Although many Indian nations fought in the Civil War, historians have given little attention to the role Native Americans played in the conflict. Indian nations did, in fact, suffer a higher percentage of casualties than any Union or Confederate state, and the war almost destroyed the Cherokee Nation. In The Confederate Cherokees, W. Craig Gaines provides an absorbing account of the Cherokees’ involvement in the early years of the Civil War, focusing in particular on the actions of one group, John Drew’s Regiment of Mounted Rifles.
As the war began, The Cherokees were torn by internal political dissension and a simmering thirty-year-old blood feud. Entry into the war on the Confederate side did little to resolve these intratribal tensions. One faction, loyal to Chief John Ross, formed a regiment led by John Drew, Ross’s nephew by marriage. Another regiment was formed by Ross’s rival, Stand Watie. The Watie regiment was largely por-Confederate, whereas many of Drew’s soldiers, though fighting for the Confederate cause, were secretly members of a pro-Union, antislavery society known as the Keetoowahs. They had little sympathy for the southern whites, who had driven them from their ancestral homelands in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Drew’s regiment nonetheless earned a degree of infamy during the Battle of Pea Ridge, in Arkansas, for scalping Union soldiers.
Gaines writes not only about the actions of Drew’s regiment but about military events in the Indian Territory in general. United action was almost impossible because of continuing factionalism within the tribes and the desertion of many Indians to the Union forces. Desertion was so high that Drew’s regiment was effectively disbanded by mid-1862, and the soldiers did not complete their one-year enlistment. Drew’s regiment bears the distinction of being the only Confederate regiment to lose almost its entire membership through desertion to the Union ranks.
W. Craig Gaines, a former civilian employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is currently a senior reservoir engineer in the private sector. He is the author of The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles and Civil War Gold and Other Lost Treasures. He lives in Edmond and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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