During the American Civil War, Indian Territory occupied most of what is now the U.S. state of Oklahoma. It served as an unorganized region set aside for Native American tribes of the Southeastern United States following the Indian Removal Act. It was occupied by captured Native Americans who had been removed from their lands. The area was the scene of numerous skirmishes and seven officially recognized battles involving Native American units allied with the Confederate States of America, Native Americans loyal to the United States government, and Union and Confederate troops.
A total of 7,860 Native Americans participated in the Confederate Army, as both officers and enlisted men; they were mostly from the Five Civilized Tribes: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole nations. The Union organized several regiments of Indian Home Guard to serve in the Indian Territory and sometimes adjacent areas of Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas.
Native American alliances
Before the outbreak of war, the United States government relocated all soldiers in the Indian Territory to other key areas, leaving the territory unprotected from Texas and Arkansas, which had already joined the Confederacy. The Confederacy took an interest in the territory, seeking a possible source of food in the event of a Union blockade, a connection to western territories, and a buffer between Texas and the Union-held Kansas. At the onset of war, Confederate forces took possession of the U.S. army forts in the area. In June and July 1861, Confederate officers negotiated with Native American tribes for combat support. After refusing to allow Creek lands to be annexed by the Confederacy, the Creek Principal Chief Opothleyahola led the Creek supporters of the Union to Kansas, having to fight along the way. Leaders from each of the Five Civilized Tribes, acting without the consensus of their councils, agreed to be annexed by the Confederacy in exchange for certain rights, including protection and recognition of current tribal lands.
After reaching Kansas and Missouri, Opothleyahola and Native Americans loyal to the Union formed three volunteer regiments known as the Indian Home Guard. It fought in the Indian Territory and Arkansas.
Logistics in Indian Territory
After abandoning its Indian Territory forts early in the Civil War, the Union army was unprepared for the logistical challenges of trying to regain control of the territory from the Confederate government. The area was largely undeveloped, railroads did not exist in this area and the Union did not have enough troops to control the few roads. Pro-Union Indians had abandoned their own farms because of raids by pro-Confederacy Indians and fled to Kansas or Missouri, seeking protection by Union army forces there. It was not feasible to sustain a large military operation by living off the land. This was demonstrated in 1862, when General William Weer led 5,000 men in the “Indian Expedition” into Indian Territory from Baxter Springs, Kansas. Weer’s troops captured a Confederate supply train at the Battle of Locust Grove. However, no Union supplies arrived after that, and the expedition ran short of food, ammunition and other essentials. Weer’s men mutinied, arresting Weer and putting Colonel Frederick Salomon in command.
The first battle in the territory occurred on November 19, 1861. Opothleyahola rallied Indians to the Union cause at Deep Fork. A total of 7,000 men, women, and children resided in his camp. A force of 1,400 Confederate soldiers under Colonel Douglas H. Cooper initiated the Battle of Round Mountain, but were repulsed after several waves, leading to a Southern loss. Opothleyahola moved his camp to a new location at Chustenalah. On December 26, 1861, Confederate forces again attacked, this time driving Opothleyahola and his people to Kansas during a snowstorm.
Indian Expedition of 1862
In 1862, Union General James G. Blunt ordered Colonel William Weer to lead an expedition into the Indian Territory. The expedition included five white regiments, two Indian regiments and two artillery battalions. The main objective of the expedition was to escort the Indian refugees who had fled to Kansas back to their homes in Indian Territory. A secondary objective was to hold the territory for the Union. Weer’s expedition met with early success at the Battle of Locust Grove in Indian Territory. The expedition camped at Locust Grove for two weeks, waiting for a Union supply train. One detachment from the main force moved on to Fort Gibson, causing the Confederates stationed there to withdraw. However, the Union supply train failed to arrive and supplies of food, forage and ammunition ran low. Weer dithered about what to do next and found solace in drinking heavily. A mutiny within the local Union force stopped the expedition before making any further progress into Indian Territory. The expedition encouraged the organization of three Indian Home Guard regiments in support of the Union.
The Union victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas during March 1862 limited the Confederate government’s ability to protect its Indian allies. Stand Watie and other officers had to fight on without support. The Union army recaptured its forts in the territory, but abandoned them when faced with ongoing raids by Stand Watie. Later the Union recaptured them; Stand Watie was the last Confederate commander in the field to surrender.
Following the Battle of Honey Springs in 1863, a decisive Union victory that secured Indian Territory, guerrilla warfare was the primary means of combat. Honey Springs Depot, a site of frequent skirmishes, was chosen by Union General James G. Blunt as the place to engage the largest Confederate forces in Indian Territory. Anticipating that Confederate General Douglas H. Cooper would attempt to join with General William Cabell, who was moving to attack Fort Gibson, Blunt approached Honey Springs on July 17, 1863 with a force of 3,000 men, including Native Americans and African-American former slaves. On the morning of July 17, he engaged Cooper, who commanded a force of 3,000–6,000 men composed primarily of Native Americans. Cooper’s troops became unorganized and retreated when wet gunpowder caused misfires and rain hampered their movements. The battle was the largest in Indian Territory.
