Indian Territory in the American Civil War

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During the American Civil War, Indian Territory occupied what is now the U.S. state of Oklahoma. It served as an unorganized region set aside for Native American tribes of the Southeastern United States following the Indian Removal Act. It was occupied by captured Native Americans who had been removed from their lands. The area was the scene of numerous skirmishes and seven officially recognized battles[1] involving Native American units allied with the Confederate States of America, Native Americans loyal to the United States government, and Union and Confederate troops.

A total of 7,860 Native Americans participated in the Confederate Army, as both officers and enlisted men;[2] they were mostly from the Five Civilized Tribes: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole nations.[3] The Union did not incorporate Native Americans into its regular army.[2]

Native American alliances[edit]

Before the outbreak of war, the United States government relocated all soldiers in 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, seeking a possible source of food in the event of a Union blockade, a connection to western territories, and a buffer area between Texas and the Union-held Kansas. At the onset of war, Confederate forces took possession of the US army forts in the area. In June and July 1861, its officers negotiated with Native American tribes for combat support.

Stand Watie, a member of the Cherokee tribal council, was among the Indian leaders to join and was commissioned as an officer. Other leaders within the Cherokee and Creek governments opted to remain neutral, while some allied themselves with the Union, including the Creek leader Opothleyahola. After refusing to allow Creek lands to be annexed by the Confederacy, he took Creek supporters to Kansas, having to fight along the way.[4] 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.[5]

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 Indian Territory and Arkansas.[6][7]


The first battle in the territory occurred on November 19, 1861. Opothleyahola rallied Indians to the Union cause at Deep Fork. A total of 7,000 men, women, and children resided in his camp. A force of 1,400 Confederate soldiers under Colonel Douglas Cooper initiated the Battle of Round Mountain, but were repulsed after several waves, leading to a Southern loss. Opothleyahola moved his camp to a new location at Chustenalah. On December 26, 1861, Confederate forces again attacked, this time driving Opothleyahola and his people to Kansas during a snowstorm.[8] Also in 1861 Union General James G. Blunt ordered Colonel William Weer to lead an expedition into the Indian Territory. Weer's expedition met with early success at the Battle of Locust Grove in Indian Territory,[9] but a mutiny within the Union army stopped the expedition before making any real progress into Indian Territory. The expedition encouraged the organization of three Indian Home Guard regiments in support of the Union.[6]

The Union victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas during March 1862 limited the Confederate government's ability to protect its Indian allies. Stand Watie and other officers had to fight on without support. The Union army recaptured its forts in the territory, but abandoned them when faced with ongoing raids by Stand Watie. Later the Union recaptured them; Stand Watie was the last Confederate commander in the field to surrender.

Brigadier General Stand Watie, the last Confederate general to surrender

Following the Battle of Honey Springs in 1863, a decisive Union victory that secured Indian Territory, guerrilla warfare was the primary means of combat.[10] Honey Springs Depot, a site of frequent skirmishes, was chosen by Union General James G. Blunt as the place to engage the largest Confederate forces in Indian Territory. Anticipating that Confederate General Douglas H. Cooper would attempt to join with General William Cabell, who was moving to attack Fort Gibson, Blunt approached Honey Springs on July 17, 1863 with a force of 3,000 men, including Native Americans and African-American former slaves. On the morning of July 17, he engaged Cooper, who commanded a force of 3,000–6,000 men composed primarily of Native Americans. Cooper's troops became unorganized and retreated when wet gunpowder caused misfires and rain hampered their movements. The battle was the largest in Indian Territory.[11]

Perryville, a town half way between Boggy Depot and Scullyville on the Texas Road, had become a major supply depot for the Confederate army. After the Battle of Honey Springs, General Douglas H. Cooper retreated to Perryville where his troops could be resupplied. General Blunt believed his troops could capture the depot and destroy Cooper's forces there. He attacked under cover of darkness and exchanged artillery fire. The Confederates retreated again, leaving their supplies behind. Blunt's force captured whatever supplies they could used, then burned the town.[12]


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. 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.[13] 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 peace treaty (or Reconstruction Treaties), US 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.[14] The Southern Cherokee had wanted the US government to pay to relocate the 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 late twentieth century, the Cherokee Nation voted to exclude Cherokee 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).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Civil War Sites in Oklahoma". National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  2. ^ a b American Civil War Resource Database
  3. ^ Confer, Clarissa. The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007, pg. 4
  4. ^ "Union and Confederate Indians in the Civil War". 2002-02-16. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  5. ^ Gibson, Arrell. Oklahoma, a History of Five Centuries (University of Oklahoma Press, 1981) pg. 117–120
  6. ^ a b "United States Volunteers — Indian Troops". 2008-01-28. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  7. ^ "Civil War Refugees". Oklahoma Historical Society. Oklahoma State University. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  8. ^ Gibson pg. 121
  9. ^ John D. May, "Locust Grove, Battle of" at Oklahoma Historical Society Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture (retrieved April 13, 2013).
  10. ^ Gibson pg. 122–125
  11. ^ "Battle Summary: Honey Springs". National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  12. ^ Edwards, Whit. Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. "Battle of Perryville." Retrieved September 28, 2013.
  13. ^ Confer pg. 9, 158
  14. ^ Confer pg. 156

Further reading[edit]

Primary sources[edit]