by Terrell Garren
The following text was presented as a speech to the N.C. Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Oct. 5, 2012.
Some years ago I began to investigate the Civil War in the far western counties of North Carolina. In doing so, I found a fascinating history of a people and their times.
The land of the Cherokee once covered a vast territory that included parts of several southeastern states. The Cherokee people encountered white settlers very early on after the European discovery of North America. For a time there may have been only limited conflict between the two groups. As European settlers pressed ever westward the conflicts grew and at times turned into war.
In 1838, President Andrew Jackson brought the conflict to a conclusion. He ordered the removal of all Cherokees. His order dictated that they be moved to an Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. The result was an event that still resonates as a story of cruelty and death known to the Cherokee people as “The Trail of Tears.” The Cherokee people never forgave Andrew Jackson and well they should not.
Prior to the removal of the Cherokee, a man by the name of James Whitaker moved to the Valley River area of Cherokee County. He wrote a diary and kept minutes for the Valley River Baptist Association. His records give us important insight into the relationship between whites and Cherokees. It is clear that the people of the area had integrated to a level not seen elsewhere. The census records indicate many mixed families living in the area. Valley River Baptist Church minutes going back to 1834 confirm a mixed congregation of whites and Cherokees.
When Jackson’s removal order was implemented against the Cherokee it was nearly a clean sweep. But there was one region of the country where the Cherokee remained after the removal. That area was Southwestern North Carolina in what is now Macon, Cherokee, Swain, Jackson and Graham Counties. At the time of the Civil War, Swain and Graham counties did not exist. My review of the census records for these counties indicates that there were approximately eleven hundred Cherokees still in WNC in 1860.
The entire southeast was swept clean of Cherokee except this one area. It has been passed on in folk tales that the Cherokee survived here and avoided the removal because of the rough terrain. That may have been a contributing factor but I’m quite confident that there was another reason. Rough terrain existed in northern Georgia, east Tennessee and southwestern Virginia but no Cherokee were there after the removal.
The primary reason the Cherokee survived here is because they had help. In many cases they had help from their own relatives. Many Cherokee and whites in the region had intermarried. Someone was feeding them and sheltering them. When the soldiers stopped by the homes of local families and inquired as to whether or not the local people had seen or knew of any Indians about the answer would have been an earnest denial. It would not have been acceptable to reveal to the soldiers that their Cherokee in-laws, spouses, cousins, nephews, nieces and grandchildren were in fact hiding in the barn.
Whites in surrounding areas did not appreciate the fact that Cherokees were still here. Even after the removal there was plenty of racial hatred still directed against the Cherokee. A “gang of toughs” led by Goldman Bryson often crossed into NC from East Tennessee and harassed Cherokee people. In the years just prior to the Civil War Bryson murdered an innocent Cherokee man by the name of John Timson in front of many witnesses. Bryson was acquitted because all the witnesses were Cherokee and under NC law at the time Indians could not testify.
By 1860 the Whites and Cherokees of WNC may have been the most successfully integrated community in the country. This integration along with a understandable distaste for the federal government and hatred of the US Army would lead to a strong and common bond between whites and Cherokee when the Civil War broke out. When war came to the region, the people were as one.
In one of the strangest developments in our history a white man became Principal Chief of the Cherokee. His name was William Holland Thomas. He was the only white man in the history of North America to become chief of an Indian Tribe. When war came this chief would lead the Cherokee, for better or for worse, into the fray.
Thomas started out as a Captain of what would become Company A, Infantry Regiment of Thomas’ Legion. The company was raised in Jackson County with most of men being Cherokee Indians. It was organized at Quallatown on April 9, 1862. Thomas was 57 years old when he accepted a Captain’s role. He was promoted to Major on July 19, 1862 and transferred Field and Staff. On September 27, 1862 he was given a Colonel’s commission and placed in command of the Legion’s troops.
By this time the war had been raging for more than a year. The idea of a quick victory for either side now seemed a distant dream.
The record keeping for Thomas’ Legion leaves a lot to be desired. Many records are incomplete or lost. Some of the material conflicts and many mistakes have been made in trying to sort it out. The complications with these records goes back to our earliest histories of the war. John W. Moore published his Roster of NC Troops in the War Between the States in 1882. Apparently by accident, Moore misidentified the Infantry Regiment of Thomas’ Legion as the 69th NC Infantry Regiment. This designation actually belongs to an entirely different unit. He also changed the name of Walker’s Battalion of Thomas’ Legion to a Cavalry Battalion. More errors were added in 1901 when Judge Walter Clark published Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from NC in the Great War 1861-1865. These errors often led to misidentification of the Legion or some of it units. In some cases the entire Legion has been referred to as the 69th Infantry Regiment. Walker’s battalion of the Legion was at some point misidentified as the 80th Regiment. Such a unit did not exist during the war. Any study of the Cherokee and their role in the war must take these issues into consideration.
