By incorporating the input of local tribes, the National Park Service has done a good job with its treatment of both the Battle of Pea Ridge and the Trail of Tears.

How the Cherokee Fought the Civil War

Robert Pahre

March 7 and 8 marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Pea Ridge, fought in northwest Arkansas near the Oklahoma border. Victory at Pea Ridge was important for the Union Army, which was trying to defend Western states, such as Kansas and Missouri. This battle was also significant because it saw the biggest engagement of American Indian soldiers in the war, with almost 1,000 of the 16,500 Confederates who fought there.

The battlefield is now managed by the National Park Service (NPS) as Pea Ridge National Military Park. Because the Trail of Tears also goes through the park, there are two big Indian stories for the NPS to tell here. The park service has recently updated its exhibits on both topics; the original exhibits dated to 1963 and did not mention the Trail of Tears at all. The new exhibits reflect both changes in the NPS and its ongoing consultation with the Cherokee Nation.

The Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole nations) allied with the Confederacy early in the Civil War. The Cherokees were the last to join this alliance because of internal political divisions between Principal Chief John Ross and his long-standing rival, Stand Watie. Watie had become the leading figure of the faction that signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, which forced the Cherokee Nation to move to Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma). Ross and an overwhelming majority of the population had opposed this removal. The rivalry was bitter, and there were political murders on both sides in the 1830s and 1840s.

Like many others in the Cherokee elite, both Ross and Watie were slaveholders with substantial property, and shared some values with Southern plantation owners. Other Cherokees were sympathetic to the Union side, including the traditionalist members of the secret Keetoowah Society. Watie thought the Cherokees would do best to ally with the Confederacy, while Ross believed that neutrality was the way to keep his nation together.

Everyone in the Cherokee Nation had reasons to dislike both the Union government and those now-Confederate states involved in the Trail of Tears. In this complex political environment, there were advocates for neutrality, an alliance with the Union, and an alliance with the Confederacy. Watie moved first, helping enlist Cherokee troops to serve under Confederate General Ben McCulloch. Ross thought that raising a Cherokee military force would be inconsistent with neutrality, but he felt increasingly insecure as the Union withdrew troops from the West and stopped making the treaty payments they owed to tribes. After the Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek, in southwest Missouri, on August 10, 1861, consensus in the nation moved toward an alliance with the Confederacy. Ross raised a regiment, the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles, while Watie’s older regiment became the second.

Like regiments raised by other Indian nations, these units were only supposed to defend their own territory. The Native soldiers were reluctant to leave their homes for a Confederate offensive campaign, especially since they had not been paid their wages. For the Confederacy, on the other hand, these troops could provide extra manpower for their army’s push from northwest Arkansas into southwest Missouri. By bringing the Native soldiers the back pay they were owed, the Confederacy persuaded them to move out of Indian Territory and join the campaign in Arkansas.

Two Cherokee mounted rifle units, a Choctaw/Chickasaw regiment and a Creek regiment were organized as Pike’s Indian Brigade, with perhaps 2,000 or 3,000 men. They were joined by a squadron of about 100 Texas cavalrymen who happened to be in Indian Territory on their way to Arkansas.

Their commander, Albert Pike, was the rare Southern general of Northern birth, born and raised in Massachusetts. After settling in Fort Smith, Arkansas in 1833, Pike became a prominent lawyer, served in the Mexican-American War, published poetry and took a leading role in the Masonic movement. Pike’s legal clients had included the Muscogee (Creek) and Choctaw nations that lived just west of Fort Smith. Knowing this, the Confederacy had turned to him first to negotiate treaties with the Five Civilized Tribes, and then to command the Indian Brigade. Pike believed the Indian troops should remain in Indian Territory, in accordance with the treaties he had negotiated. Yet, when pay for his troops arrived, he followed his commander’s orders to move his troops into Arkansas. The pay arrived a little late for the Choctaws, Chickasaws and Creeks, so only the Cherokees and Texans arrived in time to engage the Union soldiers at Pea Ridge.

