Cherokee Nations Rejoins the Union, Renounces Slavery (Sort Of)

February 26, 1863 (Thursday)

The decision made by the Cherokee Nation to join with the Confederacy was not come to lightly. Many who were slave-holding Natives, wanted to side with the South. Others, who did not own slaves, wished to remain neutral or even go with the North. In August of 1861, after the Confederate victories of Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, one of the Cherokee leaders, John Ross, pushed for a Southern alliance. He had previously been for neutrality, but it looked like the South was about to win the war.

James Blunt

He framed his decision as a practical one. The Confederacy bordered Indian Territory [modern Oklahoma] on three sides. Perhaps Southern independence might bring better treatment than they received under Federal care. By the winter of 1862-1863, they were discovering that such a dream was not attainable.

Conditions under the Confederate government were abysmal. Whatever supplies Indian Territory could give (or have seized) were gone. The land was stripped and the destitute took to marauding. The victims turned to the Confederate Army in Arkansas, under Theophilus Holmes, but he had enough problems of his own; there was no way he could do anything for the Natives next door.

So bad were the military conditions that Holmes and General Thomas Hindman, who had lost the battle of Prairie Grove, put much of his army on furlough for the winter. It was soon decided that all of the Native soldiers ought to be stripped of their horses. Unmounted, they would be easier to supply. Making matters worse, the soldiers, white and Indian alike, had not been paid in months.

On the Federal side, following Prairie Grove, General John Schofield, who had more or less missed the battle, took control of the Army of the Frontier, tossing James Blunt, who had won the battle, back to the Federal Department of Kansas. Schofield retained the Indian Brigade, made up of three Indian Home Guard regiments, the 6th Kansas Cavalry, as well as a battery of guns captured at the battle of Old Fort Wayne. Put under the command of Col. William A. Phillips.

Since the Federal government had abandoned the Cherokee Nation, refugees had surged into Kansas and Missouri, while others tried to stick it out in Indian Territory. Many complained bitterly (and officially) that the Federal government had for two years now refused to pay annuities they promised in previous treaties.

Col. Phillips

Over the harsh and brutal month of January, the temperatures plummeted and an unlikely snow piled up. This inhospitable weather convinced both Confederate and Federal forces to stay out of Indian Territory.

Union Col. Phillips promised the Unionists among the Cherokee that his brigade, situated on the Arkansas/Missouri border, would soon enter Indian Territory to protect them. His words were more true than not.

After much protesting to Washington by both Blunt and Phillips, a Federal agent arrived with supplies amounting to $12,000 and President Lincoln’s personal acknowledgement of the validity of the Native’s grievances.

With Phillip’s protection, things began to change. After realizing that Confederate General Stand Watie, a Cherokee chief who commanded Native cavalry, was about to cross back into Indian Territory, Phillips beat him to the punch.

Watie was afraid that the Unionists among the Nation would assemble the Cherokee Council and vote the Nation back into the Union. Watie was right, this was exactly what the Unionist Cherokee wanted to do. Now, with Phillips in Indian Territory, they could assemble.

On February 4, the Council met. There had been no time or practical way to hold elections since the Council last met to side with the Confederates. In essence, this was the same body, though there were some obvious absences. Chief John Ross was not among them. Though he would be curiously pro-Union by the War’s end, he was not yet ready for such a change.

Stand Watie

In his stead, the rolls were filled with Natives from Phillips’ Brigade as well as Ross’ sons. They met, drawing up resolutions, on the 21st. But it was on this date that it was made official.

The Cherokee Council passed “an act revoking the alliance with the Confederate States and re-asserting allegiance to the United States.” Also, any officer of the military or government who were disloyal to the Federal government (and now the Cherokee Nation) were now disposed.

Most importantly, at least from a historical perspective, they passed “an act emancipating slaves throughout the Cherokee Nation.” They also offered citizenship to all males who had been enslaved. The Cherokee Council became the first governing body of slaveholders to voluntarily give up the institution of slavery since the war broke out.

In the end, the Council’s resolutions meant little. It was a symbolic act that had good intentions, but divided the already split Cherokee Nation even more. Confederate Native, Stand Watie, would soon have something to say about all this.1



  1. Sources: The American Indian in the Civil War by Annie Heloise Abel; General Stand Watie’s Confederate Indians by Frank Cunningham; Race and Radicalism in the Union Army by Mark A. Lause. []
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Cherokee Nations Rejoins the Union, Renounces Slavery (Sort Of) by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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