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Pike's Great Purpose

 Native American Nations | Participant in the Civil War                   


Pike's great purpose—and, perhaps, it would be no exaggeration to say, his only purpose—throughout the full extent of his active connection with the Confederacy was to save to that Confederacy the Indian Territory. The Indian occupants in and for themselves, unflattering as it may seem to them for historical investigators to have to admit it, were not objects of his solicitude except in so far as they contributed to his real and ultimate endeavor. He never at any time or under any circumstances advocated their use generally as soldiers outside of Indian Territory in regular campaign work and offensively.38 As guerrillas he would have used them.39 He would have sent them on predatory expeditions into Kansas or any other near-by state where pillaging would have been profitable or retaliatory; but never as an organized force, subject to the rules of civilized warfare because fully cognizant of them.40 It is doubtful if he would ever have allowed them, had he consulted only his own inclination, to so much as cross the line except under stress of an attack from without. He would never have sanctioned their joining an unprovoked invading force. In the treaties which he negotiated he pledged distinctly and explicitly the opposite course of action, unless, indeed, the Indian consent were first obtained.41 The Indian troops, however and wherever raised under the provisions of those treaties, were expected by Pike to constitute, primarily, a home guard and nothing more. If by chance it should happen that, in performing their function as a home guard, they should have to cross their own boundary in order to expel or to punish an intruder, well and good; but their intrinsic character as something resembling a police patrol could not be deemed thereby affected. Moreover, Pike did not believe that acting alone they could even be a thoroughly adequate home force. He, therefore, urged again and again that their contingent should be supplemented by a white force and by one sufficiently large to give dignity and poise and self-restraint to the whole, when both forces were combined, as they always ought to be.42

At the time of Pike's assumption of his ill-defined command, or within a short period thereafter, the Indian force in the pay of the Confederacy and subject to his orders may be roughly placed at four full regiments and some miscellaneous troops.43 The dispersion44 of Colonel John Drew's Cherokees, when about to attack Opoeth-le-yo-ho-la, forced a slight reorganization and that, taken in connection with the accretions to the command that came in the interval before the Pea Ridge campaign brought the force approximately to four full regiments, two battalions, and some detached companies. The four regiments were, the First Regiment Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles under Colonel Douglas H. Cooper, the First Creek Regiment under Colonel D.N. McIntosh, the First Regiment Cherokee Mounted Rifles under Colonel John Drew, and the Second Regiment Cherokee Mounted Rifles under Colonel Stand Watie. The battalions were, the Choctaw and Chickasaw and the Creek and Seminole, the latter under Lieutenant-colonel Chilly McIntosh and Major John Jumper.

Major-general Earl Van Dorn formally assumed command of the newly created Trans-Mississippi District of Department No. 2, January 29, 1862.45 He was then at Little Rock, Arkansas. By February 6, he had moved up to Jacksonport and, a week or so later, to Pocahontas, where his slowly-assembling army was to rendezvous. His call for troops had already gone forth and was being promptly answered,46 requisition having been made upon all the state units within the district, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, also Texas. Indian Territory, through Pike47 and his subordinates,48 was yet to be communicated with; but Van Dorn had, at the moment, no other plan in view for Indian troops than to use them to advantage as a means of defense and as a corps of observation.49 His immediate object, according to his own showing and according to the circumstances that had brought about the formation of the district, was to protect Arkansas50 against Ostensibly, the great object that Van Dorn had in mind was the relief of Missouri. And he may have dreamed, that feat accomplished, that it would be possible to carry the war into the enemy's country beyond the Ohio; but, alas, it was his misfortune at this juncture to be called upon to realize, to his great discomfiture, the truth of Robert Burns' homely philosophy,

The best-laid schemes o' mice and men

Gang aft a-gley.

His own schemes and plans were all rendered utterly futile by the unexpected movement of the Federal forces from Rolla, to which safe place, it will be remembered, they had been drawn back by order of General Hunter. They were now advancing by forced marches via Springfield into northwestern Arkansas and were driving before them the Confederates under McCulloch and Price.

