The only American Indian to achieve the rank of general on either side during the American Civil War, Stand Watie (aka Degadoga) was also the last Confederate general to lay down his sword.
Stand Watie was born on December 12, 1806, in Oothcaloga, Cherokee Nation (modern-day Gordon County, Georgia). Wattie’s father, David Uwatie, was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, who was a prosperous planter and slaveholder. Watie’s mother, Susanna Reese, was the offspring of a Cherokee mother and a father of European heritage.
Watie’s birth name was Degadoga, meaning, in Cherokee, “he stands.” When the Moravian Church baptized Watie’s father as an adult, he gave Degadoga the new name of Isaac S. Watie. The son later combined the two names and adopted the name Stand Watie.
Accounts of Watie’s childhood are sketchy, but historians know that he attended the Moravian Mission School in Spring Place, Cherokee Nation. As a young man, Watie was a writer for the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, which probably led to his gradual involvement in tribal politics. By the 1830s, Watie, along with his older brother, Buck (aka Elias Boudinot), his uncle, Ridge (aka Major Ridge), and his cousin, John Ridge, made up a powerful caucus in Cherokee politics known as the Ridge-Watie-Boudinot faction.
Worcester v. Georgia
Life for Watie’s people changed dramatically in 1829 when Caucasian prospectors swarmed into northern Georgia after the discovery of gold on Cherokee lands. As the influx of miners increased and boomtowns popped up, whites began contriving ways to remove the Cherokees from their homeland. The State of Georgia enacted repressive legislation that abolished the sovereign government of the Cherokee nation and established a process for confiscating Cherokee lands for distribution to Caucasians.
When the Cherokee Nation challenged the constitutionality of Georgia’s laws, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the rights of the Cherokees in the case of Worcester v. Georgia in 1832. Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that the Indian nations were “distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights.” The Cherokee victory proved hollow, however, when President Andrew Jackson refused to uphold the court’s decision, infamously expressing words to the effect that “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”
Treaty of Echota – Division within the Cherokee Nation
Instead of supporting the Cherokees’ rights, the Jackson administration schemed to use federal authority to pressure the natives to relinquish their lands and to move west of the Mississippi River in return for money and free land.
The government’s offer created a sharp division within the Cherokee Nation. Most of the Cherokees opposed removal, but the Ridge-Watie-Boudinot faction supported the government’s offer. Representing only a minority of the Cherokees in Georgia, a group of twenty Cherokees, led by members of the Ridge-Watie-Boudinot faction, signed the Treaty of New Echota on December 29, 1835. Watie added his signature on March 1, 1836. Despite protests from the Cherokee National Council and Principal Chief John Ross, the United States Senate ratified the treaty by a single vote on May 18, 1836.
Terms of the treaty required that the Cherokee nation cede all of its lands east of the Mississippi River in return for five million dollars and a tract of land in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) equal in size to the land ceded. In addition, the treaty obligated nearly all Cherokee Indians living in the southeast “to remove west within two years” of ratification.
Soon after ratification, Watie took his slaves to Indian Territory, where he claimed a prized plot of land and established a successful plantation. By 1838, only 2,000 of the 16,000 Cherokees impacted by the Treaty of New Echota had moved to Indian Territory as mandated. Consequently, U.S. President Martin Van Buren ordered a force of 7,000 U.S. soldiers, commanded by General Winfield Scott, to round up the resisters and to force them to move.
Required to march over 1,000 miles without adequate food or clothing during the winter, many of the emigrants contracted deadly diseases or starved to death along the journey, later known as the Trail of Tears. Historians estimate that over 5,000 Cherokees died before reaching their destination.
Upon reaching Indian Territory, representatives of the legitimate Cherokee government met and condemned members of the Ridge-Watie-Boudinot faction to death in retribution for their role in concocting the Treaty of New Echota. On June 22, 1839, assassins dispatched Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot. Watie escaped the same fate only because an informant warned him before his would-be executioners arrived.
In 1842, one of Major Ridge’s assassins, James Foreman, crossed paths with Watie outside of Indian Territory in Arkansas. When an argument ensued, Watie drew a pistol and killed Foreman. Subsequently tried for murder, an Arkansas jury acquitted Watie on a plea of self-defense.
Escalating Tribal Violence
For the next three years, tribal violence escalated between the Treaty Party (those who had supported the Treaty of New Echota) and the National Party (those who had opposed the treaty). Finally, the two sides established a truce in 1846 that resulted in Watie being selected to serve on the Cherokee Tribal Council.
Relations remained relatively congenial within the Cherokee Nation until the outbreak of the American Civil War. When the Union dissolved, a majority of the Cherokees sided with the Confederacy. Protecting his interests as a slaveholder, Watie organized a regiment of cavalry to fight for the South.
On August 10, 1861, Watie led his regiment at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, the first major Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi River. Following the Confederate victory, Watie received a commission as colonel of the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles in October 1861.
