Cherokee Indians and the Civil War

Thomas' Legion
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Cherokee Battalion of the Thomas Legion History

The Cherokee Battalion and the 400 Cherokees

Cherokee and the Civil War
Cherokee and the Civil War.jpg
Official Records, Series 1, Volume 51, part 2, p. 304.

On September 15, 1861, William Holland Thomas had organized 200 Cherokee Indians into a local defense force known as the "Junaluska Zouaves." Initially mustered into state service during the Civil War (1861-1865), this formation was named in honor of Cherokee Chief Junaluska. On April 9, 1862, the 200-man Indian command was mustered into Confederate service as Companies A & B of the “North Carolina Cherokee Battalion” at Qualla Town, North Carolina, with Thomas being elected as Captain of Company A and later as Major of the Battalion. From April to September 1862, the battalion was engaged in home guard duty in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. Whereas the unit was ordered into East Tennessee in September 1862, Major Thomas would request and obtain permission from the Confederate government to recruit additional “Indians and whites as I may select.” As a result, Thomas organized seven companies which he designated as “Thomas’ Legion of Indians & Highlanders.” The organization now consisted of two Indian Companies and five white companies (two of which were designated as Walker’s Battalion under Captain William C. Walker). On September 27, 1862, the regiment was officially mustered into Confederate States service as “Thomas’ Legion” (also known as the 69th North Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment) at Knoxville, with William H. Thomas as Colonel, James R. Love as Lieutenant Colonel, and William W. Stringfield as Major of the Regiment. The regiment consisted of ten companies, eight white and two Indian. In the regimental organization, the Junaluska Zouaves became companies C & D, but in January 1863 they were re-designated as Companies A & B of the Indian Battalion of the Legion. Thomas would organize his third Cherokee company in December 1863 and the fourth and final company during the summer of 1864. From September 1862 to May 1865, the Indian Battalion would operate as a local defense force and perform provost duties while in the shared mountains of Old Carolina and Tennessee. Meanwhile, Walker's Battalion, which would later be known as "First Battalion," completed its organization on October 1, 1862, at Knoxville, with Lieutenant Colonel William C. Walker, commanding. The Thomas Legion added its light artillery battery on April 1, 1863, and now consisted of one regiment, two battalions, one artillery battery, and two companies of miners and sappers, known as the Pioneer Companies. Although Colonel Thomas would employ bodyguards, what he referred to as the "Life Guard," for his personal defense, the 20 Cherokee Indians of this contingent were never considered in service of the Confederacy. Thomas would increase the Indian companies and conclude his recruitment of the Cherokee Battalion, 400 soldiers, in early 1865 and merely months before the fighting had ceased. The Indian Battalion was present with Thomas when he formally surrendered the Thomas Legion on May 9, 1865, at Waynesville, North Carolina.

Thomas' Legion of Indians and Highlanders
The Thomas Legion Surrender.jpg
Official Records, Series 1, Volume 49, part 2, pp. 754-755

The Cherokee Battalion History
Junaluska Zouaves.jpg
Junaluska Zouaves

(Left) Official Union report discussing details of the Thomas Legion surrender. (Right) Account of the Indians comprising what was initially called the Junaluska Zouaves, the nom de guerre assigned to the Cherokee Battalion of Thomas' Legion. Newbern Daily Progress (New Bern, North Carolina), 20 May 1861, Mon. Page 2.
"Before Yonaguska died he assembled his people and publicly willed the chieftainship to his clerk, friend and adopted son, W. H. Thomas, who he commended as worthy of respect and whom he adjured them to obey as they had obeyed him.  He was going to the home provided for him by the Great Spirit; he would always keep watch over his people and would be grieved to see any of them disobey the new chief he had chosen to rule over them." 1883, Ziegler
On September 15, 1861, two Cherokee companies (200 warriors) loyally answered the call to arms during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Although these 200 Indians were originally known as the "Junaluska Zouaves," in honor of Chief Junaluska, William Holland Thomas, its commanding officer, also referred to them as the North Carolina Cherokee Battalion (O.R., Series 1, 51, II, p. 304* and O.R., 1, 49, pt. II, p. 754). By the end of the Civil War, a conflict that would claim some 620,000 Americans, muster records show that almost every able-bodied Cherokee, 400 Indians serving in 4 companies, from Western North Carolina had entered into Confederate military service. According to O.R., Series 1, 53, p. 314, Thomas stated that the Cherokee Indians didn't own any slaves, so slavery was not a motive for their involvement in the conflict.