The Federal forces comprised four huge divisions and were led by Brigadier-general Samuel R. Curtis. Towards the end of the previous December, on Christmas Day in fact, Curtis had been given "command of the Southwestern District of Missouri, including the country south of the Osage and west of the Meramec River."51 Under orders of November 9, the old Department of the West, of which Fremont had had charge and subsequently Hunter, but for only a brief period, had been reorganized and divided into two distinct departments, the Department of Missouri with Halleck in command and the Department of Kansas with Hunter. Curtis, at the time when he made his memorable advance movement from Rolla was, therefore, serving under Halleck.

In furtherance of Van Dorn's original plan, General Pike had been ordered to march with all speed and join forces with the main army. At the time of the issuance of the order, he seems to have offered no objections to taking his Indians out of their own territory. Disaster had not yet overtaken them or him and he had not yet met with the injustice that was afterwards his regular lot. If his were regarded as more or less of a puppet command, he was not yet aware of it and, oblivious of all scorn felt for Indian soldiers, kept his eye single on the assistance he was to render in the accomplishment of Van Dorn's object. It was anything but easy, however, for him to move with dispatch. He had difficulty in getting such of his brigade as was Indian and as had collected at Cantonment Davis, a Choctaw and Chickasaw battalion and the First Creek Regiment, to stir. They had not been paid their money and had not been furnished with arms and clothing as promised. Pike had the necessary funds with him, but time would be needed in which to distribute them, and the order had been for him to move promptly. It was something much more easily said than done. Nevertheless, he did what he could, paid outright the Choctaws and Chickasaws, a performance that occupied three precious days, and agreed to pay McIntosh's Creek regiment at the Illinois River. To keep that promise he tarried at Park Hill one day, expecting there to be overtaken by additional Choctaws and Chickasaws who had been left behind at Fort Gibson. When they did not appear, he went forward towards Evansville and upward to Cincinnati, a small town on the Arkansas side of the Cherokee line. There his Indian force was augmented by Stand Watie's regiment52 of Cherokees and at Smith's Mill by John Drew's.53 The Cherokees had been in much confusion all winter. Civil war within their nation impended.54 None the less, Pike, assuming that all would be well when the call for action came, had ordered all the Cherokee and Creek regiments to hurry to the help of McCulloch.55 He had done this upon the first intimation of the Federal advance. The Cherokees had proceeded only so far, the Creeks not at all, and the main body of the Choctaws and Chickasaws, into whose minds some unscrupulous merchants had instilled mercenary motives and the elements of discord generally, were lingering far in the background. Pike's white force was, moreover, ridiculously small, some Texas cavalry, dignified by him as collectively a squadron, Captain O.G. Welch in command. There had as yet not been even a pretense of giving him the three regiments of white men earlier asked for. Toward the close of the afternoon of March 6, Pike "came up with the rear of McCulloch's division,"56 which proved to be the very division he was to follow, but he was one day late for the fray.

The Battle of Pea Ridge, in its preliminary stages, was already being fought. It was a three day fight, counting the skirmish at Bentonville on the sixth between General Franz Sigel's detachment and General Sterling Price's advance guard as the work of the first day.57 The real battle comprised the engagement at Leetown on the seventh and that at Elkhorn Tavern58 on the eighth. At Leetown, Pike's Cherokee contingent59 played what he, in somewhat quixotic fashion, perhaps, chose to regard as a very important part. The Indians, then as always, were chiefly pony-mounted, "entirely undisciplined," as the term discipline is usually understood, and "armed very indifferently with common rifles and ordinary shot-guns."60 The ponies, in the end, proved fleet of foot, as was to have been expected, and, at one stage of the game, had to be tethered in the rear while their masters fought from the vantage-ground of trees.61 The Indian's most effective work was done, throughout, under cover of the woods. Indians, as Pike well knew, could never be induced to face shells in the open. It was he who advised their climbing the trees and he did it without discounting, in the slightest, their innate bravery.62 There came a time, too, when he gave countenance to another of their peculiarities. He allowed Colonel Drew's men to fight in a way that was "their own fashion,"63 with bow and arrow and with tomahawk.64 This, as was only meet it should, called down upon him and them the opprobrium of friends and foes alike.65 The Indian war-whoop was indulged in, of itself enough to terrify. It was hideous.

