Even after Confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrendered in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, one Confederate army refused to acknowledge defeat and for months stubbornly fought on.
It was led not by one of the wealthy white southerners who made up much of the Confederacy’s officer class — but by a Native American chief called Stand Watie.
So how did a leader of a people facing systematic persecution come to fight for a cause founded on racism and the right to own slaves?
The story illustrates how in the Civil War, the presence of a common enemy caused unexpected alliances to be formed, including an alliance Paul Chaat Smith, a curator at the National Museum of the Native American, has characterized as a “mangy, snarling dog standing between you and a crowd-pleasing narrative.”
Watie was himself a plantation holder and slave owner, and had settled in Oklahoma after playing a central role in events that resulted in the eviction of thousands of Native Americans from their land in what is now Georgia.
He was born in 1806 in Cherokee country near what is now Rome, Georgia, and was given the Cherokee name Degataga, meaning “stand firm.”
His father — also a slave owner – was baptized, giving his son the Christian name Isaac S Uwatie. Dropping the ‘U’ and combining it with his Cherokee name, his son took the name Stand Watie.
General Stand Watie, leader of a Native American army which fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
(National Archives Catalogue)
In 1835, Watie was one of the Cherokee leaders to sign the treaty of New Echota handing over Cherokee ancestral territory to the federal government. In exchange they were granted land to resettle the nation west, in Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma.
Some refused to leave and were forcibly removed by the government. It is believed that nearly 4,000 Cherokee died attempting to make the journey to Indian Territory after 1838 in what has become known as the Trail of Tears.
Four years after the treaty, the Cherokee turned against those who had signed away their land, assassinating three of them. Watie survived.
Cherokee chief John Ross, who opposed the treaty, became an adamant enemy of Watie.
John Ross, Cherokee Chief, Protested Treaty of New Echota, 1835, and Subsequent Forcible Removal of Cherokees to the West During Winter of 1838-39.
In 1861, Georgia ceded from the Union, becoming one of the original seven states that formed the slave-owning Confederacy.
That same year, Watie raised a force of Native Americans to fight for the Confederacy as North and South went to war.
It was the federal government, responsible for robbing Cherokee of their ancestral land, which Watie — in common with many of his people — saw as his main enemy, not the Confederacy.
And shockingly, many Cherokee were themselves slave owners, with some taking their slaves with them to Indian Territory after the forced resettlements west.
Smith has described the Cherokee as “deeply committed to slavery.”
He told the Smithsonian Magazine they “established their own racialized black codes, immediately reestablished slavery when they arrived in Indian territory, rebuilt their nations with slave labor, crushed slave rebellions, and enthusiastically sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War.”
Watie’s force earned a fearsome reputation, performing audacious raids behind enemies lines and attacking Native American settlements loyal to the Union.
The surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, April 9, 1865.
Even as the majority of Cherokee repudiated the alliance with the Confederacy in 1862, Watie remained loyal. So successful was he as a military commander that in 1865 Waite was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, one of only two native Americans to achieve the rank in the conflict.
In wasn’t until June 23, 1865 — 154 years ago — that Watie surrendered to Union forces in Doaksville, Oklahoma. In doing so, he became the last Confederate general to lay down his arms in the Civil War.
His force at the time comprised Creek, Seminole, Cherokee, and Osage Indians.
Watie led a delegation of his Cherokee faction in Washington DC in 1866 to negotiate a new treaty with US government. Their loyalty to the Confederacy meant the old treaties had been torn up.
The new treaty signed by Watie granted former slaves tribal citizenship.
After the war, Watie spent the rest of his life as a businessman and plantation owner, and collecting his people’s folk tales and legends. He died in 1871.
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