The military records of the soldiers in Thomas’ Legion have been published in North Carolina Troops 1861-1865 A Roster, Volume XVI, published by the NC Office of Archives and History only recently. In some cases it is hard to tell which Cherokee Confederate soldier is the right one. Most of their names are unfamiliar and spelled in strange combinations. There are names like Astoogatoogah, Cola Chustee, Matoy, Tahnohlee and others. But the military record also identifies many Cherokee with European names. I have counted 26 such names: Jackson, Powell, Reckley, Reed, Ward, Washington, Welch, Morris, Taylor, Calhoun, Hawkins, Johnson, Jones, Cochran, Murphy, Partridge, Ross, Smith, Bird, Sanders, Charlestown, Davis, Kane, Elliott, Wallace and Long.
It appears that approximately 300 men from the Cherokee tribe served in the Confederate Army. I estimate that about 50 of them died in the war. For such a small population this loss would have been a disaster.
From the beginning the Cherokee Confederates attracted attention. When they were first mustered into service they were taken to Knoxville, Tennessee and issued standard Confederate uniforms. The Cherokee men immediately began to modify their uniforms adding bead, bones and feathers. The additional décor along with painted faces facinated many of the locals. They were quite a tourist attraction for a time in Knoxville. People came from miles around to see them.
But soon the organizing turned into real war. In September 1862 the Indians of Thomas’ Legion found themselves camped along with other Confederate soldiers near Baptist Gap, Tennessee. Between September 13 and 15, 1862 the Cherokees were sent on patrols. At this point in the war the state of Kentucky was threatened by Confederate General Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee. Tensions were high and soldiers were on full alert.
Among the Confederate Cherokees was a beloved and highly respected officer by the name of Astoogatoogah. He was possibly the most respected and well like officer among the Cherokee soldiers.
Lt. Astoogatoogah was leading a patrol of Cherokee Confederates at Baptist Gap when they stumbled into a Union patrol opposite their position. The Union soldiers consisted of a group of about twelve Indiana men with little or no experience. Their leader gave the order to fire but they all seemed to fire at the same target at the head of the Confederate patrol. Lt. Astoogatoogah was killed instantly.
The Cherokee Confederates were outraged by the death of their beloved leader. Apparently, they went into a rage. With war hoops piercing air, they charged the inexperienced Union soldier. The Indiana boys soon realized that they were being attacked by the wildest looking soldiers they could imagine. Panic consumed the Union men and they began to run.
Running away from a group of nineteenth century Cherokee warriors was probably not a good idea. The chances of them being able to out run or out last the Cherokees on foot was close to zero. One by one, the Cherokees ran down the Indiana boys and killed them all. In their rage they scalped the Union men and took their scalps with them.
The incident was seized upon by the Northern press and defined as barbaric. The story apparently reached European papers. It became an international incident that forced the Confederate government to respond. Colonel Thomas ended up writing a formal letter of apology to the governor of Indiana. The scalps were collected from the Indians and returned to Indiana for proper burial. The incident did not go unnoticed among the regular Union soldiers. For the rest of the war the Union soldiers feared the Cherokee Confederates as much as anything else in their path. It also instilled a desire for revenge among Union soldiers against the Cherokee.
After the scuffle at Baptist Gap Bragg’s Confederate Army pressed into Kentucky. After victory at Richmond the Confederates were defeated at the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky. Thomas’ Legion was not directly involved in those battles.
After the winter of 1862-1863 the Cherokee were involved in various levels of guard duty and patrol duty. There was a huge Confederate loss at the Battle of Stones River/Murffresboro, Tennessee on December 31, 1862 to January 2, 1862. Union forces continued to press the Confederates further south. The Cherokees and Thomas’ Legion were involved in various skirmishes during this period. Eventually, the Union Army pressed the Confederates toward the critical rail center of Chattanooga. In September the two armies collided at Chickamauga, Georgia. The battle resulted in a Confederate victory but the Union Army simply pulled back to Knoxville and prepared for their next move. By the end of the year Chattanooga, Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain had all been taken by the Union.
In October of 1863 the pre-war bandit Goldman Bryson was at it again. He had raided the town of Murphy, North Carolina for a second time. The regional commander of the Confederate Army dispatched Brigadier General John C. Vaughn to intercept Bryson. Although Bryson was never officially in the Union Army he had assembled a force of between 100 and 200 men. Vaughn and the Confederates defeated Bryson in Cherokee County on October 27, 1863.