The service that the Cherokees rendered at different times during the two days action was not, however, to be despised, even though not sufficiently conspicuous to be deemed worthy of comment by Van Dorn.66 At Leetown, with the aid of a few Texans, they managed to get possession of a battery and to hold it against repeated endeavors of the Federals to regain. The death of McCulloch and of McIntosh made Pike the ranking officer in his part of the field. It fell to him to rally McCulloch's broken army and with it to join Van Dorn. On the eighth, Colonel Watie's men under orders from Van Dorn took position on the high ridges where they could watch the movements of the enemy and give timely notice of any attempt to turn the Confederate left flank. Colonel Drew's regiment, meanwhile, not having received the word passed along the line to move forward, remained in the woods near Leetown, the last in the field. Subsequently, finding themselves deserted, they drew back towards Camp Stephens, where they were soon joined by "General Cooper, with his regiment and battalion of Choctaws and Chickasaws, and" by "Colonel McIntosh with 200 men of his regiment of Creeks."67 The delinquent wayfarers were both fortunate and unfortunate in thus tardily arriving upon the scene. They had missed the fight but they had also missed the temptation to revert to the savagery that was soon to bring fearful ignominy upon their neighbors. To the very last of the Pea Ridge engagement, Stand Watie's men were active. They covered the retreat of the main army, to a certain extent. They were mostly half-breeds and, so far as can be definitely ascertained, were entirely guiltless of the atrocities charged against the others.

General Pike gave the permission to fight "in their own fashion" specifically to the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles, who were, for the most part, full-blooded Indians; but he later confessed that, in his treaty negotiations with the tribes, they had generally stipulated that they should, if they fought at all, be allowed to fight as they knew how.68 Yet they probably did not mean, thereby, to commit atrocities and the Cherokee National Council lost no time, after the Indian shortcomings at the Battle of Pea Ridge had become known, in putting itself on record as standing opposed to the sort of thing that had occurred,

Resolved, That in the opinion of the National Council, the war now existing between the said United States and the Confederate States and their Indian allies should be conducted on the most humane principles which govern the usages of war among civilized nations, and that it be and is earnestly recommended to the troops of this nation in the service of the Confederate States to avoid any acts toward captured or fallen foes that would be incompatible with such usages.69

The atrocities committed by the Indians became almost immediately a matter for correspondence between the opposing commanders. The Federals charged mutilation of dead bodies on the battle-field and the tomahawking and scalping of prisoners. The Confederates recriminated as against persons "alleged to be Germans." The case involving the Indians was reported to the joint committee of Congress on the Conduct of the Present War;70 but at least one piece of evidence was not, at that time, forthcoming, a piece that, in a certain sense, might be taken to exonerate the whites. It came to the knowledge of General Blunt during the summer and was the Indians' own confession. It bore only indirectly upon the actual atrocities but showed that the red men were quite equal to making their own plans in fighting and were not to be relied upon to do things decently and in order. Drew's men, when they deserted the Confederates after the skirmish of July third at Locust Grove, confided to the Federals the intelligence "that the killing of the white rebels by the Indians in" the Pea Ridge "fight was determined upon before they went into battle."71 Presumptively, if the Cherokees could plot to kill their own allies, they could be found despicable enough and cruel enough to mutilate the dead,72 were the chance given them and that without any direction, instruction, or encouragement from white men being needed.

The Confederate defeat at Pea Ridge was decisive and, as far as Van Dorn's idea of relieving Missouri was concerned, fatally conclusive. As early as the twenty-first of February, Beauregard had expressed a wish to have him east of the Mississippi73 and March had not yet expired before Van Dorn was writing in such a way as to elicit the consummation of the wish. The Federals were in occupation of the northern part of Arkansas; but Van Dorn was very confident they would not be able to subsist there long or "do much harm in the west." In his opinion, therefore, it was incumbent upon the Confederates, instead of dividing their strength between the east and the west, to concentrate on the saving of the Mississippi.74 To all appearances, it was there that the situation was most critical. In due time, came the order for Van Dorn to repair eastward and to take with him all the troops that might be found available.

