Native Perspective Lacking in Civil War Accounts
By Patti Jo King
An account of Indians in the U.S. Civil War has been
issued in paperback—and with it comes a now-familiar sense of letdown. That’s
because such books invariably leave out Native voices, relying on academic
research and accounts. Clarissa Confer’s The Cherokee Nation in the Civil
War, first published in hardcover by the University of Oklahoma Press in
2008, is no exception.
American Indian participation in the Civil War tends
to be seen as an anomaly. Yet scholars and tribal historians should not be
surprised that Indians took part, with men from many nations fighting on both
sides. Indigenous communities of the South found themselves caught between the
two American factions, while tribes that had been removed from the South and the
Plains and sent to Indian Territory were drawn into the very heart of the
critical debates dividing the states: disputes over Free Soil, Bleeding Kansas,
slavery and abolition, sectionalism and even secession.
A handful of scholars are recognized as authorities
on this subject. Most notable was Annie Heloise Abel, who laid the foundation
with her tripartite study The Slave-Holding Indians, published between
1915 and 1925 by Torch Press. Her three volumes—The American Indian as
Slaveholder and Secessionist; American Indians as Participants in the
Civil War; and American Indians Under Reconstruction—form the
basis of all such research.
Later scholars expanded upon Abel’s work. These
include Gary Moulton (John Ross, Cherokee Chief, University of Georgia
Press, 1978) and Kenny Franks (Stand Watie and the Agony of the Cherokee
Nation, Memphis State University Press, 1979), who discussed the rivalries
between these opposing elite Cherokee leaders. In 1989, Craig Gaines explained
how the Confederate Cherokees came together in The Confederate Cherokees:
John Drew’s Regiment of Mounted Rifles (Louisiana State University Press).
William McLoughlin’s After the Trail of Tears: The Cherokees’ Struggle for
Sovereignty 1839–1880 (University of North Carolina Press, 1993) focused on
objectives that tribes had formed in the wake of removal, only to be interrupted
by the war.
These studies were necessary for understanding what
drove the Cherokees headlong into the war. But historians have since realized
the need to move past these ideas for a more nuanced view of Cherokee
motivations and actions, and how they affect the nation today. Authors such as
Thom Hatch (The
Blue, the Gray and the Red: Indian Campaigns of the Civil War,
Stackpole Books, 2003) and Confer attempted to do just that. Hatch argued that
the U.S. Indian campaigns during Reconstruction resulted from Civil War
objectives. Confer held in part that Cherokee participation had more to do with
the tribe’s struggle for self-determination and preservation than with the war
Though Confer’s theory is compelling, her book falls
short. By relying too heavily on the early investigations, she forfeits her
chance to tell a fresh, engaging story, instead rehashing the narrative we’ve
heard for decades.
She makes dubious assertions that suggest an
unfamiliarity with early Cherokee history. For instance, she claims that
Cherokee troops were the least experienced because they were ignorant of
“conventional” military training. But Cherokee warriors served with both the
British and Americans in the Revolutionary War, under Andrew Jackson in the Red
Stick War, and with and against the British many times. Even if they hadn’t been
trained before taking up arms, they were no greener than any other recruits.
Confer admits to basing many conclusions on the
“motivations, rationales and realities” of the Cherokees’ male tribal elite. The
nation, however, is a society that prides itself on individuality, and the
people themselves determine its trajectory.
Further, Confer devotes much space to the war
experiences of Sarah Watie, Stand Watie’s wife, a mixed-blood woman. While
Confer has no trouble identifying what this elite woman had in common with
Confederate women, she claims we cannot trace the history of “traditional”
Cherokee women because they were illiterate and “left no records.”
However, it is well known that members of even the
poorest, most traditional families could read and write syllabary. Thousands of
families possess letters, journals, ledgers and other material written in
Tsalagi. There are also oral histories in such repositories as the Indian
Pioneer Papers and the Doris Duke Oral History Collection.