Pike’s brigade enjoyed some early success in an assault on Gustavus Elbert’s First Missouri Flying Battery at Foster’s Farm. With the Texas cavalry, Watie’s men moved against Henry Trimble’s Iowa cavalry to get at the cannons. They routed Trimble’s men, and then captured the battery’s three guns.

After a quick victory in their first battle, both the Cherokees and the Texans started to celebrate. At that point, somebody scalped eight of the Iowa cavalrymen—both whites and Indians engaged in scalping on the frontier, so the culprits could have been either Cherokee or Texan. Whatever the truth, the Cherokees got the blame, and the crime became a point of Union propaganda. The story grew as it moved east—one paper reported that thousands of Indians had scalped hundreds of Union soldiers. People on both sides violated the rules of war at Pea Ridge, mostly by shooting small groups of prisoners—including, after the battle, 11 Cherokee prisoners—but these crimes did not achieve similar notoriety in Northern newspapers.

While Pike’s men celebrated, fresh Union troops moved against their position. When the Cherokee Mounted Rifles took some artillery fire, they retreated to nearby woods. Men in John Drew’s first regiment decided to keep retreating back to their homes, while Watie’s regiment took up a position on the far right of the Confederate line. They did not see further combat at Pea Ridge but helped guard the supply train during the Confederate retreat on the second day of the battle.

Despite their minor roles in this battle, the NPS gives Pike, Watie and the two Cherokee regiments a fair amount of attention today. Their success against the Iowa cavalry and Missouri guns is a highlight of the fifth stop on the auto tour of the battlefield. A sign there describes the military action and then briefly describes the complex politics of the Cherokee Nation at that time. The sign notes that the Creek, Seminole and Cherokee nations had divided loyalties throughout the war, especially after the federal government abandoned army posts and stopped treaty payments.

The sign also tells visitors that some Cherokees changed sides four months after Pea Ridge, though it does not provide details. Drew’s First Cherokee Mounted Rifles was the only complete unit to switch sides in the Civil War. Like much of Chief Ross’s faction, Drew’s men had been reluctant allies of the Confederacy from the beginning. Within a year, Chief Ross had traveled to Washington, D.C., to plead his case with President Lincoln. He ended up on the Union side, and four of his sons fought for the North.

The Native contribution to the Confederate forces at Pea Ridge also receives attention in the visitor center. Watie is one of the five Confederate leaders profiled in the center, park brochure and website. Watie stands alone as the only colonel among the Confederate generals profiled, though there are also a couple of colonels among the five Union profiles.

With the Cherokee Nation divided, Watie had a complicated Civil War after Pea Ridge. His Cherokee Mounted Rifles were dispatched to harass the Union in Kansas and Indian Territory. They fought in 18 raids and skirmishes, but were never engaged in another large battle. Their size grew to a brigade with perhaps a few thousand troops at times, and Watie was promoted to brigadier general. His notable raiding successes came in capturing a Union wagon train and then a steamboat running supplies up the Arkansas River. Watie’s men also used their raids to settle some scores with their political opponents within the Cherokee Nation. They burned the council house, Ross’s home and many other buildings at Park Hill, outside the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah, Oklahoma in an 1863 raid.

Because of his remote location on the frontier, it usually took Watie a long time to learn of events back East. On June 23,

1865, he became the last Confederate general to surrender to the Union. This came more than two months after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9.

At the battlefields it manages, the NPS usually emphasizes military stories over political controversies. At Pea Ridge, it prefers to tell stories of a military leader such as Watie instead of discussing the political talents of Chief Ross.

The NPS also doesn’t often tell many stories about what happened after the events associated with a particular site. At Pea Ridge, the NPS does not tell any stories of Watie’s role in what was essentially a Cherokee Civil War; if asked, they refer visitors to the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah.

