The independent Native nations that lived on land claimed by the United States were affected by the American Civil War. About 20,000 Native men from all over North America fought with the Union and Confederate armies. The disruptions to trade, political alliances, and daily life in the Union and Confederacy were also acutely felt in Native communities.
The Cherokee Nation practiced slavery before the outbreak of the war, and there was a faction of the nation’s leadership that supported the pro-slavery stance of the Confederacy. At the start of the war, a different faction of the Cherokee Nation leadership tried to stay neutral, but their lands were surrounded by other Native nations aligned with the Confederacy. On October 7, 1861, Cherokee leader John Ross signed a treaty with the Confederate government. He promised to provide Cherokee soldiers to the Confederate army. In return, the Confederacy promised to protect the Cherokee from Union armies, and to give them food rations, livestock, tools, and a delegate at the Confederate Congress in Richmond.
The Cherokee Nation lost approximately 6,000 people by the end of the war. The Union government labeled the Cherokee as traitors and stripped the nation of many of its rights when peace was restored.
Sarah Watie was the wife of Stand Watie, a prosperous Cherokee plantation and slave owner. Stand was the only Native American to rise to the rank of general during the American Civil War. This letter illustrates the hardships faced by Sarah and other Cherokee civilians while their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons were fighting for the Confederacy.