Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Review - "Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country" by Fay Yarbrough

[Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country by Fay A. Yarbrough (University of North Carolina Press, 2021). Hardcover, 10 maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:207/280. ISBN:978-1-4696-6511-5. $32.95]

In a flurry of diplomatic maneuvering during July and August 1861, the Confederate government successfully signed alliance treaties with nearly all of the most populous nations of Indian Territory, chief among them the Muscogee (Creeks), Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles. It was a stunning turn of events. Only three decades had passed since the Indian Removal Act of 1830 initiated a mass migration across the Mississippi1, yet those same peoples were willing to risk their prosperous renewal in order to ally themselves with a rebellious new nation founded by the very same Deep South states (in the case of the Choctaw, Mississippi and Alabama) that were instrumental to the process of traumatic displacement. After the recalcitrant Cherokee of the dominant Ross faction and a host of other Indian Territory and Southern Plains peoples and bands finally agreed to alliances of their own later in the year, all of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" had become Confederate allies, though the Muscogee and Cherokee in particular remained violently split. In the century that has passed since the publication of Annie Abel's pioneering work on slaveholding Indian participation in the American Civil War, the motivating factors behind those alliances have been explored in numerous books and articles, but Fay Yarbrough's Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country represents the first book-length study of what was behind that tribal government's earnest participation in the war.

Yarbrough dutifully restates the most commonly cited reasons behind Choctaw willingness to ally themselves with the Confederacy, among them the federal government's sudden abandonment of forts in the region, financial insecurity, Choctaw society's gradual transformation into one bearing significant cultural affinity with the Deep South, and concerns both present and future for the preservation of slavery. Choctaw leaders held justified fears that the federal government's war priorities would cause it to default on the financial parts of its treaty obligations, and the war itself would directly threaten tribal investments held in trust (the greater balance of which was invested in southern states). Over the several generations preceding the American Civil War, the Choctaw's traditional matrilineal social organization and clan culture became heavily altered both legally and socially, gradually taking on many characteristics shared by their white southern neighbors. Associated with that cultural process were gender role reversals. With fewer prospects for war and less dependence on wild game hunting by the early 1800s, Choctaw males took up many of the agriculturally related duties that Choctaw women had typically performed. All of these changes drew the nation closer to the American, and, in more specific ways, Southern agrarian culture and economy. Choctaw laws and government institutions enshrined in their post-Removal constitution also mirrored the American political system in many ways (especially that of the Deep South). Of course, a major element of the aforementioned affinity with southern culture was slavery. The Choctaw had enslaved blacks since the early eighteenth century, and by 1860 slaves represented up to 14% of the Choctaw population in Indian Territory. In the book, Yarbrough discusses similarities and differences between the slave systems of the Choctaw and white South, and she finds clear evidence that the Choctaw defense of slavery (rhetorically, socially, legally, etc.) corresponded in many ways to that of the Deep South.

The author makes her greatest contributions to our understanding Choctaw Confederate motivations by paving new ground in two additional areas, those involving issues of Choctaw sovereignty and masculinity. According to Yarbrough, Choctaw leaders gambled that secessionist and Confederate ideology grounded in localism and States Rights might better preserve their own tenuous sovereignty. Those leaders certainly had good reason to be wary. The presence and strength of militant abolitionism right across the border in Kansas was widely seen as a clear menace, and the Kansas governor himself expressed a desire to expedite the elimination of Indian title to lands in the territory with a view toward creating another free state. Secessionist promoters from Texas and Arkansas also eagerly reminded the Choctaw of William Seward's comments during the 1860 election season that Indian Territory lands should be seized by the government and opened to white settlement. Militant abolitionist threats and those made by the incoming president's right-hand man must have disturbed many Choctaws who were wavering. Generous financial promises along with favorable military and political concessions further made joining the Confederacy a risk Choctaw leaders were willing take. Some have suggested that the Choctaw reluctantly succumbed to outside pressure, but it is clear from Yarbrough's research in Choctaw rhetoric, legislation, and volunteerism that their pro-Confederate enthusiasm was very real and very ardent.

Yarbrough also convincingly argues that reclaiming a lost, or much faded, source of manhood in the form of traditional warrior culture (and all that stemmed from it, including important naming rituals) was a major part in motivating Choctaw men to fight alongside the Confederate Army. Obviously, as one might argue that that end could also have been served by fighting on the other side, this factor went hand in hand with the others outlined above. White settlement of traditional Choctaw lands severely restricted opportunities for Choctaw men to (literally) make a name for themselves through intertribal warfare and successful long-range hunting expeditions, and they were forced to redirect masculine expression through other more peaceful and domestic outlets. The Choctaw were able to preserve some of their martial traditions through the paramilitary organization of light horsemen (an interesting judicial and social policing force that is well documented in the book), though membership in that group was very small. Thus, many Choctaw men leapt at the opportunity to join the first Choctaw and Chickasaw regiment2.