Perryville, a town half way between Boggy Depot and Scullyville on the Texas Road, had become a major supply depot for the Confederate army. After the Battle of Honey Springs, General Douglas H. Cooper retreated to Perryville where his troops could be resupplied. General Blunt believed his troops could capture the depot and destroy Cooper’s forces there. He attacked under cover of darkness and exchanged artillery fire. The Confederates retreated again, leaving their supplies behind. Blunt’s force captured whatever supplies they could use, then burned the town.
Two American Civil War military engagements were fought at the Cabin Creek Battlefield in the Cherokee Nation within Indian Territory. The location was where the Texas Road crossed Cabin Creek, near the present-day town of Big Cabin, Oklahoma. Both the First and Second Battles of Cabin Creek were launched by the Confederate Army to disrupt Union Army supply trains bound from Fort Scott to Fort Gibson. The Union escort was led by Colonel James M. Williams. Williams was alerted to the attack and, despite the waters of the creek being swelled by rain, made a successful attack upon the entrenched Confederate position and forced them to flee. The battle was the first in which African American troops fought side-by-side with their white comrades.
Battle of Perryville
After winning the Battle of Honey Springs, Blunt returned to Fort Gibson, where he learned that the Confederates had regrouped at the town of Perryville, where the Confederates had established a major supply depot. Blunt reassembled a force and led them to Perryville. Arriving there on August 23, 1863, he found that the Confederate commanders, Cooper and Watie, had already left for Boggy Depot. Only a small rear guard, commanded by Brigadier General William Steele, remained at Perryville. The Union forces quickly scattered the Confederates. Blunt secured all supplies he could use and burned the rest, along with the town. Instead of following the retreating Confederates southwest toward Boggy Depot, Blunt proceeded to attack Fort Smith, which he captured on September 1, 1863.
Second Battle of Cabin Creek
The Second Battle of Cabin Creek was part of a plan conceived by Confederate Brigadier General Stand Watie (who had been promoted from colonel after the First Battle of Cabin Creek). The plan was to have a Confederate force attack central Kansas from Indian Territory, raiding Union Army facilities and encouraging Indian tribes in Western Kansas to join in an attack on the eastern part of the state. Watie presented the plan to his superior, General Samuel B. Maxey on February 5, 1864. Maxey approved the plan on the condition that the attack would start by October 1, to coincide with an attack on Missouri already planned by General Sterling Price.
Battle of Middle Boggy Depot
On February 13, 1864, a force of about 350 Union troops, supported by two howitzers, attacked a Confederate outpost in what is now Oklahoma. The outpost was guarded by about 90 poorly-armed group of Confederate soldiers. The outpost was located where the Dragoon Road crossed the Middle Boggy River. The Confederates resisted, holding off the Union troops for about half an hour, then fled on foot toward Fort Washita. The Union Army claimed victory because 49 Confederates were killed, while the Union forces suffered no deaths. The encounter had no strategic impact on the outcome of the Civil War. This was the last significant skirmish of the war in Indian Territory. It was a defeat for the Confederates, but the mistreatment of civilians and killings of wounded soldiers by the Union troops strengthened the resolve of Confederates and their sympathizers to continue the fight.
From 1864 until the early summer of 1865, hostilities in Indian Territory consisted mainly of guerilla type attacks. Confederate Colonel William Quantrill and his gang committed a number of raids throughout the lands of the Five Civilized Tribes. Armed gangs known as “free raiders” mostly stole horses and cattle, while burning the communities of both Confederate and Indian supporters. A third type of marauder was the Confederate Army unit led by General Stand Watie, which attacked only objectives having military value. They destroyed only houses and barns used by Union troops as headquarters, quartering troops or storing supplies. Watie also targeted military supply trains because that not only deprived the Union troops of food, forage and ammunition, but gave significant amounts of other booty that he could distribute to his men. One of Watie’s most notable successes during this time was the Ambush of the steamboat J. R. Williams during September 1864. Watie surrendered, along with his troops, at Doaksville on June 23, 1865.
At Fort Towson in Choctaw lands, General Stand Watie officially became the last Confederate general to surrender on June 25, 1865. Watie went to Washington D.C. that year for negotiations on behalf of his tribe; as the principal chief of the pro-Confederacy group elected in 1862, he was seeking recognition of a Southern Cherokee Nation. He did not return home until May 1866. The US government negotiated only with the Cherokee who had supported the Union; it named John Ross as the rightful principal chief (he had gone into exile in 1862 when the majority supported the Confederacy).
As part of the peace treaty (or Reconstruction Treaties), US officials forced land concessions upon the tribes; it also required the Cherokee and other tribes to emancipate their slaves and give them full rights as members of their respective tribes, including rights to annuities and land allocations. The Southern Cherokee had wanted the US government to pay to relocate the Freedmen from the tribe. Later the issue of citizenship caused contention when American Indian lands were allotted to households under the Dawes Commission. In the early twentieth century, the Cherokee Nation voted to exclude Cherokee Freedmen from the tribe, unless they also had direct descent from a Cherokee (not just a Cherokee Freedman) listed on the Dawes Rolls (1902–1906).