At the same time, as we watch political agitators wantonly destroying symbols of our country’s history in vigilante mobs, one can not help but be struck by their profound ignorance of said history. For these simpletons, the Confederacy equals racism, and everything having to do with it equals racism, and anyone who casts a wistful glance at the sacrifices of their ancestors in support of the Confederacy is, de facto, a racist. But one doesn’t have to dig too deeply into the history to find that the situation was often far more complicated than this snap judgment will afford.
|Stand Watie in 1862 before going off to war.|
When the Civil War erupted, it is perhaps not surprising that Watie and many of the Cherokees had sympathy for the Confederate cause. They had no love for the federal government in Washington, and besides that, slavery was practiced by many American Indian tribes from before contact with Europeans. Watie himself owned slaves. Though divided, the Cherokee eventually threw their lot with the rebels and Stand Watie soon became a colonel in the Confederate army, eventually rising to the rank of brigadier general. Well into his 50s, he was an active fighter in the western theater, taking part in battles throughout the Indian Territories. He would become famous as the last Confederate general to surrender, which he did on June 23, 1865.
The war had been hard on the Cherokee. They lost nearly a third of their number and their territory had been devastated by Union soldiers. After the war, Stand Watie tried to rebuild his home and his fortunes. He died six years later, predeceased by all of his three sons. His two daughters died shortly after him, leaving his widowed wife, Sarah, to carry on until 1883.
Stand Watie was not a paragon of virtue. He had many faults. His cause was wrong and his methods in combat could be unorthodox. He did not always have control of his men, who sometimes reverted to the old Indian practice of scalping their enemies. Before you judge him, however, read this excerpt from a letter he wrote to his wife in 1864 where he examines his conscience:
Sometimes I examine myself thoroughly and I will always come to the conclusion that I am not such a bad man at last as I am looked upon. God will give me justice. If I am to be punished for the opinions of other people, who do not know my heart I can’t help it. If I commit an error I do it without bad intention. My great crime in the world is blunder. I will get into scrapes without intention or any bad motive. I call upon God to judge me, he knows that I love my friends and above all others, my wife and children, the opinion of the world to contrary notwithstanding. [Taken from Chronicles of Oklahoma, Volume 1, page 47.]
|Stand Watie's Memorial in Tahlequah, OK.|
As a Pennsylvania boy born and raised, I have little sympathy for the Confederate cause. But I do recognize that people fought in the Civil War for a variety of reasons that often had little to do with defending the hideous institution of slavery. Many of those who fought on the wrong side were brave men who sacrificed all. In the not-too-distant past, men could fight one day, be reconciled the next, and be best friends the day after. They could also honor each other years later—call it courtesy, nostalgia, chivalry or what have you. That sense of chivalry seems to be something our society has been sadly lacking for some time now.
Our modern arbiters of morality in media and the mask-wearing mob insist on judging our ancestors based on their own ill-informed, hyper-politicized 21st century views. These same folks vehemently deny anyone else the privilege of judging them or their actions. But their day will come. I am confident that future generations will judge the lives of men like Stand Watie a good deal more sympathetically than those of the cowardly rioters who pull down the effigies of brave men.
If they eventually deem Stand Watie unfit for a memorial of this kind, they should probably also find and burn all copies of the 1976 movie, The Outlaw Josie Wales, as it includes a character called "Lone Watie" played brilliantly by Chief Dan George. If you've never seen the film, Lone Watie is quite a sympathetic character and his backstory sounds awfully familiar. In this clip, he explains his rationale for declaring war on the Union.