Few people endured more hardship than those living in the Indian Territory during the Civil War.
Dr. Brad Agnew, contributing to the book "The Civil War and Reconstruction in Indian Territory," wrote a chapter titled "Our Doom as a Nation Is Sealed: The Five Nations in the Civil War."
Agnew, a local historian and retired professor of history at Northeastern State University, wrote that the Confederate Congress authorized President Jefferson Davis to negotiate alliances with the tribal nations in the Indian Territory as soon as Abraham Lincoln assumed the U.S. presidency. The state governments of Arkansas and Texas were already browbeating tribes, trying to get them to ally with the South. By May 1861, the territory was part of a Confederate military district, officially annexed, and its men were being recruited for service.
"The Union reacted to the situation in Indian Territory with less urgency," Agnew wrote. "Faced with an imminent threat to Washington, Lincoln had little time to ponder the fate of Native Americans. It was May before William G. Coffin of Indiana was appointed to head the Southern Superintendency, which administered Indian Territory. Finding suitable candidates to serve as agents for the Five Nations was not completed until 1862."
The Cherokee Nation and other tribes had little reason to put their faith in the Union during the early months of the conflict. Fort Arbuckle, Fort Washita and Fort Cobb were all abandoned when federal troops withdrew to Kansas. Annuity payments were stopped.
Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross wanted neutrality for the tribe, but his rival, Stand Watie, was espousing alliance with the South and recruiting troops. A Confederate battle victory at Wilson's Creek in Missouri left Ross with little option but to accept association with the rebellion.
"The Confederate-Indian treaties all guaranteed that the nations would govern themselves as long as they chose, promised to protect Indian Territory and pay annuity obligations, recognized slavery, gave all nations representation in the Confederate Congress, and authorized the Indians to raise military forces to defend their nations," Agnew wrote.
Through the first few months of the war, the Confederate units could move around Indian Territory unmolested. But in December 1861, Lincoln announced a renewed effort to bring the tribes back into federal orbit. Native troops were ordered into the fray in the Confederate defeat in March 1862 at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas, busting the South's promise that American Indian troops would only be deployed in Native lands.
When Union troops entered the territory a few months later, Ross made certain the units knew of his wish to "surrender." He turned himself over to federal troops in Park Hill, and later told members of the Lincoln administration that allying with the South was done in desperation.
"By Sept. 12, 1862, the Cherokee leader had made his way to Washington, where he met with the president, who promised a 'careful investigation' of Ross's charge that the federal government had failed to protect the Cherokee," Agnew wrote. "If that investigation was conducted, Lincoln never announced its results, lending credence to the charge of Kansas political leaders that the Five Nations had betrayed the Union."
Ross pleaded with Lincoln to protect the Cherokee Nation, and the president said he would take steps to keep out Confederate troops. But in the absence of Ross, the Nation was taken back by the South and Watie was elected principal chief. Lincoln never did articulate a belief that Ross and other tribes sided with the South out of self-preservation.
As the Union war effort gained momentum in late 1862, the South's hold on Indian Territory began to slip. In particular, the Cherokee Nation was becoming unmanageable for the Confederacy, and in February 1863, Cherokees loyal to Ross fulfilled his promise to Lincoln by gathering to outlaw slavery, end the alliance with the South, and condemn the Watie administration.
The federal reoccupation of Fort Gibson and northern victory at Honey Springs did not bring peace to the Cherokee Nation. Even Union regulars could be undisciplined, especially when marching through a territory thought to be bristling with rebel sympathizers. They often looted whatever they wished from the locals. Agnew tells of an account from Aminda Hanley, daughter of a Confederate soldier, of "Pin Indians," loyal to the North, as "a well-organized band of ruthless brigands and plunderers imposing their outrageous depredations upon any and all who happened to be assailable."
Confederate units were no more civil.
"For the last two years of the war, Confederate operations in Indian Territory were usually restricted to guerrilla tactics or periodic thrusts into Union territory," Agnew wrote. "Many partisan leaders were no better than thieves and murderers. For example, William Quantrill, who had a commission in the Confederate army, was more interested in looting than Southern independence. When forced out of Missouri, he moved into Indian Territory, where he preyed on the families of Rebel and Union soldiers indiscriminately. Quantrill was the most notorious guerrilla, but renegades, outcasts, and deserters from both sides terrorized residents of the territory."
Cherokee refugees who tried to return home after the Union reoccupation often found themselves encamped in squalor around Fort Gibson; federal troops could not protect residents from rebel incursion. Rations were often intercepted by Confederate troops or lost to Union inefficiency or corruption.
The last major engagements in the territory were victories engineered by Watie, but did not affect northern occupation. Watie's troops captured the J.R. Williams steamboat on the Arkansas River, which was ferrying $120,000 worth of supplies. His First Indian Brigade also captured a huge Union wagon train carrying more than $1.5 million in supplies during the Second Battle of Honey Creek in September 1864.
When hostilities ended in 1865, the Cherokees and other Indian tribes found themselves still riven by animosities - at a time when they needed to negotiate with the government against designs on their lands. Some factions believed the Native Americans should pay for their "disloyalty" with land.
"The quest for revenge in several nations prevented some refugees from returning to their homes and prolonged conditions that had impoverished those who had not fled," Agnew wrote. "Indians who had remained loyal to the Union, as well as those who swore allegiance to the South, faced several more years of privation."
Agnew wrote further: "Perhaps the most debilitating condition facing the Indians as they sought to re-establish themselves and their governments was the belief that their days as an independent people were numbered. In his annual report for 1870, the Cherokee agent reported, 'If asked why their high schools were not reestablished, … the reply inevitably comes: 'We expect to have our lands taken away; and what's the use of all that, when our doom as a nation is sealed?''"