Cherokee Indians and the Civil War
Cherokee Battalion, Thomas' Legion.jpg
Cherokee Battalion, Thomas' Legion

(About) Cherokee Battalion was instrumental in forcing the Union command to negotiate and accept the Thomas Legion surrender terms. The Cherokee Indians had entered the Civil War in spectacular fashion and their exit would be one of the most fascinating capitulations in the annals of warfare. Has an enemy ever captured a town to afterwards immediately capitulate? The Indians of the Thomas Legion would prove to be invaluable during the capture of a Union held town in order to parlay with a U.S. Army commander and then surrender on the best possible terms in recent military history. Nearly one month after Lee had surrendered to Grant in Virginia, the Thomas Legion was still on the warpath while remaining relentless toward the foe. If the Federals didn't accept his terms, Colonel Thomas said to his adversary, one Lt. Col. Bartlett, then I will unleash the Indians on a scalping melee in your command. Bartlett, nevertheless, would keep his scalp while the Thomas Legion disbanded and the men returned to their homes for what many in neighboring East Tennessee would call, not Reconstruction, but Uncivil War.
Whereas President Jefferson Davis believed that the Cherokee Indians should be used to defend the "coast and swamps of North Carolina" (O.R. Series 1, 51, II, p. 304. September 19, 1861), this was contrary to Thomas' Civil War Strategy. With Thomas’ persuasion, however, the warriors were not assigned to the Old North State's swamps. The Coastal Region was the first of the state's three regions to capitulate, which allowed longer imprisonment for the captured Confederates and therefore greater exposure to the numerous diseases at the POW Camps. The greatest threat to these Indians, which had never ventured beyond the rugged mountains of the Tar Heel State, would have been the immediate exposure to the disease infested swamps.
The Indians would remain with Colonel Thomas in the western portion of Old Carolina and operate as a local defense force and perform provost duties. On a few occasions the command would push into East Tennessee and engage the larger Union force before returning to North Carolina. It was reported by some newspapers, that the Cherokee were the best scouts and could track and round up from deserters to escaped Union prisoners. Always outnumbered, but never outperformed are just some of the words that can be best used to describe the loyal Indians of the Thomas Legion.
Lest he be grieved, Chief Yonaguska commanded the Eastern Cherokee to obey William H. Thomas. These Indians were also considered superstitious as well as spiritual, so, according to custom, their Cherokee loyalty would remain steadfast with Thomas for the duration of the war. Not disloyalty, nor combat, but mumps and measles would cause the greatest loss of life in the Cherokee ranks during the conflict. And after the war, smallpox would be responsible for killing more than one hundred members of the tribe. (Letter about smallpox by Thomas.) During the fight their obedience would be tested by the Union promise of liberty and five thousand dollars in gold if they would bring in the scalp of their leader, one William H. Thomas. See also The Cherokee Battalion: Skirmishes and Battles and William Holland Thomas' 20 Cherokee Bodyguard.
According to Neely, North Carolina's Eastern Band of Cherokees, p. 162, "Some Cherokees desired neutrality while as many as 30 joined the Union Army." Oral history states that many of the disloyal Cherokees were later murdered by their relatives because they had betrayed Thomas, as well as Yonaguska. The Cherokee Indians who graced the ranks of the Union Army would fight against their brothers and then be credited for returning to Western North Carolina with the dreaded killer called smallpox. It must also be stated that captured Confederate Cherokees were held in Federal prisoner of war camps. Postwar, these paroled Indians could have also returned to Western North Carolina as carriers of the dreaded disease. With the intentional use of smallpox in any given conflict considered biological warfare, today it is also classified as a Weapon of Mass Destruction, or more commonly, a WMD.

*Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies

Recommended Reading: The Blue, the Gray, and the Red: Indian Campaigns of the Civil War (Hardcover) (288 pages). Description: Inexperienced Union and Confederate soldiers in the West waged numerous bloody campaigns against the Indians during the Civil War. Fighting with a distinct geographical advantage, many tribes terrorized the territory from the Plains to the Pacific, as American pioneers moved west in greater numbers. These noteworthy--and notorious--Indian campaigns featured a fascinating cast of colorful characters, and were set against the wild, desolate, and untamed territories of the western United States. This is the first book to explore Indian conflicts that took place during the Civil War and documents both Union and Confederate encounters with hostile Indians blocking western expansion. Continued below...

From Publishers Weekly: Beginning with the flight of the Creeks into Union territory pursued by Confederate forces (including many of Stand Watie's Cherokees), this popular history recounts grim, bloody, lesser-known events of the Civil War. Hatch (Clashes of the Cavalry) also describes the most incredible incidents.... Kit Carson, who fought Apaches and Navajos under the iron-fisted Colonel Carleton, arranged the Long Walk of the Navajos that made him infamous in Navajo history to this day. The North's "Captain" Woolsey, a volunteer soldier, became a brutal raider of the Apaches. General Sibley, a northerner and first Governor of Minnesota, oversaw the response to the Sioux Uprising of 1862 that left several hundred dead. The slaughter of Black Kettle's Cheyennes at Sand Creek in 1864 by Colorado volunteers under Colonel Chivington, a militant abolitionist whose views on Indians were a great deal less charitable, “forms a devastating chapter.” Hatch, a veteran of several books on the Indian Wars that focus on George Armstrong Custer, has added to this clear and even-handed account a scholarly apparatus that adds considerably to its value.

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Recommended Reading: Civil War in the Indian Territory, by Steve Cottrell (Author), Andy Thomas (Illustrator). Review: From its beginning with the bloody Battle of Wilson's Creek on August 10, 1861, to its end in surrender on June 23, 1865, the Civil War in the Indian Territory proved to be a test of valor and endurance for both sides. Author Steve Cottrell outlines the events that led up to the involvement of the Indian Territory in the war, the role of the Native Americans who took part in the war, and the effect this participation had on the war and this region in particular. As in the rest of the country, neighbor was pitted against neighbor, with members of the same tribes often fighting against each other. Cottrell describes in detail the guerrilla warfare, the surprise attacks, the all-out battles that spilled blood on the now peaceful state of Oklahoma. In addition, he introduces the reader to the interesting and often colorful leaders of the military North and South, including the only American Indian to attain a general's rank in the war, Gen. Stand Watie (member of the Cherokee Nation). With outstanding illustrations by Andy Thomas, this story is a tribute to those who fought and a revealing portrait of the important role they played in this era of our country's history. Continued below...

Meet The Author: A resident of Carthage, Missouri, Steve Cottrell is a descendant of a Sixth Kansas Cavalry member who served in the Indian Territory during the Civil War. A graduate of Missouri Southern State College in Joplin, Cottrell has participated in several battle reenactments including the Academy Award winning motion picture, "Glory". Active in Civil War battlefield preservation and historical monument projects and contributor of a number of Civil War relics to regional museums, Cottrell recently co-authored Civil War in the Ozarks, also by Pelican. It is now in its second printing.