Amid the heat of battle Goldman Bryson escaped and left his men to be killed or captured. The white people of Cherokee County had had enough of Goldman Bryson and the Cherokees had never forgotten the murder of John Timson.
The following day General Vaughn ordered Major Marcus Brittain of the 47th Battalion N.C. Home Guard, to pursue Bryson. With Brittian were nineteen Cherokee Indians of Thomas’s Legion led by Lt. Campbell H. Taylor. Major Brittian separated the Cherokee and ordered them to go after Bryson.
Cherokee Lt. Taylor, pushed his men on for two days without food. The Cherokee Confederates followed the trail as Bryson tried to lead them astray. Lt. Taylor and the Cherokee caught up with Bryson and a man named Ledford near his home in Tennessee. When ordered to halt Bryson ran. The Cherokees fired and pursued Bryson. Bryson was hit and killed. The Cherokees returned to Murphy and were welcomed as heros. The Cherokee were said to have danced in the streets of Murphy waving Bryson’s bloody shirt.
Not long after the elimination of Goldman Brysoon a small incident occurred at Sevierville, Tennessee. Unionist Home Guard Troops had captured some Confederates and threw them in the town jail at Sevierville. A few of those captured were from Thomas’ Legion. It is unclear whether or not any of them were Cherokee. What is clear is that Confederate Colonel William Holland Thomas didn’t like it.
In a daring maneuver, Thomas march his Cherokees for forty miles from North Carolina into Tennessee. On December 7, 1863 Thomas and the Cherokee Confederates attacked the town of Sevierville and captured it after a brief battle. The Confederates freed their own men and captured a number of Union soldiers. After collecting men and supplies Thomas led his men back toward North Carolina.
Meanwhile word reached Knoxville on December 8th of the Sevierville raid. Angry Union officers called up the best cavalry officer in the Union Army to pursue Thomas. Orders were given to Colonel William Jackson Palmer of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment to depart immediately to track down the Cherokees.
Thomas had taken the Cherokees as far as Gatlinburg when he decided to rest his men. At this point he would have had no idea that he was being pursued and probably would not have known that it was Palmer in pursuit. The Cherokee and the Legion had such a fearsome reputation that Thomas probably thought he was safe.
But on the afternoon of December 8 Palmer was already on the outskirts of Gatlinburg. Recognizing that the Confederates had positioned themselves in a good defensive position Palmer divided his forces. He left some of his men in front while he marched his main body through the mountains at night. Suzanne Colton Wilson who wrote a history of the 15th Pennsylvania called Column South described Palmer’s maneuver. “It appears that Palmer’s own segment had the worst of it, as they had the longer and more difficult approach to go, single file and up steep forested path, leading their horses on foot.”
Palmer’s plan was excellent and his execution of it was perfect. The plan would probably resulted in a total elimination for most Confederate units had they been in the same position. But Thomas and his Cherokees were not caught off guard. When the sun rose on December 9, 1863 Palmer and the men of the 15th Pennsylvania attacked the camp. The Confederates executed their escape plan with perfection. Defensive firing in series from groups of Cherokees held the Union men back while the Confederates slipped into the forest. When the smoke cleared all the Confederates were gone and Thomas’ camp was empty. The only thing Colonel Palmer captured was Colonel Thomas’ hat.
The Cherokees remained in WNC for the rest of the war. Colonel Thomas, the Cherokees and all Confederates in the Legion were shocked and saddened by the loss of their great leader Colonel William Clay Walker commander of Walker’s Battalion of Thomas’ Legion. On January 3, 1864 a small team of assassins snuck up on the home of Colonel Walker. The Union operatives were led to Walker’s home by a Confederate deserter turned Union spy. Walker had been sick for several days with fever. He had had a problem with illness for some time. He probably had Typhoid Fever.
The men knocked on Walker’s door pretending to be friendly. When Walker opened the door they immediately shot him dead. They Captured Walker’s son and fled back to Tennessee. Along the way, Walker’s son, also sick with fever, fell dead. Or so the assassins thought. They dropped the younger Walker and continued to Tennessee. The younger Walker survived. The Unionist guide was killed later that year by Confederate Captain Stephen Whitaker of Thomas’ Legion.
In all probability these men were paid by Union officers in East Tennessee to do the killing. It was a military assassination. Having Walker killed was done in preparation for a bigger mission: an attack on the Cherokee.
