Two Lost Causes

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012-2013, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2012 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


In 1995 the U.S. Post Office issued a series of stamps to commemorate the Civil War. Evidently there was some Southern input into the design of this stamp series, because a heading underneath the main heading reads, “The War between the States.” The people selected for depiction on the stamps include those who are expected, such as Lincoln and Davis, Grant and Lee, and Sherman and Jackson. There is, however, one person whose inclusion has to be considered surprising, and that is someone named Stand Watie. When I first saw these stamps, I had no idea who Stand Watie was. Since this stamp series includes a mere 16 stamps that depict individuals from the Civil War, can Stand Watie be considered worthy of inclusion as one of the top 16 people of the Civil War?

The Civil War stamps issued in 1995 by the U.S. Post Office

Little is known about Watie’s early life. He was born in 1806 on Cherokee land near Rome, Georgia. His Cherokee name, Degataga, means “he stands” or “stands firm” or “stands together,” hence his Anglicized name Stand. Watie’s first real appearance in recorded history came during Andrew Jackson’s presidency and the quest to remove the Cherokee from their land in Georgia. The vast majority of Cherokee refused to be removed, and their elected principal chief steadfastly made this clear in negotiations with the U.S. government. However, a minority faction of Cherokee, led by some members of Watie’s family and including Watie, himself, reasoned, most likely correctly, that the U.S. government would eventually forcibly remove the Cherokee or perhaps even slaughter them in order to free up the land. This minority group therefore decided to try to obtain something from the U.S. government in return for the Cherokee land in Georgia, which they did late in 1835 in what became known as the Treaty of New Echota. The treaty gave the Cherokee an amount of land in Oklahoma equal to that in Georgia and also five million dollars. The leaders of the minority faction signed the treaty, but the principal chief did not, and the majority of the Cherokee (that is, 90%) did not recognize the treaty as valid, eventually signing a petition to this effect.

Stand Watie

After Senate ratification of the Treaty of New Echota (by a single vote), the minority group moved west without incident in 1837. The majority of the Cherokee tribe were forcibly removed beginning in 1838 in what became known as the Trail of Tears. The legal basis claimed for this forced removal was the Treaty of New Echota, the treaty that was not signed by the Cherokee’s elected leader and not recognized by the vast majority of the Cherokee tribe. Shortly after this group arrived on their new land, their council decided to kill the leaders of the minority faction, since relinquishing tribal land had been established by the Cherokee as a capital offense. Ironically, one person who had been instrumental in establishing this policy was the leader of the minority faction that negotiated the Treaty of New Echota and who was now subject to this policy’s execution. On June 22, 1839, most of the prominent leaders of the minority faction were killed. Stand Watie escaped death only because he was warned by a friend. In ensuing years, there was much bloodshed among the feuding Cherokee groups, and it became almost a Cherokee civil war. Finally in 1846 the two groups made peace, and Watie was even made a member of the tribal council.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Watie, who was a slaveholder, declared loyalty to the Confederacy and raised a regiment of mounted infantry, the First Cherokee Mounted Volunteers. One member of this unit was Clem Rogers, the father of Will Rogers. The only major battle in which Watie and his men took part was Pea Ridge. After that battle, Watie’s mounted infantry operated as raiders and were engaged mainly in small battles. Two of the most important were the capture of a Union steamboat and its cargo on the Arkansas River and the second battle of Cabin Creek, in which Watie and his troops captured a Union wagon train that had enough supplies to clothe the troops and feed both them and their civilian dependents for a month. It is not much of a stretch to say that Stand Watie was a Native American Nathan Bedford Forrest. Watie has two Civil War distinctions. He was the only Native American to attain the rank of general in the Confederacy, and one of only two for both sides, the other being Ely S. Parker of the Union. And Watie was the last Confederate general to surrender, doing so on June 23, 1865.

After the Civil War, Watie returned to his devastated home and tried to rebuild his life. This period saw another division among the Cherokee, this time into those who fought for the Union and those who fought for the Confederacy. Tensions were so high that Watie had to go into exile. Eventually the two groups reconciled, and Watie could return to his home in Cherokee territory, where he lived and farmed for the last four years of his life. All three of Watie’s sons preceded him in death, and shortly before his own death on September 9, 1871, Watie wrote to one of his daughters, “You can’t imagine how lonely I am up here at our old place without any of my dear children being with me.” Watie lived long enough to see land taken from the Cherokee that had been given to them in perpetuity by the treaty that Watie signed. It has been said that Watie supported two lost causes: the Treaty of New Echota and the Confederacy.

Stand Watie’s postage stamp

Based simply on Stand Watie’s impact on the Civil War, I think it is difficult to make a strong case that he should be considered in the top 16 Civil War individuals. How then did he come to be included alongside the Civil War luminaries who are depicted in this set of stamps? It seems from the arrangement of the stamps that the Post Office included people in pairs, one Northerner and one Southerner as counterparts. This pairing makes sense for Lincoln and Davis, Grant and Lee, and Sherman and Jackson. Other pairs are David Farragut and Raphael Semmes, Harriet Tubman and Mary Chesnut, and Clara Barton and Phoebe Pember. Watie’s Union counterpart is Winfield Scott Hancock, and some might argue that this is an unequal pairing in terms of Civil War prominence. Most likely Watie was included primarily in the interest of ethnic diversity, but his military skill and bold exploits are legendary. Watie had an extremely eventful life, and if the Post Office had not included him, many Civil War enthusiasts, myself included, would never have heard of him. Whether this is sufficient reason to include Watie in a series of Civil War stamps is another matter. But since the Post Office saw fit to pair Frederick Douglas with Joseph E. Johnston, then I suppose the Hancock-Watie pairing cannot be considered the oddest one.