Recommended Reading: Storm in the Mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers (Thomas' Legion: The Sixty-ninth North Carolina Regiment). Description: Vernon H. Crow, Storm in the Mountains, dedicated an unprecedented 10 years of his life to this first yet detailed history of the Thomas Legion. But it must be said that this priceless addition has placed into our hands the rich story of an otherwise forgotten era of the Eastern Cherokee Indians and the mountain men of both East Tennessee and western North Carolina who would fill the ranks of the Thomas Legion during the four year Civil War. Crow sought out every available primary and secondary source by traveling to several states and visiting from ancestors of the Thomas Legion to special collections, libraries, universities, museums, including the Museum of the Cherokee, to various state archives and a host of other locales for any material on the unit in order to preserve and present the most accurate and thorough record of the legion. Crow, during his exhaustive fact-finding, was granted access to rare manuscripts, special collections, privately held diaries, and never before seen nor published photos and facts of this only legion from North Carolina. Crow remains absent from the text as he gives a readable account of each unit within the legion's organization, and he includes a full-length roster detailing each of the men who served in its ranks, including dates of service to some interesting lesser known facts.

Storm in the Mountains, Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers is presented in a readable manner that is attractive to any student and reader of American history, Civil War, North Carolina studies, Cherokee Indians, ideologies and sectionalism, and I would be remiss without including the lay and professional genealogist since the work contains facts from ancestors, including grandchildren, some of which Crow spent days and overnights with, that further complement the legion's roster with the many names, dates, commendations, transfers, battle reports, with those wounded, captured, and killed, to lesser yet interesting facts for some of the men. Crow was motivated with the desire to preserve history that had long since been overlooked and forgotten and by each passing decade it only sank deeper into the annals of obscurity. Crow had spent and dedicated a 10 year span of his life to full-time research of the Thomas Legion, and this fine work discusses much more than the unit's formation, its Cherokee Indians, fighting history, and staff member narratives, including the legion's commander, Cherokee chief and Confederate colonel, William Holland Thomas. Numerous maps and photos also allow the reader to better understand and relate to the subjects. Storm in the Mountains, Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers is highly commended, absolutely recommended, and to think that over the span of a decade Crow, for us, would meticulously research the unit and present the most factual and precise story of the men, the soldiers who formed, served, and died in the famed Thomas Legion.


Recommended Viewing: Indian Warriors - The Untold Story of the Civil War (History Channel) (2007). Description: Though largely forgotten, 20 to 30 thousand Native Americans fought in the Civil War. Ely Parker was a Seneca leader who found himself in the thick of battle under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant. Stand Waite--a Confederate general and a Cherokee--was known for his brilliant guerrilla tactics. Continued below...

Also highlighted is Henry Berry Lowery, an Eastern North Carolina Indian, who became known as the Robin Hood of North Carolina. Respected Civil War authors, Thom Hatch and Lawrence Hauptman, help reconstruct these most captivating stories, along with descendants like Cherokee Nation member Jay Hanna, whose great-grandfathers fought for both the Union and the Confederacy. Together, they reveal a new, fresh perspective and the very personal reasons that drew these Native Americans into the fray.


Recommended Reading: Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. Description: One of the many ironies of U.S. government policy toward Indians in the early 1800s is that it persisted in removing to the West those who had most successfully adapted to European values. As whites encroached on Cherokee land, many Native leaders responded by educating their children, learning English, and developing plantations. Such a leader was Ridge, who had fought with Andrew Jackson against the British. Continued below...

As he and other Cherokee leaders grappled with the issue of moving, the land-hungry Georgia legislators, with the aid of Jackson, succeeded in ousting the Cherokee from their land, forcing them to make the arduous journey West on the infamous "Trail of Tears." ...A treasured addition for the individual remotely interested in American Indian history as well as general American history.

Additional Sources: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Vernon H. Crow, Storm in the Mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers; Walter Clark, Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-1865; National Park Service: American Civil War; National Park Service: Soldiers and Sailors System; Weymouth T. Jordan and Louis H. Manarin, North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865; D. H. Hill, Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865; Christopher M. Watford, The Civil War in North Carolina: Soldiers' and Civilians' Letters and Diaries, 1861-1865. Volume 2: The Mountains; William F. Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War.

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