Saturday, May 17, 2014


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 regime
and 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 important
guarantors 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 their
alarm 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 the
right 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
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 was
the 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, and
the 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
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 those
treaties 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 had
wreaked 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.
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 are
not 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.