The Last General to Stand Down
The image that many have of the end of the Civil War is the surrender of General Lee’s army at Appomattox in April 1865. It is a curious way to think of it because the War had been effectively over long before that battle. There South could not win even if Lee had managed to escape Grant at that time. One cannot say, then, that this was the moment the situation became irreversible. Nor is it the actual, final surrender of the War. More than two months would pass before, on June 23, Stand Watie became the last Confederate to stand down his army.
Watie was part of the Cherokee nation, who were divided over the American Civil War. Chief John Ross maintained that the Union had not been divided when the South seceded, which is as much as supporting the North. Ross had signed an alliance with the Confederacy in 1861 to maintain unity between his own people. There was, after all, a great reminder of what disunity could lead to happening right next door. In under a year, however, Ross and several on the National Council realised that this strategy was disastrous. In the summer of 1862, Ross removed the tribal records to Union-held Kansas. He then proceeded to Washington to meet with President Lincoln. Following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, pro-Union Cherokee passed a resolution similarly emancipating all slaves within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation.
Others, though, were less convinced. Some Cherokee held African Americans as slaves and were as convinced by arguments about personal property as white Southerners. Others had no love for the Federal Government that was threatening to open Indian territory in what is now the State of Oklahoma to White settlers. Lincoln and Seward had promised as much in 1860, at the Republican Party Convention. There were two reasons of self-interest for some in the Cherokee nation to support the Confederacy over the Union, then.
In the end, around 1 in 7 of the Cherokee nation would give military service to the Confederacy. The most famous of them was Watie, who was himself a slaveholder. Perhaps predictably, he retained his Southern allegiance. The disasters of their early strategy led to a power vacuum, during which pro-Confederates elected Stand Watie principal chief. Supporters of Ross and those more sympathetic to the Union cause (or who thought Northern victory inevitable) refused to recognise this election. The Civil War was replicated within the Cherokee nation, with the North and South each having a faction. Watie, who had already formed units for the Confederate military, would be not only the Chief of the pro-Southern wing but, in 1864, he also became the only Native American to hold the rank of General in the Confederate Army.
During the Civil War Watie’s Cherokee troops took part both in pitched battle and guerrilla tactics – both of which were common tactics in the Western theatre more generally.
His men launched raids into northern-held Indian Territory from South of the Canadian River, as well as into Kansas and Missouri. In the process, they made sure thousands of Union troops were prevented from joining up with bigger armies for the push to end the War. Watie is probably most famous for the capture of a Federal steamboat, the J. R. Williams, and the acquisition of a Union wagon train at the Second Battle of Cabin Creek. Both of these events occurred in 1864. His units should perhaps be as famous for war crimes committed against Cherokee who sided with the Union, and against African American troops and civilians, such as hay cutters at Wagoner, OK.
Of course, by 1864 the War was essentially unwinnable. So when Watie was given command of the Indian Division of Indian Territory in February 1865, unsurprisingly, they were unable to launch any offensive operations of any note. Most of his troops were released throughout the spring once news of Lee’s surrender reached them from Virginia. In May, members of the Cherokee nation met with other Native Americans at the Camp Napoleon Council. There, it was decided that the Confederacy could no longer honour the obligations they had made. There was a need for a united, pro-Union front amongst the tribes. On June 23, 1865, Stand Watie became the last Confederate General to officially surrender. At Doaksville in the Choctaw Nation, some four miles North of the border with Texas, Watie signed a cease-fire agreement with Union representatives. As a result, on this day the First Indian Brigade of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi would lay down their arms.
After the War, Watie went into exile in the Choctaw Nation. He died on September 9, 1871.