Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Review - "Caught in the Maelstrom: The Indian Nations in the Civil War, 1861-1865" by Clint Crowe

[Caught in the Maelstrom: The Indian Nations in the Civil War, 1861-1865 by Clint Crowe (Savas Beatie, 2019). Hardcover, 12 maps, photos, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,243/271. ISBN:9781611213362. $32.95]

In many ways, the early twentieth-century scholarship of historian Annie Abel has served as the foundation of modern studies of the Civil War experiences of the "Five Civilized Tribes" (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole) of Indian Territory. After the 1925 completion of her pioneering trilogy, the subject largely languished outside the pages of the history journal Chronicles of Oklahoma. A larger revival of publications in book form really didn't occur until decades later, and it would be 1975 before the first attempt at a comprehensive overview (Rampp and Rampp's The Civil War in the Indian Territory) was published. However, even with wide recognition of the general inadequacy of works in the field, many more decades would pass before the publication of Mary Jane Warde's When the Wolf Came: The Civil War and the Indian Territory (2013), which immediately became the new standard history. In some ways less expansive than Warde's study but still satisfying all the essential expectations is Clint Crowe's Caught in the Maelstrom: The Indian Nations in the Civil War, 1861-1865.

No insightful examination of Civil War histories of the five principal nations of Indian Territory is possible without first reaching back to the removal treaties of the 1830s as chief source of the most bitter divisions that existed within them. Particularly among the powerful Creek and Cherokee populations, no united front was possible when it came to confronting the dangers of encroaching Civil War. It would mischaracterize the population of Indian Territory as a whole to say that all full-bloods were pro-Union and mixed-bloods pro-Confederate, but when it came to choosing allegiances the ethnocultural discord being traditional and non-traditional members was certainly highly pronounced among those nations. Crowe also usefully reminds readers of the role played by secret society membership in facilitating Cherokee factionalism and side choosing (the Keehtoowah Society being popular among pro-Union full-bloods and Knights of the Golden Circle influencing those members most closely associated with southern culture and slave-based economic activity). After U.S. forces abruptly withdrew from the frontier in 1861, representatives of all five nations (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) negotiated alliance treaties with the Confederate government and contributed military units for defense. On the Union side, Indian Home Guard regiments were eventually formed from refugees in Kansas as well as from numerous Cherokee defectors. Both home and fighting fronts are accorded significant attention and detailed consideration in Crowe's book, though, in common with of all general examinations of Civil War-era Indian Territory, Cherokee affairs tend to overshadow others.

On the military side of the discussion, Crowe addresses the many campaigns, battles, and skirmishes fought within Indian Territory (ex. Opothleyahola's escape, the Indian Expedition of 1862, Old Fort Wayne, First and Second Cabin Creek, Honey Springs, Perryville, Phillips's 1864 Raid, Massard Prairie, and more) as well as Union and Confederate Indian participation in operations outside the borders of Indian Territory (ex. Pea Ridge, Newtonia, Cane Hill, and Camden Expedition). Most, if not all, of these events are covered in more detail in other published sources, and the greatest strength of Crowe's series of military action accounts (which are perfectly adequate in their own right) is in their comprehensive integration. Like others have before him, Crowe sees the Union victory at the July 17, 1863 Battle of Honey Springs as the major turning point that eliminated once and for all Confederate hopes of permanently reoccupying Indian Territory. For the rest of the war, Confederate forces, while still dangerous, could do little more than launch raids and demonstrations. In common with Warde, the irregular war in the territory is mostly addressed tangentially. As has become standard practice, Confederate general Stand Watie dominates much of the narrative, but Crowe also offers suitable coverage of other military leaders, along with way presenting a renewed appreciation of the military and administrative talents of Confederate major general. Samuel Bell Maxey. Though political interference from high above eventually sidelined him, Maxey proved himself to be arguably the most effective overall commander of Confederate forces in Indian Territory.

Scholars have pointed out before that Indian Territory residents suffered the Civil War's highest proportional losses in population and property destruction, and Crowe's book contains a fairly extensive exploration of home front displacement and material loss. A handful of insightful case studies detail individual stories that mirror civilian experiences common to Missouri and other regions of the country wracked by similar levels of home front violence. In response to the back and forth fighting in Indian Territory, tens of thousands fled their homes. Pro-Union families temporarily settled in Kansas in large numbers while pro-Confederate Indians relocated to refugee camps established along the Red River border with Texas. Disease and deprivation were rampant, and both tribal and government authorities struggled to supply the needs of refugees. Though government assistance (aided by active lobbying from religious groups) allowed some farms in Union-controlled areas to return to production during the war's final months, the vast majority of displaced persons could not return home until the war ended.

When peace returned, the nations of Indian Territory were surprised to learn that all of their antebellum treaties with the U.S. were voided and needed to be renegotiated. As was the case before the Civil War, factionalism prevented a united diplomatic front. The new treaties with the United States ended slavery, addressed citizenship, and included extensive (though compensated) land cessions and railroad right-of-way concessions. At least for the time being, though, the sovereign nations avoided the single government and U.S. territorial status desired by many political leaders in Washington. Spread over two chapters, Crowe's discussion of postwar recovery is less extensive than Warde's (which stretched into the following century), but it provides a good overview of the immediate postwar struggle to obtain the best terms possible from the federal government.

Those seeking a general history of the experience and participation of Indian Territory nations (particularly the Five Civilized Tribes) in the American Civil War now have two reading options worthy of recommendation. With both works exhibiting up to date scholarship while covering roughly similar ground (though at varying degrees of depth), preference will largely be a matter of individual taste. The best option to take, however, is to appreciate their complementary strengths by reading both. Generally speaking, it is probably safe to say that Crowe's Caught in the Maelstrom is more accessible to a wider audience and its military coverage more thorough in places (and with far better maps) while Warde's social, economic, and political treatments are deeper throughout.


  1. Thanks for your review, Drew. Appreciate the coverage and depth. Glad you enjoyed it.


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