The completeness of Curtis's victory, the loss to the Southerners, by death or capture, of some of their best-loved and ablest commanders, McCulloch, McIntosh, Hébert, and the nature of the country through which the Federals pursued their fleeing forces, to say nothing of the miscellaneous and badly-trained character of those forces, to which, by the way, Van Dorn ascribed75 much of his recent ill-success, all helped to make the retirement of the Confederates from the Pea Ridge battle-ground pretty much of a helter-skelter affair. From all accounts, the Indians conducted themselves as well as the best. The desire of everybody was to get to a place of safety and that right speedily. Colonel Watie and his regiment made their way to Camp Stephens,76 near which place the baggage train had been left77 and where Cooper and Drew with their men had found refuge already. Some two hundred of Watie's Indians were detailed to help take ammunition back to the main army.78 The baggage train moved on to Elm Springs, the remainder of the Indians, under Cooper, assisting in protecting it as far as that place.79 At Walnut Grove, the Watie detail, having failed to deliver the ammunition because of the departure of the army prior to their arrival, rejoined their comrades and all moved on to Cincinnati, where Pike, who with a few companions had wandered several days among the mountains, came up with them.80

In Van Dorn's calculations for troops that should accompany him east or follow in his wake, the Indians had no place. Before his own plans took final shape and while he was still arranging for an Army of the West, his orders for the Indians were, that they should make their way back as best they could to their own country and there operate "to cut off trains, annoy the enemy in his marches, and to prevent him as far as possible from supplying his troops from Missouri and Kansas."81 A little later, but still anterior to Van Dorn's summons east, more minute particulars of the program were addressed to Pike. Maury wrote,

The general commanding has decided to march with his army against the enemy now invading the northeastern part of the State. Upon you, therefore, will devolve the necessity of impeding his advance into this region. It is not expected that you will give battle to a large force, but by felling trees, burning bridges, removing supplies of forage and subsistence, attacking his trains, stampeding his animals, cutting off his detachments, and other similar means, you will be able materially to harass his army and protect this region of country. You must endeavor by every means to maintain yourself in the Territory independent of this army. In case only of absolute necessity you may move southward. If the enemy threatens to march through the Indian Territory or descend the Arkansas River you may call on troops from Southwestern Arkansas and Texas to rally to your aid. You may reward your Indian troops by giving them such stores as you may think proper when they make captures from the enemy, but you will please endeavor to restrain them from committing any barbarities upon the wounded, prisoners, or dead who may fall into their hands. You may purchase your supplies of subsistence from wherever you can most advantageously do so. You will draw your ammunition from Little Rock or from New Orleans via Red River. Please communicate with the general commanding when practicable.82

It was an elaborate program but scarcely a noble one. Its note of selfishness sounded high. The Indians were simply to be made to serve the ends of the white men. Their methods of warfare were regarded as distinctly inferior. Pea Ridge was, in fact, the first and last time that they were allowed to participate in the war on a big scale. Henceforth, they were rarely ever anything more than scouts and skirmishers and that was all they were really fitted to be.

