cherokee advocated neutrality. White agents among the Indians, though, mostly favored the South, and a few slaveholding Indian leaders like Stand Watie, Ross’s main rival among the Cherokee, joined them. Watie, who later became the only American Indian of the Civil War to attain the rank of general, was the leader of the mixed-race Cherokees, while most of Ross’s followers were pure-bloods. The feud between the two factions dated back to the tribe’s removal from the Southeast to the frontier during the late 1830s.
When the war broke out, the Confederacy sent Arkansas lawyer Albert Pike into Indian Territory as an envoy to recruit the tribes to the Southern cause, and he quickly signed treaties with the Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. Douglas Cooper, agent for the latter two tribes, raised a regiment called the First Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles, and Watie raised a regiment that became known as the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles.
Ross and his faction of the Cherokees, however, balked at joining the Southern cause, and Creek Chief Opothleyahola also rejected Confederate alliance. Several months into the war, Ross finally signed a treaty with the Confederacy, but many of his followers remained loyal to the Union. Ross eventually repudiated the treaty and left the territory.
While his command was still being organized, Watie and some of his men joined with Confederate Gen. Ben McCulloch and fought at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861, the first large-scale action of the war in which American Indians were involved. Afterward, Watie returned to Indian Territory and, during late 1861, helped Cooper drive Opothleyahola and the loyal Indians out of the territory.
The loyal Indians sought refuge in southern Kansas, where they were reorganized into three regiments comprising the Federal Indian Brigade or the Indian Home Guard. Several books have been written in recent years about the Confederate Indian soldiers, but these loyal refugee Indians have received less notice. According to Schofield, former historian at Fort Scott National Historic Site and current administrator of the Mine Creek (Kansas) State Historic Site, despite the fact that the number of men who served in the Federal Indian Brigade from 1862 to 1865 numbered about 3,000, these loyal Indians are the “forgotten warriors” of the Civil War.
Pike’s Confederate Indian brigade fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in early March of 1862. His men were criticized for their disorderly fighting during the Southern defeat, and some were accused of scalping the enemy dead. Stinging from such criticism, Pike returned to Indian Territory and shortly afterward resigned his commission.
Meanwhile, Colonel Watie, whose mission was to protect the northern border of Indian Territory, ventured into Missouri in the spring of 1862. On April 25, he and about 140 men of his regiment teamed up with sixty men under Missouri State Guard Col. John Coffee and attacked around 200 Federal troops near Neosho. According to Watie’s report, the daylong skirmishing left more than 30 Union soldiers dead and several wounded while the Confederates had seven casualties: two dead and five wounded.
A month later, a portion of Watie’s command again linked up with Coffee in southwest Missouri. The combined Southern force surprised a Union camp at Neosho on the morning of May 31, and the Federal soldiers fled in disarray. The Union victory at Pea Ridge had secured the state of Missouri for the North, and Federal control of the region temporary control of Indian Territory during the early summer of 1862.
Discontented and low on supplies, the Federals soon returned to Kansas, leaving the territory once again in the hands of Cooper and Watie. In the late summer, many of the Federal Indian troops crossed the border to forage in southwest Missouri. They were still there in early September when Confederate officials, determined to re-establish a presence in the state, sent Col. Joseph Shelby’s Missouri Brigade into the Newtonia area. After driving the Federal forces out of Newtonia on September 13, Shelby moved north the next day and routed some troops from Col. William A. Phillips’s Third Indian Home Guard near Carthage. Later in the month, Shelby skirmished with Phillips’s Indians twice more near Mt. Vernon. On September 20, the Federal Second Indian Home Guard under Col. John Ritchie was camped on Spring River in northern Jasper County when they were attacked by partisan leader Tom Livingston, a portion of Watie’s Indians, and a company of Confederate troops from Texas. Ritchie retreated in the face of the assault but then mounted a counterattack. Livingston’s unit, comprised mostly of white Jasper County men, was loosely affiliated with Watie’s Indian regiment and was sometimes called the Cherokee Rangers, but it operated as an independent guerrilla command most of the time and roamed southwest Missouri and neighboring states.
During the late summer and early fall of 1862, Union forces began concentrating near Sarcoxie to counter the increased Rebel activity in southwest Missouri, and on September 30, they launched an attack on Newtonia, where the Confederates had established their temporary headquarters. During the battle, both Phillips’s Federal Indian regiment and the Confederate Indians under Colonel Cooper (who had succeeded Pike in command of the brigade) played conspicuous roles. At one point during the battle, according to Union Gen. Frederick Salomon, the Indians under Phillips “nobly repulsed” a Confederate charge, and Confederate Gen. Thomas C. Hindman claimed the First Battle of Newtonia was a “brilliant victory” in which Cooper’s Indian troops “displayed great bravery.”
After the fall of 1862, an occasional raid or skirmish in southwest Missouri involved American Indians, but most of the significant events during the latter part of the war in which American Indians were involved took place in Indian Territory. The Indian troops, though, had already left their mark on Missouri. The history of the First Battle of Newtonia stands as the most important, but not the only, testament to that legacy.