Reading most books on the Civil War, you’d be hard pressed to find any information on battles that took place west of the Mississippi River. Hell, you probably wouldn’t find anything about battles in Texas – even though that state was a member of the Confederacy. Occasionally, there’s a mention of Pea Ridge, in Arkansas, but, generally, Civil War histories focus on the war in the east. The assumption is that Kansas, Arkansas, and even Texas took sides but didn’t see much action. Western states and territories, then, certainly didn’t participate. Of course, that conception is incorrect. Places as far away as Alaska saw skirmishes. The national conflagration was truly national.
Intrinsic to this narrow view of the War of Northern Aggression is a failure (yet again) to include the Indian nations in American history. Once more, this is white men’s history (and to a lesser degree that of black men). At least when we write about colonial battles or the Revolution, we make some effort to include Native Americans. We acknowledge their participation in these and recognize that alliances between the various tribes and the colonists and European powers were part and parcel of these disputes. That is not the case with the Great Rebellion. Reading most of the popular historiography on this topic, you’d think that the nations did not take sides. Historians and popular authors do not ignore European countries in this way. In most accounts, you’d read about attempted alliances with Great Britain or France. The same is not true for the Seminole or Cherokee states.
The Indian nations did, in fact, take sides in the Lost Cause. If you think about it, that makes sense. The tribes that were forcibly relocated by the federal government to reservations or foreign territories like Oklahoma were certainly bitter and had good cause to fight the Union. When the Confederacy promised them their new lands in perpetuity and forswore expansion, it was an appealing offer. The Creeks, Cherokees, and other nations had proof that the federal government would not honor its promises to them. The Confederacy offered an attractive alternative. Yet, some Native Americans saw benefits to allying with the North. They felt bound by their previous commitments (despite the fact that the U.S. did not abide by these) or hostile to southerners who were their former hated neighbors, and some saw this as an opportunity to re-negotiate terms with the federal government. Though some initially sought neutrality (the Cherokee leadership advocated not getting involved in this “white man’s war”), the Indians, too, ultimately took differing sides, and for some of the tribes, the War Between the States became a civil war for them as well. They too fought brother against brother – Harjo versus Harjo; a conglomeration of Creeks, Shawnees, Delawares, and Comanches under Opothle Yahola versus a similar confederacy under Chilly McIntosh.
Of course, in the end, it was worse for the Indians – loyal and not – who had suffered starvation, destruction, injury (including mass amputations), and even death, than for many white southerners who rebelled, when the federal government used its victorious position to further decimate the nations. While Reconstruction was beginning back east, the Seminoles were still hammering out a concession treaty in February 1866, and the “Treaty of cession and indemnity” between the Creeks and the U.S. wasn’t finished until August of that year, just in time for twenty more years of “Indian Wars” and white encroachment. As punishment, of course, all of the Indian nations ceded lands to the U.S. – often for inequitable financial considerations (in addition to having to accept emancipation and naturalization of their slaves). Unfavorable terms were especially bitter for Indians who fought for the Union. All were lumped together, however, when Commissioner of Indian Affairs D.N. Cooley announced at the negotiations that the tribes had “forfeited” their lands when some rebelled. Not without compassion, he then invited the “President’s errant children” to justify their “great crime” in a bid for leniency. Funny, we don’t even remember their trespass today, but the nations still live with the negative effects of treaties resolving their participation in this white man’s war. So, whose is the great crime?