You may know about Ely Parker, an Iroquois who rose to the rank of general and assistant to Ulysses Grant, being one of the attendees at the signing of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, marking the end of the US Civil War.

But he wasn’t the only Native American commander who participated in that conflict; in fact, there was a counterpart on the other side, in the Confederate Army: General Stand Watie, who was Cherokee.

Stand Watie was born on December 12, 1806, in Oothcaloga, a town in the state of Georgia now called Calhoun, which was then Cherokee territory. After the discovery of gold in their lands in 1818, this Indian nation, originally spread across neighboring Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, saw their numbers reduced due to the arrival of white settlers. They were forced to move to the so-called Indian Territory (located in present-day Oklahoma) alongside other members of the Five Civilized Tribes, a concept applied to a group of tribes considered more advanced and cultured than the rest: Cherokees, Seminoles, Choctaws, Creeks, and Chickasaws.

In other words, while this consideration didn’t prevent their exile, and despite their initial resistance, the Cherokees were better regarded than most other Native Americans. In Stand’s case, this was even more so, as he was the son of Chief Uwatie (hence his surname) and Susanna Reese, a mestiza. The name Stand is simply an English translation of the original Tawkertawker or Degataga, which means “firm” and which he chose for himself. Why? Because German Protestant missionaries from the Moravian Church had successfully converted Uwatie, leading the entire family to adopt Christian names: the father became David, one brother changed his original Gallagina to Elias Boudinot (and became a renowned writer and journalist), and the other was baptized Thomas.

Consequently, Stand received education at the Moravian mission school, learning to read and write. This allowed him to engage in journalism alongside Elias, and together they founded the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Indian newspaper, with its first issue published in 1828 in bilingual English and Cherokee. It had four pages and was free for those who only understood the indigenous language, serving as a platform for the peaceful and legal defense of the Indians advocated by Elias and his uncle Major Ridge – then chief – and Stand himself, who obtained a law license, against the inevitable Indian Removal Act that forced them to leave.

The family was significantly affected, as slavery was not an exclusive prerogative of whites, and many prosperous Cherokees, especially mestizos, owned cotton and tobacco plantations worked by such labor.

In summary, the Cherokee Phoenix conducted an intense campaign against that law, even in the courts, but could not stop it. This was especially true when a faction of the tribe refused to move from Arkansas, and inevitable clashes resulted in the destruction of the newspaper’s office and the confiscation of the lands, ignoring judicial provisions addressing the claims filed by the Indians. Of course, the law prohibited them from digging for the same gold that drove them away. The Treaty of New Echota in 1835 marked the end of the conflict – despite the chiefs’ refusal to sign it – and the obligation for the Cherokees to undertake the so-called Trail of Tears: about five thousand people stubbornly stayed in Arkansas, but the rest, with their slaves and all, marched to Oklahoma, highlighting the internal division. Approximately four thousand people died along the way.

Stand Watie was among those who went to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, where some of his people had settled fifteen years earlier, and they were known as the Old Settlers (he brought with him his four wives, one of whom, pregnant, gave birth to a stillborn girl in 1836). However, for the Watie family, it was a doubly bitter moment as they were considered traitors by the tribe. This was because they had sold their lands (considered a crime) under the aforementioned treaty. In 1839, they were all extrajudicially sentenced to death, and Elias Boudinot was the first to fall. His children were spared because Stand, who survived the attack, sent them to Connecticut with the maternal family. In 1845, the other brother, Thomas, was also murdered, with the military authorities doing nothing to stop the criminals.

Stand himself was next on the list, and his charges were aggravated by having taken blood revenge a year earlier by killing one of the assailants. However, one of those nephews he had saved, now practicing law, Elias Cornelius Boudinot, effectively defended him in court, securing his acquittal on grounds of self-defense. Thus, Stand was able to rebuild his life, managing his Spavinaw Creek plantation (worked by slaves) and serving on the Cherokee Council for the next two decades as a spokesperson.