With the notable exception of W. Craig Gaines's groundbreaking history of John Drew's Confederate Cherokee regiment3, the popular and scholarly publication of unit histories continues to overlook the many battalions and regiments sourced from Indian Territory nations that fought for either side. Though Yarbrough's book cannot be thought of as a proper unit history of the First Regiment, Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles (which was organized in the summer of 1861 and led by former Indian agent Col. Douglas Cooper and mixed-blood Choctaw Lt. Col. Tandy Walker), it does provide notable insights. The author's extensive examination of enlistment and service records heavily reinforce the conclusion that Choctaw support for the war was not coerced. With letters and diary sources sparse, the service records and attached notes provide the best available insight into the wheres and whens of Choctaw enlistment. They also help explain absences. Some demographic insights (ex. the average Choctaw recruit was slightly older than the average white Confederate volunteer) can gleaned from those records as well. Even before the treaty with the Confederacy was confirmed, nearly 800 men had volunteered for the regiment, and many hundreds more were added to the rolls during the first half of the conflict. Yarbrough's very brief summary of the regiment's active service over a wide geographical area of operations that included parts of Indian Territory, Missouri, and Arkansas along with her noting of a precipitous drop in enlistment during the second half of the conflict both reinforce the common view expressed in the literature that the July 17, 1863 Battle of Honey Springs, a disastrous Confederate defeat, marked a turning point in home and fighting front morale and support for the war among the allied nations of Indian Territory. Others have suggested that the sharp increase in desertion preceding Honey Springs in May-June 1863 (which was rare before then) was also indicative of growing disaffection among the Choctaw, but Yarbrough offers up a possible, and reasonable, alternative explanation that seasonal crop demands might have had as much or more to do with the exodus from the ranks during that particular time. Regardless, it is made clear in this study that the soldiers of the First Choctaw and Chickasaw were as steadfast as most white Southern volunteers in their adherence to the Confederate cause and willingness to fight for it..

An extension of Yarbough's excellent contribution to the essay anthology Civil War Wests4, the book's final section explores disputes over the Emancipation Proclamation's application to Indian Territory and Choctaw resistance during the Reconstruction period and beyond toward granting full citizenship rights to the nation's freedpeople. That latter process dragged on for twenty years after the end of the Civil War and has restrictions for descendants that to this day spark controversy and legal challenge.

Fay Yarbrough's Choctaw Confederates is an award-worthy feat of research and writing. Its wide-ranging treatment of the Choctaw offers much needed expansion to a literature of Civil War-era Indian Territory that remains disproportionately focused on the Cherokee. Similarly, in the scholarship's discussion of pro-Confederate Indians the Watie faction of Cherokee garners the lion's share of popular and scholarly awareness, and Yarbrough successfully redirects attention toward the native people that proved as a nation to be the most thoroughly Confederate. The book very effectively draws social, cultural, and ideological parallels between the Choctaw state and southern states that seceded from the US, arriving at the undeniable conclusion that the Choctaws were as deserving of the "Confederate" label as, for example, the average Mississippi volunteer. The volume also serves as a major contribution to the study of the black enslavement views and practices of Indian Territory nations. Finally, one can hope that Yarbrough's more broadbrush treatment of military events might spark some future scholar to write a full history of Choctaw military participation in the Civil War as well as the first comprehensive treatment of the First Choctaw and Chickasaw regiment's wartime service. Both would be welcome additions to a Civil War military literature that fully embraces coverage of previously understudied participants but still continues to sideline the profound experiences of Indian Territory nations that fought in the war in notable fashion from the conflict's very beginning.

1 - An often overlooked aspect of the removal treaties such as the one signed by the Choctaw is that individuals were given the option to stay, giving up their tribal sovereignty in exchange for US citizenship and land from the state. In the case of the Choctaw, almost a third of the population elected to remain in Mississippi when the rest of the nation relocated to Indian Territory in the early 1830s. Though outside the boundaries of Yarbrough's research, it would be interesting to read about the experiences of the remaining "Mississippi Band" of Choctaws during the lead-in to the Civil War and learn more about what they did during the conflict.
2 - The Chickasaw are related to the Choctaw by language and culture (and lived among and adjacent to them in Indian Territory), but they successfully resisted outside pressure to become a part of the Choctaw nation and remained independent. Their story, and their relationship as fighting comrades in the First Choctaw and Chickasaw regiment, is touched upon briefly but is generally beyond the purview of Yarbrough's narrative.
3 - Follow the link to read a review of W. Craig Gaines's The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles, Updated Edition (LSU Press, 2017). First published in 1989, this landmark study was reissued in paperback nearly three decades later, unchanged but with a new preface.
4 - See Yarbrough's essay "Dis Land Which Jines Dat of Ole Master's': The Meaning of Citizenship for the Choctaw Freedpeople," in Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States, ed. by Adam Arenson & Andrew Graybill , 224-41 (Oakland, University of California Press, 2015).

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