The NPS does not avoid the controversies around the other major Indian story at this site. Pea Ridge was fought along Telegraph Road, which is affiliated with a distinct NPS unit—the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which stretches across nine states.

Visitors who take the auto tour of the battlefield meet the Trail of Tears at the very first stop. The roadside sign begins with the memories of an unnamed survivor who wrote: long time we travel on way to new land.… womens cry.… children cry and men cry…but they say nothing and just put heads down and keep on go towards west. many days pass and people die very much. The NPS believed it important to have a Native artist provide the image here, a painting by Cherokee artist Sam Watts-Scott. It shows families and their horse-drawn wagons crossing the landscape in winter, clearly suffering from the cold and other hazards of the journey.

The rest of the sign tells more of the story: “The United States government forced tens of thousands of American Indians to leave their ancestral lands in the southeast for new homes in Indian Territory.… ” The sign notes that many thousands of people died “during the ordeal,” and acknowledges that Indian removal “freed millions of acres of Indian lands for use by American settlers.”

The sign concludes by saying that the Five Civilized Tribes built new lives in Oklahoma and “stand now as successful sovereign nations, proudly preserving cultural traditions, while adapting to the challenges of the 21st century.” That upbeat note reminds visitors that the Cherokee Nation has not vanished but remains a thriving part of America today.

The Trail of Tears appears once again at the heart of the battlefield, at Elkhorn Tavern along the Telegraph Road. Another illustration by Watts-Scott dominates the sign here, showing a party of Cherokees moving through the snow with its horse and wagon. The text includes a diary extract that mentions the unnamed author’s group of travelers burying Rainfrog’s daughter on the morning of December 23, 1837. More text tells of a different group starting on a warm March day followed by “hail, rain wind & thunder.” The picture and text clearly convey the hardships of the Trail of Tears, which claimed the lives of at least one fourth of the Cherokee people.

By the time casual visitors to Pea Ridge leave the park, they will have learned two things about the Native Americans who once lived there: Cherokee cavalry fought with the Confederates at Pea Ridge in 1862, and the Trail of Tears passed this way. Those messages apparently resonate well with visitors, and the NPS receives many favorable comments about the exhibits.

Engaged visitors will have added a few intriguing details to those stories. They’ll learn something about Stand Watie. They may connect Elkhorn Tavern to events in both 1838 and 1862. They’ll learn a little bit about the life of contemporary Cherokees, and they may be inspired to visit the Cherokee Nation across the state line in Oklahoma.

If they’re paying very close attention, visitors may even notice that the NPS consulted with the Cherokee Nation while modernizing the exhibits. The supervisor at Pea Ridge meets with the Cherokee and other Indian nations a few times a year. This consultation makes Pea Ridge National Military Park better for all visitors.

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ppmickey's picture
Submitted by ppmickey on
I hope to one day follow the Trail of Tears and see the NPS exhibits. I also want to connect with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Tribe and the Oklahoma Tribe. I found out I was part Cherokee in late 2011 and found out in January 2012 that I am 1/8th Cherokee. My paternal birth great grandfather was a full blooded Cherokee born in North Carolina. My grandmother was 1/2 Cherokee, born in North Carolina. All my life I've been obsessed with the Cherokee. I was adopted into Chief Big Buffalo's Tribe when I was 4 years old. I did reports in history at school about the Trail of Tears. I went with my Methodist Youth Group to our mission site on the NC reservation in 1967 and felt so at home there and so accepted. I even got to eat dinner with a family in their home, which no one else in our group got to do. Later on I did my Master's thesis on teaching the Native American children and even got to teach some Navajo children for a year. I am proud of my Cherokee heritage and want to learn as much as I can. Thank you for the information about the Cherokee fighting in the Civil War.

rpahre's picture
Submitted by rpahre on
Thank you! I'm glad you found it interesting and informative.