Two months later, Watie contributed to the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chusto-Talasah, (aka the Battle of Bird Creek) in present-day Tulsa County, Oklahoma, on December 9, 1861. Fighting under the command of Colonel Douglas H. Cooper, Watie’s Cherokees forced Creek and Seminole Indians who supported the Union to retreat from Horseshoe Bend on Bird Creek.
Battle of Pea Ridge
In the next spring, Watie took part in the Battle of Pea Ridge, the largest engagement fought west of the Mississippi River during the American Civil War. On March 6, 1862, Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn, commanding a force of approximately 16,000 troops, attempted to dislodge nearly 10,500 Union soldiers, commanded by Brigadier-General Samuel R. Curtis, from a strong defensive position on Pea Ridge, near Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Van Dorn’s command included 8,000 Texans led by Brigadier-General Ben McCulloch, 7,000 Missourians under Major General Sterling Price, and approximately 1,000 American Indians, including Watie’s Cherokees, led by Brigadier-General Albert Pike.
Despite being outnumbered and outflanked, Curtis withstood Confederate assaults from two fronts on the first day of the battle. On March 7, McCulloch’s death shattered the Confederate command structure on one front. On the other front, Van Dorn’s troops ran short on ammunition as the Federals held. The next day (March 8), Curtis used his superior artillery to drive the Confederates from the field. By noon, the Bluecoats had won the battle. The victory secured federal control of Missouri, and it enabled the Union to focus on other areas in the Mississippi Valley.
Battle of Locust Grove
Watie suffered another setback on July 3, 1862, when a Union force of approximately 250 men, commanded by Colonel William Weer, surprised a Confederate unit of similar strength that included Watie’s Cherokees, at Locust Grove, in present-day Mayes County, Oklahoma. In the ensuing confusion, the Federals killed over one hundred Rebels, took another one hundred men prisoner, and captured large stores of Confederate supplies. News of the Union victory lowered morale and spawned sizable desertions among the pro-Confederate Cherokees.
Chief of the Cherokees
War-time dissension between the Cherokees reached a zenith on August 21, 1862, when a group of Watie’s supporters called a council at Tahlequah and elected him Chief of the Cherokees. Watie staunchly reaffirmed his allegiance to the Confederacy, and his followers started a murderous war of vengeance against Cherokees who supported the Union. Desperate to replace the large number of deserters who had abandoned his forces, Watie had the council enact a measure making all Cherokee males between the ages of sixteen and forty-five eligible for conscription and decreeing that resisters would be shot as traitors.
Confederate Brigadier General
For the rest of the war, Watie’s Cherokees operated primarily as irregular cavalry, ambushing trains, steamships, and Union cavalry in Indian Territory. On July 1-2, 1863, Watie’s forces led a successful raid on Cabin Creek. The following year, on May 10, 1864, the Confederate government commissioned Watie as a brigadier general in the Rebel army. Later that year, Watie’s soldiers captured the Union steamboat J. R. Williams on the Canadian River on June 15, 1864, and they carried out another successful raid on Cabin Creek on September 19, 1864. Each of those incidents resulted in the capture of large stores of Federal commissary supplies and livestock, but they had little impact on the outcome of the war, which by then was winding down.
By the spring of 1865, the eventual outcome of the war was undeniable. At 11:00 p.m. on April 2, 1865, President Jefferson Davis boarded a train in Richmond, Virginia, and the Confederate government officially abandoned the capital. Over the course of the next few months, the Confederacy fell like a row of dominoes. On April 9, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia; on April 26, Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the Army of Tennessee; on May 4, Richard Taylor surrendered the Confederate forces in the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana; on May 10, Union soldiers captured Jefferson Davis; and on May 26, Kirby Smith surrendered his Trans-Mississippi command.
As the word of these events reached the West, the leaders of the Five Nations of Southern Indians, which included Watie, convened a meeting at Camp Napoleon in late May. The objectives of the conclave were to establish a united front and to “authorize delegates to communicate with the proper military authorities of the United States for the purposes of effecting a cessation of hostilities.” On June 15, 1865, delegates attending a second meeting of the United Nations of the Indian Territory ratified the propositions established at the first meeting.
On June 19, 1865, representatives of most of the Southern tribes surrendered to Lieutenant Colonel Asa Mathews at Doaksville, in the Choctaw Nation. Watie, however, held out for another week. Finally, on June 23, 1865, Watie traveled to Doaksville and surrendered his battalion to Mathews. The only American Indian to achieve the rank of general on either side during the Civil War, Watie was also the last Confederate general to capitulate.
Post-war Life and Death
After his surrender, Watie returned to his plantation to find it in ruins. His seemingly unending feud with John Ross threatened to divide the Cherokee people again, until Ross died on August 1, 1866. Watie survived Ross by five years, before dying on September 9, 1871. He was buried in the Polson Cemetery in Delaware County, Oklahoma.