Friday, November 23, 2012

The Last Confederate General to Lay Down His Arms

Heather Cox Richardson

It is a pet peeve of mine that most people think the Civil War ended at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General U. S. Grant.

It didn’t.

Brigadier General Stand Waite
General Lee surrendered only his own Army of Northern Virginia that day. There were still more than a hundred thousand Confederate soldiers in the field. True, everyone knew that Lee’s surrender marked the beginning of the end. But the last major Confederate army did not quit until May 26, when General Kirby Smith surrendered his Army of the Trans-Mississippi to Major General Edward Canby in Louisiana.

But here’s another little-known fact related to the end of the war that seems to me should be as widely known as the events at Appomattox: The last Confederate general in the field to surrender was Brigadier General Stand Watie, who did not lay down his weapons until June 23, 1865.

Why is this significant? Because Stand Watie was a member of the Cherokee Nation. He commanded the First Indian Brigade of the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi.

It’s a stretch to say that Indians were at the heart of the American Civil War, but it’s not at all a stretch to say that the West was. Eastern Americans from the North and the South fought to control the economic system the nation would impose on the West. Easterners had lived with slavery in their midst since the very beginnings of European settlement on the Atlantic coast; it was only when the slave system threatened to spread across the lands of the old Louisiana Purchase that the inhabitants of the two eastern regions came to blows.

Indian Frontier to 1890 (from Bedford St. Martin's). Click to enlarge.
The West over which the North and South fought was not, of course, uninhabited. The people who had lived there for generations had a profound interest in the national events of 1861-1865, and participated accordingly. Once the easterners had stopped smashing at each other, the Indians continued to be active participants in American events whether they wanted to be or not. Many Plains Indian bands went to war with the U.S. government in the post-Civil War years, but even those that didn’t found themselves tangled in eastern concerns. The question of who would be welcome as a citizen in the rebuilding nation was hotly contested, and in that contest Indians became important players (the Fourteenth Amendment, anyone?).

When Stand Watie took for himself the status of being the last Confederate general to surrender, he claimed the historical significance of the West and of Indians in the American Civil War.

That, it seems to me, is worth noting in the same breath that we use to talk about what happened at Appomattox.

2 comments:

dan allosso said...

Yes! And it's also significant that Watie was a slaveholder. Some Cherokee had other reasons than opposing the Union for siding with the South.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

I didn't know about Watie et al until some of my students did a project on Cherokee involvement in the Civil War a few years back. The civil war within the Cherokee nation in many ways paralleled some of the same issues (it seems to me) that fueled the larger US/Confederacy war... I didn't know he was the last to lay down his arms, however, and appreciate the reminder.