Monday, September 18, 2017

Review of Gaines - "THE CONFEDERATE CHEROKEES: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles, Updated Edition"

[The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles, Updated Edition by W. Craig Gaines (Louisiana State University Press, 2017). Softcover, 2 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:135/188. ISBN:978-0-8071-6662-8. $24.95]

Back in 1989, the publication of W. Craig Gaines's The Confederate Cherokees was a groundbreaking event. It was the first unit study, scholarly or otherwise, of Colonel John Drew's First Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles to appear anywhere in the Civil War literature. Gaines's book also did an excellent job situating the reluctant Cherokee soldiers of the regiment within the larger context of a deeply divided Cherokee society riven by violence stemming all the way back to their traumatic removal to Indian Territory in the 1830s and 1840s. Knowledge of this tortured background history is essential to understanding why the members of the regiment deserted nearly en masse to the Union side after less than a year in Confederate service. During the nearly thirty years that have passed since original publication of the study, much in the way of new scholarship on the topic of American Indian participation in the Civil War has emerged, and LSU Press has now reissued Gaines's classic unit history under the title The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles, Updated Edition.

One thing that needs to be stated upfront is that the central narrative of the original manuscript remains untouched in the "updated" volume. The author's brief preface to the 2017 edition is the only new material added. While a golden opportunity to incorporate into the 2017 edition some of the relevant new scholarship hinted at in the preface was missed, the volume nevertheless retains its original value. No other study of Drew's Regiment has emerged since 1989, and Gaines's book remains the standard treatment.

Gaines sets the stage for Cherokee participation in the American Civil War by providing a good overview of the perilous state of Cherokee society in 1861, when they were confronted with the terrible realization that neutrality was not going to be tolerated by leaders in Washington or Richmond. When, in the beginning of the 1830s, the Cherokee were being forced to exchange their vast ancestral lands east of the Mississippi for new ones in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), the strongest resistance was led by principal chief John Ross. Those who reluctantly accepted the removal treaty, believing its terms to be the best the Cherokee were likely to get and realizing that sustained opposition would only make things worse, came to be identified as the Treaty (or "Ridge") Party, though by 1861 Major Ridge was long dead by assassination and his followers were now led by pro-Confederate Stand Watie. The long-standing blood feud between the Ross and Ridge factions would color all aspects of the Cherokee Civil War experience. It was a bitter internal conflict that Gaines rightly characterizes in the book as a civil war within the Civil War.

The Confederate Cherokees does a fine job of documenting the organization of the mounted rifles regiment. As Gaines demonstrates, the members of the First Regiment were only lukewarm Confederates from the beginning. Most of the common soldiers and lower ranking officers of the First were Keetoowah Society supporters, pro-Union at heart and generally opposed to fighting fellow Indians. This left only the highest ranking officers of the regiment and a tiny minority of the enlisted soldiers truly loyal to the alliance treaty John Ross reluctantly signed with Confederate officials. Clearly the regiment was going to be trouble for Confederate military authorities.

Recounting the battles of Round Mountain, Chusto-Talasah/Caving Banks, and Chustenahlah, Gaines describes in the book the unit's participation in the 1861 military campaign directed against Creek chief Opothleyahola and his already large and expanding following of pro-Union Indian allies. When faced with the prospect of fighting Union Indians at Caving Banks, the majority of Drew's Regiment deserted and soon switched sides. Remnants of the original regiment would fight in Arkansas at the Battle of Pea Ridge, where a very public post-battle row ensued after Confederate Indians (including Cherokees) were accused of scalping and mutilating Union corpses.

Confederate support of its treaty obligations to the Cherokee and other allied tribes of Indian Territory dwindled after the Pea Ridge defeat, when already scarce Trans-Mississippi military resources were instead redirected east across the Mississippi. Ross Party dissatisfaction grew, and two Union expeditions into Indian Territory in early and late 1862 solidified the faction's switch of allegiance back into the Union fold. Most of the former officers and men of Drew's Regiment joined the Indian Home Guard regiments then forming in Kansas, and the book also usefully summarizes the organization and Civil War operations of those unique units as they traveled and fought back and forth within the borderlands of Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Indian Territory.

In the book, Gaines also hints at the irregular fighting that devastated Cherokee lands during the war. Similar to what occurred in large parts of Missouri, Cherokee civilian property and lives were targeted throughout the war by supporters of both tribal factions, and the social order so carefully reconstructed after removal broke down almost completely in Indian Territory. This understudied aspect of the war contributed significantly to the precipitous decline in Cherokee numbers that occurred between 1861 and 1865, a loss figure that some historians estimate at one-third of the prewar population.

While the new edition would have benefited from a critical reexamination of the original text, a process to truly update the narrative and fix the kind of scattered errors and dated interpretations that exist in every three-decade-old historical study, The Confederate Cherokees remains an original and indispensable contribution to the Civil War literature. Hopefully, its timely reissue will ignite a spark within a new generation of readers that raises awareness of and interest in the Cherokee Civil War experience.


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