In 1861, the Civil War erupted, deepening the division among the Cherokees. Some supported the Confederacy to protect their slave plantations, especially those with mixed-race contributions in their blood. Opposing them were the purists who rejected slavery, joined by Chief John Ross, advocating a policy of neutrality, fearing that support for the South would cause problems for the tribe’s status in the future. So, he traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln, and in his absence, the pro-Confederate faction led by Stand prevailed. Additionally, Stand sought admission to the Knights of the Golden Circle, a pro-slavery, racist, and pan-American society.

Stand, who had organized a unit of three hundred horsemen to protect the border from a possible invasion, replaced Colonel John Drew in command of a cavalry regiment called the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles. Drew had not been able to effectively lead his men, pure Indians little inclined towards the Confederacy, who were reluctant to attack a group of pro-Northern Creeks whom they considered unrelated enemies at Bird Creek. Although the regiment participated in several actions, the problem erupted a few months later, after the defeat of Old Fort Wayne, when the bulk of the unit deserted (some officers switched sides), further revealing the internal disunity of the Cherokees regarding the war. The 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles then merged with the 2nd, which Stand commanded, and he assumed sole command.

The regiment took part in twenty-seven actions, not counting minor skirmishes, generally employing guerrilla tactics due to their poor equipment. Members had to arm themselves mainly with rifles seized from the enemy or other outdated weapons. However, Stand’s commendable actions earned him promotion to brigadier general in 1864, rounding out the fact that John Ross and his followers’ departure to the North two years earlier had resulted in Stand’s appointment as chief of the Cherokees. His major successes included the capture of the steamboat J.R. Williams and a supply train at Cabin Creek, yielding a booty worth 1.5 million dollars. However, that battle ended in defeat, and, in fact, it was not the only one, as Pea Ridge and the aforementioned Old Fort Wayne should also be added, although these two occurred during Drew’s command.

Some incidents tarnished his image, such as the burning of Ross’s house, the destruction of the Cherokee Council House, and two brutal massacres: one of black soldiers from the 1st Kansas Infantry (the first regiment of color to enter combat) while unarmed and collecting hay (even the wounded were not spared), and the other of volunteers from the 2nd Kansas Cavalry during the Battle of Flat Rock. By then, support for the Confederacy had considerably declined among the Cherokees, even though, due to his new rank, Stand was assigned an additional three infantry battalions – composed of Indians from his tribe, Seminoles, and Osages. With them, he formed the Trans-Mississippi Army, under the supreme command of General Edmund Kirby Smith.

This unit, named for its periodic crossings of the river to operate in enemy territory, gradually disintegrated as the tide of the war turned against them. Eventually, only Stand’s cavalry remained. It was in this context that the mentioned massacres took place. Later, in February 1865, he was placed in command of the Indian Division of the Indian Territory. However, the South was already fighting agonizingly within its borders, and final defeat was imminent. The force he commanded was the last to surrender, and he would be the last Confederate general to do so on June 23 in Doaksville. The bloody conflict had ended, and now the focus shifted to reconstruction, which promised to be challenging and complex.

Overcoming the death of one of his children, Stand took on the task of renegotiating his tribe’s treaties. The Cherokees sent two delegations to what was called the Southern Treaty Commission Delegations, one on behalf of those who supported the Confederacy, led by Stand and his lawyer nephew, and another on behalf of the Union, led by Ross. Reconciliation seemed impossible, so the government negotiated with both factions separately, disadvantaging the Indians as they had to make concessions on both sides; they had to free their slaves and give up part of their lands, among other things. Mutual distrust persisted until the election of Lewis Downing, a compromising, pure-blood chief, who skillfully and patiently steered things toward reunification.

This meant Stand’s exile, who went to live with the Choctaw and remained out of politics since then. This continued until his death in 1871.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on July 23, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Stand Watie, el jefe cherokee que fue el último general del Ejército Confederado en rendirse


Frank Cunningham, General Stand Watie’s confederate indians | Frances H. Casstevens, Tales from the North and the South. Twenty-four remarkable people and events of the Civil War | Grant Foreman, The Five Civilized Tribes | Patrick Bowmaster, Chiefs by commission: Stand Watie and Ely Parker | Bradley R. Clampitt, The Civil War and reconstruction in Indian Territory | Civil War Virtual Museum | Wikipedia

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