Indian Territory in the Civil War

During the American Civil War, most of what is now the U.S. state of Oklahoma was designated as the Indian Territory. It served as an unorganized region that had been set aside specifically for Native American tribes and was occupied mostly by tribes which had been removed from their ancestral lands in the Southeastern United States following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. As part of the Trans-Mississippi Theater, the Indian Territory was the scene of numerous skirmishes and seven officially recognized battles involving both Native American units allied with the Confederate States of America and Native Americans loyal to the United States government, as well as other Union and Confederate troops.

A total of 7,860 Native Americans participated in the Confederate Army, as both officers and enlisted men; most came from the Five Civilized Tribes: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole nations. The Union organized several regiments of the Indian Home Guard to serve in the Indian Territory and occasionally in adjacent areas of Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas.

Native American Alliances

Before the outbreak of war, the United States government relocated all soldiers in the Indian Territory to other key areas, leaving the territory unprotected from Texas and Arkansas, which had already joined the Confederacy. The Confederacy took an interest in the territory, seeking a possible source of food in the event of a Union blockade, a connection to western territories, and a buffer between Texas and the Union-held Kansas. At the onset of war, Confederate forces took possession of the U.S. army forts in the area. In June and July 1861, Confederate officers negotiated with Native American tribes for combat support. After refusing to allow Creek lands to be annexed by the Confederacy, the Creek Principal Chief Opothleyahola led the Creek supporters of the Union to Kansas, having to fight along the way. Leaders from each of the Five Civilized Tribes, acting without the consensus of their councils, agreed to be annexed by the Confederacy in exchange for certain rights, including protection and recognition of current tribal lands.

After reaching Kansas and Missouri, Opothleyahola and Native Americans loyal to the Union formed three volunteer regiments known as the Indian Home Guard. It fought in the Indian Territory and Arkansas.

Logistics in Indian Territory

After abandoning its forts in the Indian Territory early in the Civil War, the Union Army was unprepared for the logistical challenges of trying to regain control of the territory from the Confederate government. The area was largely undeveloped relative to its neighbors: roads were sparse and primitive, and railroads did not yet exist in the territory. Pro-Union Indians had abandoned their own farms because of raids by pro-Confederacy Indians and fled to Kansas or Missouri, seeking protection from better-organized Union forces there. The Union did not have enough troops to control the few roads, and it was not feasible to sustain a large military operation by living off the land. This was demonstrated in 1862 when General William Weer’s “Indian Expedition” into the Indian Territory from Kansas met with disaster when food and supplies were quickly exhausted and Union supply trains failed to arrive.

Aftermath

At Fort Towson in Choctaw lands, General Stand Watie officially became the last Confederate general to surrender on June 25, 1865. Watie went to Washington, D.C. later that year for negotiations on behalf of his tribe; as the principal chief of the pro-Confederacy group elected in 1862, he was seeking recognition of a Southern Cherokee Nation. He did not return home until May 1866. The US government negotiated only with the Cherokee who had supported the Union; it named John Ross as the rightful principal chief (he had gone into exile in 1862 when the majority supported the Confederacy).

As part of the Reconstruction Treaties, U.S. officials forced land concessions upon the tribes; it also required the Cherokee and other tribes to emancipate their slaves and give them full rights as members of their respective tribes, including rights to annuities and land allocations. The Southern Cherokee had wanted the U.S. government to pay to relocate Cherokee Freedmen from the tribe. Later the issue of citizenship caused contention when American Indian lands were allotted to households under the Dawes Commission. In the early 20th century, the Cherokee Nation voted to exclude the Freedmen from the tribe, unless they also had direct descent from a Cherokee (not just a Cherokee Freedman) listed on the Dawes Rolls (1902–1906).