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Book Review: The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War, by Clarissa W. Confer

By HistoryNet Staff 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 01, 2012 
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The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War
, by Clarissa W. Confer, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2012, $16.95

Just as the root causes of America's Civil War had their origins long before 1861, so the involvement of the Five Civilized Tribes in that conflict followed decades of tensions with the U.S. government. In The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War, Clarissa W. Confer, assistant professor of history at California University of Pennsylvania, looks at the often overlooked role played by one of those five nations, which took a largely Rebel stand.

Two main factors lay behind the Cherokee decision to fight for the Confederacy. First and foremost were memories of the Trail of Tears, the forced removal from Georgia to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) that resulted in the deaths of 25 percent of their population. The second was the fact that Cherokees themselves owned some 4,000 slaves.

Initially the chief of the Cherokee nation, John Ross, tried to pursue a neutral course, but President Abraham Lincoln's administration made some mistakes that left him no choice but to side with the South. First, the government stopped the payments of tribal annuities in 1861. Second, the U.S. Army withdrew from the Indian Territory forts of Washita, Arbuckle and Cobb in April 1861. On the other side, diplomats in Richmond, Va., moved fast. They had already organized a Bureau of Indian Affairs, and emissaries such as Albert Pike and Brig. Gen. Ben McCulloch quickly established relations with the Cherokees. Moreover, the Confederacy offered Indian delegates the right to participate in its legislature, a privilege the United States had never conferred to Indians.

The author takes her research beyond politics and military operations to such social aspects as the situation of women and slaves in the territory during the war. She also examines just what kind of soldiers the Cherokees were. The white officers initially regarded the Indians as inferiors and consequently did not provide them with first-class weapons. Their attitude was largely founded on the high desertion rate in Cherokee units, though Confer explains that what a European or American-European army saw as disloyalty was, to the Indians, merely a need to visit their families. The second accusation was that they took scalps, most notoriously off wounded Union soldiers during the March 6–8, 1862, Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas, although Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, testifying in response before a joint committee, accused German troops in the Union Army of also murdering Confederate prisoners in cold blood. In the end, however, Brig. Gen. Stand Watie (principal chief of the Cherokee Nation) was the last Confederate general to surrender to the Union, which says something about the quality of the Indian soldiers behind the official reports.

The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War is an important book about a relatively overlooked facet of what was more than just a war between the states 150 years ago—and which had disproportionately disastrous consequences to the Indians who fought on the wrong side in it. Both John Ross and Stand Watie were financially destroyed, but at least the Cherokee Nation survived.

—Thomas Zacharis


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