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When the Wolf Came: The Civil War and the Indian Territory

By Mary Jane Warde, University of Arkansas Press, 2014, $34.95

An anonymous American Indian writing in 1878 remembered, “The war to preserve the union of States surged over the boundaries of the Indian Territory and swept the Indians from their homes, scattered them like leaves from the forest to the ends of the earth.” In her prodigious account of that war from the Indian point of view, Mary Jane Warde concludes “it was an apt description of what happened from 1861 to 1865 to people of all races and nations who shared the territory.” They “were at the mercy of events over which they had little or no control.”

Rather than linking Civil War battles and leaders in the Indian Territory (today’s state of Oklahoma) to larger events occurring hundreds of miles away, Warde opts for more personal accounts of individual, family and tribal disruptions that plunged an entire culture into a fight that affected  them only tangentially. The Oklahoma Historical Society Archives is rich in documentation of Indian life, and from them and a host of oral histories, newspapers and secondary sources Warde seeks to understand how the five  Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee and Seminole) that principally peopled the territory and were only 30 years removed from the southeastern United States, “chose whether to remain loyal to their treaties with the United States or to ally themselves with the Confederacy.” In fact, they did both. Warde painstakingly documents that “their choices had less to do with the issues dividing the states than with their own leaders, history, conditions, and fears.”

While the North withdrew its soldiers from frontier posts after Fort Sumter, the South sent in emissaries to negotiate treaties. Since many Indians were also slaveholders, the Confederacy’s promises of independence and full representation in the Confederate Congress met many sympathetic ears. Nevertheless, Indians soon formed regiments and Home Guard units for both sides, often dividing members of the same tribe and extended family. More Indians joined the Confederacy, especially among the Cherokee, the largest tribe in the territory.

Warde seems to be an anthropologist at heart and sometimes her narrative gets bogged down in family anecdotes and stories handed down through the generations. Nevertheless, she does a credible job describing military actions in the territory, most of them small-scale raids and guerrilla actions similar to those in Missouri and Kansas.

Warde wraps her book with a melancholy ode to a world that eroded after the war. Cherokee Chief Opothle Yahola, leader of the tribe’s Union faction, compared the war to a wolf, an animal his people feared and respected. By the turn of the 20th century, she writes, the wolf had devoured a proud and prosperous culture.


Originally published in the July 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.