Just 29 days after Colonel Walker was killed the Union Army dispatched the 14th Illinois Cavalry on a secret mission. The 14th Illinois Cavalry was led Union Colonel Davidson. He had 1,100 men and three pieces of artillery. He was also escorted and guided by about 50 Unionist spies, mostly from East Tennessee, who knew the area and the trails. These same spies had supplied information indicating that the entire Cherokee Battalion was camped on the west bank of Deep Creek, just outside Charleston, (now called Bryson City).
The Union Cavalry slipped through the mountain passes on old Indian trails. They arrived at Charleston before dawn on February 2, 1864. Davidson positioned his men around the camp trapping the Cherokees against the creek. Davidson sent his best men forward to take the camp guards and begin the attack. The advanced pickets were led by a Lt. from Peoria, Illinois named Horace Capron. Lt. Capron would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for previous service in another battle.
As the sun rose on February 2nd, Davidson gave the order to attack. The Union men began firing on the Cherokee from the hills above the camp. Capron and the advance men attacked the guard positions, killing or wounding many of the guards. Others Confederates began falling back toward the creek. It appeared that the Cherokee would be wiped out. But the Cherokee had planned for such an event. As they had done at Gatlinburg and other places during the war some men fired and moved while others began their escape. By some means unknown to us today they had placed rocks or ropes or both to aid their escape. It had to have been difficult because bullets were raining on the camp and many women and children were present. All were caught in a desperate scramble to get across the creek. In what must have been one of the more amazing evacuations in the war many of the Cherokees escaped across the creek. Approximately ten Cherokees were killed and more than 30 were captured. While there is no record, it is likely that women and children were killed or wounded.
After the Creek crossing Lt. Capron and his Union men were not done. They pushed their pursuit and began crossing the creek chasing after the Cherokee. But the Indians were ready for that and a suppressing fire team was already in place on the bluff on the east side of the Creek. When Capron and his men assembled on the east side and began moving forward the Cherokee were waiting for them. They opened fire and rained bullets down on the advancing Union Cavalry. Lt. Capron was mortally wounded and several other Union soldiers were killed or wounded. The remaining Union soldiers collected their wounded men and retreated back across the creek. Lt. Capron died a few days later.
The captured Confederates were taken to Union prison where some of them died of starvation, malnutrition and exposure. This event was a severe blow to the Cherokee from which they never really recovered. Just a couple of weeks later about 15 more Cherokee made their way to Motley’s Ford, Tennessee and surrendered. They stated that they had done so to avoid starvation.
The remaining Cherokee Confederates withdrew to their camps around Quallatown and Valleytown and were never quite the same. Colonel Thomas lived in fear for his life, expecting a fate similar to that of Colonel Walker. Thomas withdrew to the Indian Reservation and rarely ventured to far from it.
When the end of the war came for Western North Carolina and for the nation the Cherokees were right there. A peace conference was held at Battle House in Waynesville, N.C. on May 7, 1865, for the purpose negotiating a Confederate surrender of the last remaining forces in the field. Union Colonel Bartlett was there and the Confederate delegation was led by Confederate western district commander Brigadier General James G. Martin. Also representing the Confederates were Lt. Colonel James R. Love and Colonel William Holland Thomas. Thomas’ Legion and the Cherokees were all that was left.
Ever the showman Colonel Thomas continued to seek advantage even when negotiating his own surrender. The night before the meeting Thomas had the Cherokee build bond fires all around the town of Waynesville trying to make the Union soldiers who were camped in town think they were surrounded. The next day Colonel Thomas arrived at the meeting escorted by 20 of his best Cherokee soldiers. The Cherokees were “stripped to the waist and painted and feathered in good old style.”
The psychological warfare may have helped. Thomas’s Cherokees were allowed to keep their weapons. Colonel Thomas and the Cherokees returned to the reservation, as the war for them, was then and forever hence, a thing of memories.
But the horrors did not end for a while. Late in the war some desperate Cherokees made a critical choice and joined the Union Army. While most white communities accepted those turned Unionist back into the fold the Cherokee did not. It is said that absolutely all the Cherokee who went over to the Union Army were either killed or fled to points in the far west never to be seen again.
In the end the war was a terrible disaster for the Cherokee people. The loss of twenty percent of the male population was a sad blow to a struggling tribe. Most of us, like Bill Byrd and others rooted in the region, we all have some Cherokee blood. We should not forget the service and sacrifice of the Cherokee Confederates. They stood with all our European ancestors through trials of fire. For all that has passed, and all that shall come, we must remember and respect our Cherokee brothers and teach it to our children. From a time long ago, we were bound to the Cherokee people by our ancestors. Regardless of who realizes it and who doesn’t, there will always be those of us who will remember and never forget. We reside in the land of the Cherokee and we are forever bound to them by blood and war.