38: The provision in the treaties to the effect that the alliance consummated between the Indians and the Confederate government was to be both offensive and defensive must not be taken too literally or be construed so broadly as to militate against this fact: for to its truth Pike, when in distress later on and accused of leading a horde of tomahawking villains, repeatedly bore witness. The keeping back of a foe, bent upon regaining Indian Territory or of marauding, might well be said to partake of the character of offensive warfare and yet not be that in intent or in the ordinary acceptation of the term. Everything would have to depend upon the point of view.
39: A restricted use of the Indians in offensive guerrilla action Pike would doubtless have permitted and justified. Indeed, he seems even to have recommended it in the first days of his interest in the subject of securing Indian Territory. No other interpretation can possibly be given to his suggestion that a battalion be raised from Indians that more strictly belonged to Kansas [Official Records, vol. iii, 581]. It is also conceivable that the force he had reference to in his letter to Benjamin, November 27, 1861 [ibid., vol. viii, 698] was to be, in part, Indian.
40: Harrell, Confederate Military History, vol. x, 121-122.
41: In illustration of this, take the statement of the Creek Treaty, article xxxvi.
42: Aside from the early requests for white troops, which were antecedent to his own appointment as brigadier-general, Pike's insistence upon the need for the same can be vouched for by reference to his letter to R.W. Johnson, January 5, 1862 [Official Records, vol. liii, supplement, 795-796].
43: Pike to Benjamin, November 27, 1861, ibid, vol. viii, 697.
44: Official Records, vol. viii, 8, 17-18.
45: Official Records, vol. viii, 745-746.
46: Ibid., vol. liii, supplement, 776-779, 783-785, 790, 793-794.
47: Ibid., vol. viii, 749, 763-764.
48: Ibid., 764-765.
49: Van Dorn to Price, February 14, 1862, ibid., 750.
50: Arkansas seemed, at the time, to be but feebly protected. R.W. Johnson deprecated the calling of Arkansas troops eastward. They were invasion and to relieve Missouri; his plan of operations was to conduct a spring campaign in the latter state, "to attempt St. Louis," as he himself put it, and to drive the Federals out; his ulterior motive may have been and, in the light of subsequent events, probably was, to effect a diversion for General A.S. Johnston; but, if that were really so, it was not, at the time, divulged or so much as hinted at text of continuation: needed at home, not only for the defense of Arkansas, but for that of the adjoining territory [Official Records, vol. liii, supplement, 781-782]. There were, in fact, only two Arkansas regiments absent and they were guarding the Mississippi River [ibid., 786]. By the middle of February, or thereabouts, Price and McCulloch were in desperate straits and were steadily "falling back before a superior force to the Boston Mountains" [ibid., 787].
51: Official Records, vol. liii, supplement, vol. viii, 462.
52: Watie's regiment of Cherokees was scarcely in either marching or fighting trim. The following letter from John Ross to Pike, which is number nine in the John Ross Papers in the Indian Office, is elucidative. It is a copy used in the action against John Ross at the close of the war. The italics indicate underscoring that were probably not in the original.

Executive Department, Park Hill, Feb'y 25th, 1862.

To Brig. Gen'L.A. PIKE, Com'dy Indian Department.

Sir: I have deemed it my duty to address you on the present occasion—You have doubtless ere this received my communication enclosing the action of the National Council with regard to the final ratification of our Treaty—Col. Drew's Regiment promptly took up the line of march on the receipt of your order from Fort Smith towards Fayetteville. I accompanied the Troops some 12 miles East of this and I am happy to assure you in the most confident manner that in my opinion this Regiment will not fail to do their whole duty, whenever the Conflict with the common Enemy shall take place. There are so many conflicting reports as to your whereabouts and consequently much interest is felt by the People to know where the Head Qrs. of your military operations will be established during the present emergencies—I had intended going up to see the Troops of our Regiment; also to visit the Head Qrs of the Army at Cane Hill in view of affording every aid in any manner within the reach of my power to repel the Enemy. But I am sorry to say I have been dissuaded from going at present in consequence of some unwarrantable conduct on the part of many base, reckless and unprincipled persons belonging to Watie's Regiment who are under no subordination or restraint of their leaders in domineering over and trampling upon the rights of peaceable and unoffending citizens. I have at all times in the most unequivocal manner assured the People that you will not only promptly discountenance, but will take steps to put a stop to such proceedings for the protection of their persons and property and to redress their wrongs—This is not the time for crimination and recrimination; at a proper time I have certain specific complaints to report for your investigation. Pardon me for again reiterating that the mass of the People are all right in Sentiment for the support of the Treaty of Alliance with the Confederate States. I shall be happy to hear from you—I have the honor to be your ob't Serv't

John Ross, Prin'l Chief, Cherokee Nation.

