Confederate Cherokees Starving as Civil War Ends
When Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, the Civil War was essentially over. There were still remnants of Confederate armies scattered throughout the South, but they followed Lee’s example and surrendered in April and May. The last Confederate army to give up the fight was a force of Cherokees led by General and Chief Stand Watie, who surrendered at Fort Towson in the Indian Territory on June 23, 1865. With the war over, Chief Watie and his people faced a dangerous new enemy: starvation. With no other recourse, the chief turned to the residents of northern Texas, whom his warriors had served so well during the war.
Chief Watie began his Confederate military career as a colonel in the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles in October 1861, and his men were involved in the pivotal Battle of Pea Ridge in northern Arkansas on March 7-8, 1862. Watie was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, the only Indian general in the Confederate Army (the North also had one Indian general, Ely S. Parker).
Watie and his troops fought 18 battles and major skirmishes during the Civil War, playing an active role in protecting northern Texas and Indian Territory. However, after all other Confederate armies had surrendered the chief realized there was no reason to keep on fighting, and he made the difficult decision to surrender. He had an even more difficult fight on his hands: feeding his starving people.
With the war over no help would be forthcoming from the now-defunct Confederate government. Since the Cherokees had waged war against the North, the chief felt he could not count on the federal government for support. In desperation, he took his case to the people of northern Texas, publishing a letter pleading for them to come to the aid of his people. Watie wrote his letter three weeks before formally surrendering.
Chief Watie’s letter to the people of northern Texas was printed by the Standard (Clarksville, Texas) on the front page of its July 1, 1865, issue:
To the Citizens of Texas
Should the war be now finally closed, it may justly gratify you that its fury was exhausted before your beautiful and fertile country was blasted by its actual presence. Whatever other causes of disquiet may operate to disturb you, the recollection of dear homes and blooming fields turned to blackened ruins and desolate wastes, yourselves outcast and destitute, cannot be numbered among them.
While I rejoice that you have hitherto been exempted from the extreme distress and desolation which have overtaken other portions of our country, it is my duty, and I discharge it with confidence, to call your generous attention to the condition of your friends and allies, the Indian soldiers, and refugees on your border.
It is not for me to say whether we have done you much or little service. One fact is certain which I may state without reproach. During the whole period of the war my people have stood side by side with your own gallant sons between your homes and the enemy on the north. If we have done you service let me pray you to remember it, for while I appeal to you with confidence it is with such pain of mind as you can well understand, that I am compelled to tell you that my people are famishing for want of bread…I have determined frankly to state our condition and to ask your aid; at the same time should means be hereafter furnished the [Cherokee] Nation its faith is pledged to make use of it to pay fairly for all the grain received from generous individuals of your State to supply our present most urgent necessity.
Principal Chief, Cherokee Nation.
Executive Department, Nail’s Mill, June 2d, ’65.
In that same issue, the Standard printed this article supporting the cause of Chief Watie and his people:
Bread for the Indian Brethren
We have adverted heretofore to the letter of Gen. Stand Watie, asking Bread for the Cherokees. This week we publish it, and ask our readers to give it attention, and practical attention—that is to say, come in Town, or send in, and indicate how much old Wheat or Corn they have ready to give to the men who have prevented Northern Texas from being the scene of desolation that North Arkansas or Southern Louisiana are. Give liberally! First, because in equity you owe it; secondly, because humanity calls for it; thirdly, because the People of Lamar and Fannin have done the same before you; and fourthly, because you have no sale for it, and can without loss or inconvenience spare it. The County is full of grain. There is much old wheat and corn; but those who have not the old wheat or corn, can make haste to get out some of the new wheat, and can indicate on the subscription paper what they will give in new wheat. Four wagons were here on Monday last, and were loaded, and sent off without delay. Let other persons be ready to fill those which may follow, and probably be here by next Monday.
News of the Cherokees’ plight spread. This notice was printed by the Daily Constitutional Union (Washington, D.C.) on July 11, 1865:
Latest by Telegraph
From New Orleans
Destitution amongst the Cherokee Indians
Cairo, July 11.—The New Orleans papers of the 4th instant contain the following: The late rebel portion of the Cherokee Indians are in great distress and near starvation. Their Chief Stand Watie, who held a commission in the rebel army of Brigadier General, has issued an appeal to the people of Texas for assistance.
This northern paper also reported the plight of the Cherokees—but attributed the cause to plundering by other Confederate troops. This article was printed by the North American and United States Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on the front page of its July 18, 1865, issue;
The Treaty with the Indians
The success of the commissioners sent out from Shreveport, La., by General Herron, to treat with the Indians, has already been announced. Everywhere the commissioners went they were well received by the Indians …The masses of the Indians all through the region traversed by General Herron’s commissioners appeared to be overjoyed at the prospects of peace, and all agreed to commit no more acts of hostility against the government, and to cease their interference with the overland mail and western emigration. The Indian country has been dreadfully impoverished and ravaged by the war. The spoliations were committed by the rebel troops, with whom the Indians were in alliance. Colonel Pitchlynn [Choctaw chief—ed.], in alluding to this fact, exclaimed, “God save me from my friends!”
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