An account of Indians in the U.S. Civil War has been issued in paperback—and with it comes a now-familiar sense of letdown. That’s because such books invariably leave out Native voices, relying on academic research and accounts. Clarissa Confer’s The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War, first published in hardcover by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2008, is no exception.
American Indian participation in the Civil War tends to be seen as an anomaly. Yet scholars and tribal historians should not be surprised that Indians took part, with men from many nations fighting on both sides. Indigenous communities of the South found themselves caught between the two American factions, while tribes that had been removed from the South and the Plains and sent to Indian Territory were drawn into the very heart of the critical debates dividing the states: disputes over Free Soil, Bleeding Kansas, slavery and abolition, sectionalism and even secession.
A handful of scholars are recognized as authorities on this subject. Most notable was Annie Heloise Abel, who laid the foundation with her tripartite study The Slave-Holding Indians, published between 1915 and 1925 by Torch Press. Her three volumes—The American Indian as Slaveholder and Secessionist; American Indians as Participants in the Civil War; and American Indians Under Reconstruction—form the basis of all such research.
Later scholars expanded upon Abel’s work. These include Gary Moulton (John Ross, Cherokee Chief, University of Georgia Press, 1978) and Kenny Franks (Stand Watie and the Agony of the Cherokee Nation, Memphis State University Press, 1979), who discussed the rivalries between these opposing elite Cherokee leaders. In 1989, Craig Gaines explained how the Confederate Cherokees came together in The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew’s Regiment of Mounted Rifles (Louisiana State University Press). William McLoughlin’s After the Trail of Tears: The Cherokees’ Struggle for Sovereignty 1839–1880 (University of North Carolina Press, 1993) focused on objectives that tribes had formed in the wake of removal, only to be interrupted by the war.
These studies were necessary for understanding what drove the Cherokees headlong into the war. But historians have since realized the need to move past these ideas for a more nuanced view of Cherokee motivations and actions, and how they affect the nation today. Authors such as Thom Hatch (The Blue, the Gray and the Red: Indian Campaigns of the Civil War, Stackpole Books, 2003) and Confer attempted to do just that. Hatch argued that the U.S. Indian campaigns during Reconstruction resulted from Civil War objectives. Confer held in part that Cherokee participation had more to do with the tribe’s struggle for self-determination and preservation than with the war itself.
Though Confer’s theory is compelling, her book falls short. By relying too heavily on the early investigations, she forfeits her chance to tell a fresh, engaging story, instead rehashing the narrative we’ve heard for decades.
She makes dubious assertions that suggest an unfamiliarity with early Cherokee history. For instance, she claims that Cherokee troops were the least experienced because they were ignorant of “conventional” military training. But Cherokee warriors served with both the British and Americans in the Revolutionary War, under Andrew Jackson in the Red Stick War, and with and against the British many times. Even if they hadn’t been trained before taking up arms, they were no greener than any other recruits.
Confer admits to basing many conclusions on the “motivations, rationales and realities” of the Cherokees’ male tribal elite. The nation, however, is a society that prides itself on individuality, and the people themselves determine its trajectory.
Further, Confer devotes much space to the war experiences of Sarah Watie, Stand Watie’s wife, a mixed-blood woman. While Confer has no trouble identifying what this elite woman had in common with Confederate women, she claims we cannot trace the history of “traditional” Cherokee women because they were illiterate and “left no records.” However, it is well known that members of even the poorest, most traditional families could read and write syllabary. Thousands of families possess letters, journals, ledgers and other material written in Tsalagi. There are also oral histories in such repositories as the Indian Pioneer Papers and the Doris Duke Oral History Collection.