53: Pike's Report, March 14, 1862, Official Records, vol. viii, 286-292.
54: James McIntosh to S. Cooper, January 4, 1862, ibid., 732; D.H. Cooper to Pike, February 10, 1862, ibid., vol. xiii, 896.
55: Ibid., 819.
56: Ibid., vol. viii, 287.
57: Ibid., 208-215, 304-306.
58: The Elkhorn Tavern engagement is sometimes referred to, and most appropriately, as the Sugar Creek [Phisterer, Statistical Record, 95]. Colonel Eugene A. Carr of the Third Illinois Cavalry, commanding the Fourth Division of Curtis's army, described the tavern itself as "situated on the west side of the Springfield and Fayetteville road, at the head of a gorge known as Cross Timber Hollow (the head of Sugar Creek) ..." [Official Records, vol. viii, 258]. "Sugar Creek Hollow," wrote Curtis, "extends for miles, a gorge, with rough precipitate sides ..." [ibid., 589]. It was there the closing scenes of the great battle were enacted.
59: The practice, indulged in by both the Federals and the Confederates, of greatly overestimating the size of the enemy force was resorted to even in connection with the Indians. Pike gave the number of his whole command as about a thousand men, Indians and whites together [Official Records, vol. viii, 288; xiii, 820] notwithstanding that he had led Van Dorn to expect that he would have a force of "about 8,000 or 9,000 men and three batteries of artillery" [ibid., vol. viii, 749]. General Curtis surmised that Pike contributed five regiments [ibid., 196] and Wiley Britton, who had excellent opportunity of knowing better because he had access to the records of both sides, put the figures at "three regiments of Indians and two regiments of Texas cavalry" [Civil War on the Border, vol. i, 245].
60: Official Records, vol. xiii, 819.
61: Ibid., vol. viii, 288.
62: Ibid.
63: Official Records, vol. viii, 289.
64: Ibid., 195.
65: The northern press took up the matter and the New York Tribune was particularly virulent against Pike. In its issue of March 27, 1862, it published the following in bitter sarcasm:

"The Albert Pike who led the Aboriginal Corps of Tomahawkers and Scalpers at the battle of Pea Ridge, formerly kept school in Fairhaven, Mass., where he was indicted for playing the part of Squeers, and cruelly beating and starving a boy in his family. He escaped by some hocus-pocus law, and emigrated to the West, where the violence of his nature has been admirably enhanced. As his name indicates, he is a ferocious fish, and has fought duels enough to qualify himself to be a leader of savages. We suppose that upon the recent occasion, he got himself up in good style, war-paint, nose-ring, and all. This new Pontiac is also a poet, and wrote 'Hymns to the Gods' in Blackwood; but he has left Jupiter, Juno, and the rest, and betaken himself to the culture of the Great Spirit, or rather of two great spirits, whisky being the second."

66: Van Dorn did not make his detailed official report of this battle until the news had leaked out that the Indians had mangled the bodies of the dead and committed other atrocities. He was probably then desirous of being as silent as he dared be concerning Indian participation, since he, in virtue of his being chief in command, was the person mainly responsible for it. In October of the preceding year, McCulloch had favored using the Indians against Kansas [Official Records, vol. iii, 719, 721]. Cooper objected strongly to their being kept "at home" [ibid., 614] and one of the leading chiefs insisted that they did not intend to use the scalping knife [ibid., 625].
67: Official Records, vol. viii, 292.
68: Ibid., vol. xiii, 819.
69: Official Records, vol. xiii, 826.
70: By vote of the committee, General Curtis had been instructed to furnish information on the subject of the employment of Indians by the Confederates [Journal, 92].
71: Official Records, vol. xiii, 486.
72: The same charge was made against the Indians who fought at Wilson's Creek [Leavenworth Daily Conservative, August 24, 1861].
73: Roman, Military Operations of General Beauregard, vol. i, 240.
74: Official Records, vol. viii, 796.
75: Official Records, vol. viii, 282.
76: Ibid.. 291.
77: Ibid., 317.
78: Ibid., 318.
79: Ibid.; Britton, Civil War on the Border, vol. i, 273.
80: Official Records, vol. viii, 292.
81: Official Records, vol. viii, 282, 790; vol. liii, supplement, 796.
82: Ibid., vol. viii, 795-796.

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The American Indian as Participant in the Civil War, 1919

Participant in the Civil War


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