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Like a Good Neighbor: The Eastern Cherokee and the Confederacy

Not all the Eastern Cherokee supported the Confederacy. Several served with the Union army during the Civil War and were ostracized by the Confederate Cherokees after hostilities ceased. Some evidence exists that one of these Union soldiers brought smallpox back to the small band of Cherokees who survived the war, with devastating results.

Most of the Cherokee of Western North Carolina, however, supported the government of Jefferson Davis. Historians agree that the reasons for this support were complicated, yet if we look at the Cherokee in 1860, we may surmise some reasons for their loyalty.

First, they had suffered at the hands of the federal government, particularly during the Jackson administration with its Indian Removal Act. Though Southerners, particularly in Georgia, benefited from this opening of new lands, it was the federal government that enforced the act and drove so many Cherokee from their native lands. 

Motives of the human heart often drive unlikely alliances. The neighbors of the Cherokee in the Qualla Reservation of North Carolina — men such as William Holland Thomas — respected the Cherokee. Thomas’s adoration of the Cherokee and their reciprocal admiration for him and his efforts to help them retain rights and land are well documented. They were his friends in peace and his companions in war. These associations undoubtedly factored into Cherokee loyalties.

Finally, generally speaking, the South was often more receptive to Native American support than the North. Throughout the war, the North regarded the Cherokee troops, both those in the East and in the West, as “savages.” Thomas’s threat of unleashing his few Cherokee on a Union regiment in Waynesville played on this fear. In 1862, the North had fought a war against the Sioux in Minnesota, a barbarous conflict on both sides that may have contributed to this denigration of Native Americans.

With some individual exceptions, the South simply made more of an effort than the North to attract Native Americans to their cause. The Confederate government signed treaties with different tribes, encouraged enlistment  and paid those Native Americans who did enlist the same salaries as other troops. Unlike the commanders of the North, certain Southern politicians and military commanders actively sought the help of the Cherokee.

— By Jeff Minick • Courtesy of Smoky Mountain Living

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