- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

For a nonwhite to become an officer in either the Union or the Confederate army was a singular achievement, and for one to be made a general was quite remarkable. Yet a man who was three-quarters Cherokee did just that, and his successful career ensured that he is still remembered.

When in 1995 the U.S. Postal Service issued a set of Civil War commemorative stamps, his portrait was included. His tribal name was Degataga (although on the stamp this is given as Degadoga), but he is far better known as Stand Watie.

He was born on Dec. 12, 1806, in the Oothcaloga Valley of Georgia. His Indian name translates as “He Stands.” His father was known as David Watie. The son attended a Moravian mission school in Spring Place, Ga., south of Chattanooga, Tenn., but 1835 found Stand Watie settled in Honey Creek in what is now Oklahoma. He became a prosperous planter and slave owner, and therefore it is hardly surprising that he was hostile to the aims of the abolitionists.

He and his family became deeply involved in the bitter and all too frequently murderous disputes that divided the Cherokees, and on one occasion, Stand Watie was lucky to escape with his life. Two of his brothers and a cousin were killed. A member of the tribal council until 1861, he was appointed a chief of the so-called Confederate Cherokees in 1862. Fervently in favor of secession, he joined the Knights of the Golden Circle, a Southern secret society.

It was inevitable that when war began, Stand Watie should wish to play an active part. He formed the Cherokee Mounted Rifles, and on July 12, 1861, he became their colonel. He first made a name for himself on Aug. 10, 1861, when he led his men at Oak Hill — now usually referred to as Bloody Hill — during the fiercely contested Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Missouri.

A victory for the Confederates but a costly struggle for both sides in men’s lives, it resulted in the death of Union Gen. Nathaniel Lyon. Among the privates clad in Confederate gray were two young men who later would gain lasting notoriety as legendary outlaws, the brothers Frank and Jesse James.

Creek Indians supporting the Union fled from Indian Territory after the Battle of Chustenahlah on Dec. 26, 1861. Hotly pursued by Stand Watie, they were driven into Kansas, where they remained. Watie was under the overall command of Gen. Earl Van Dorn during the Battle of Pea Ridge, which centered around Elkhorn Tavern on March 8, 1862. As on many other occasions, Watie’s troops acquitted themselves well. Nevertheless, this was a decisive defeat for the Confederacy, and as a result, control of Missouri was lost to the South.

Watie’s men were actively involved in fighting throughout the grim war years. At times, they were to be found in major confrontations, but more frequently, they fought a series of smaller battles. Those include Webber’s Falls and Fort Gibson, both in 1863 in what is now Oklahoma.

Possessing no formal military training, Watie seems to have made his mark principally as a guerrilla fighter, carrying out successful ambushes, attacking trains and wreaking havoc behind Federal supply lines. Such activities seriously disrupted Union operations. His skills as a raider did not go unrewarded, and in May 1864, he was given command of the 1st Indian Brigade and promoted to brigadier general.

Among his victories following his promotion were the capture of the J.R. Williams, a Federal steam vessel, and the seizure of a massive amount of supplies, of great value to the hard-pressed Southern forces, when he struck at a wagon train while the Battle of Cabin Creek in Indian Territory was raging. This battle, which took place on Sept. 19, 1864, was the second to be fought at that location.

Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, signaled the end of Southern hopes, and not long afterward, Jefferson and Varina Davis fled and were captured.

Some Southern generals, notably Nathan Bedford Forrest and Joseph E. Johnston, held out for a time before accepting the futility of further defiance. The very last to sheath his sword — on June 23, 1865 — was Stand Watie.

Watie went back to Honey Creek, but in the uneasy years of Reconstruction, his business ventures did not prosper. He is known to have been a delegate during the negotiations that resulted in the Cherokee Reconstruction Treaty of 1866, possibly his last public act.

He had been a doughty fighter and a ruthless one, permitting his men to torture prisoners, but he had been unswerving in his support for the Confederate cause. He died in Delaware County in northeastern Oklahoma on Sept. 9, 1871, having been one of the most colorful characters of the war years as well as an outstanding member of his ethnic group.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.


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