Book Review: Caught in the Maelstrom: The Indian Nations in the Civil War, 1861-1865

Once in a while, someone will comment on just how there can be so many books about one topic–the American Civil War. There is a definable reason for this phenomenon: fighting the Civil War was a job undertaken by many, and each group saw the war from its individual perspective. Historians have been slow to acknowledge that elite women, enslaved people, politicians, abolitionists, volunteer hospital workers, poor whites, and Native Americans all participated in the national upheaval of the 1860s–and many more besides. Each group fought a war of its own. To understand this, finally, is to begin to understand America’s adolescence.

Caught in the Maelstrom: The Indian Nations in the Civil War, 1861-1865, is one of those books that helps the general reading audience see further into the conflict. For native people, it was a much different war than the one with which most are familiar. Author Clint Crowe, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Tulsa Community College. Maelstrom is based on his dissertation. It is an excellent addition to Civil War history–readable, engaging, and enlightening.

The war in the western reaches of the Trans-Mississippi looks little like that in the East. Slavery as a cause was almost nonexistent. A few native people owned slaves, but they had no tradition of slavery equal to that of the American South. Allegiance was to their own nations, which had treaties with the federal government for land and assistance in the form of foodstuffs and shelter when needed. The Civil War was a conundrum for them. Geographically, Indian lands extended into the South. If the Confederacy’s bid for independence was successful, treaties with the federal government could be nullified. If the Union was triumphant, anyone supporting the Confederate cause might be seen as an enemy, also nullifying agreements. Some tribal groups chose the South, and some chose the North. All were hopeful that the war would not wholly upend the fragile truces that supported native politics. Caught in the Maelstrom tells the story of this conflict. It is one of the few sources that does so.

The Creeks and Cherokees, along with the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles, felt the impact of this situation. Already divided by genealogy, author Crowe examines the tribal group’s “war within a war.” Chief John Ross, leader of the full-blood Cherokee, chose to keep his association with the federal government. Stand Watie decided to lead his mixed-blood people to join the Confederate effort. The distance of the Oklahoma territory from the Eastern theater of war and the unique political situations involved has kept this exciting aspect of the Civil War from being thoroughly examined until now. From a military point of view, the battle of Pea Ridge does not have the effect Vicksburg or Gettysburg had on the war in general. The arguments among Jefferson Davis, Earl Van Dorn, Ben McCulloch, and Albert Pike, so well detailed in this book, help the reader understand the multitude of pressures on the Confederacy. Barely able to sustain themselves in the East, having to deal with angry native people in the West was simply an impossibility. One gets the idea that the Confederate founders never considered the real scope of nationhood.

President Lincoln, in contrast, not only runs the war, he plans the transcontinental railroad, interprets land treaties with native people and settlers, and manages the nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific. No one treated the native people well, but the North tried to honor its promises. The Confederacy had made no such promises. The results were disastrous: people starved, animals disappeared, crops burned, and confusion reigned as to who was in charge of what. The native troops on both aides performed well in battle but saw little reason to remain with the Army when there was no fighting. This is a very different war from the one about which most readers know.

Author Crowe has done an exemplary job of explaining this unfamiliar situation. The maps are excellent, although one overall map would have helped situate the others. The sourcing is varied and deep–a far cry from the reliance on the OR that many authors use. The letters between Stand Watie and his wife are particularly enlightening and very touching in their affectionate exchanges. Crowe reminds readers that Appomattox was NOT the end of the war. Although Lee and Johnson had signed surrenders, Kirby Smith did not do so until May 26, 1865. The Indian Nations were not included in the surrender of the Trans-Mississippi Department. It took the convention of a Grand Council to decide the particulars, and on June 23, 1865, Confederate Brigadier General Stand Watie was the last officer to surrender his command.

As more books like Caught in the Maelstrom are published, the richer our understanding of the Civil War will be. Circling back to the original premise of this review–the more we, as historians and buffs, learn, the more interesting the war becomes. Reading Clint Crowe’s book is like reading about an entirely new war, or at least it helps to reformulate ideas about the one we know. I am hopeful that this book will encourage more writers to examine the Trans-Mississippi theater, or even further west.

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Clint Crowe, Caught in the Maelstrom: The Indian Nations in the Civil War, 1861-1865

Savas Beatie, 2019

288 Pages

Primary Sources, Government Documents, Published Sources, Newspapers, Books and Articles, Theses and Dissertations, Index, Footnotes.

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
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2 Responses to Book Review: Caught in the Maelstrom: The Indian Nations in the Civil War, 1861-1865

  1. Tony Robertson says:

    About 20 years ago I volunteered to give a talk to the Mid Mo Civil War Roundtable on the Five Civilized Tribes in the War. I learned more about a whole host of characters – Albert Pike, John Ross, Stand Watie, John Drew, Opothleyahola, John Jumper, Billy Bowlegs, Daniel & Chilly McIntosh, Alligator, Douglas Cooper, etc. They were as divided & devastated as about any State. Their stories are often untold. Good to see a new book on the subject.

  2. Curtis Payne says:

    “Caught in the Maelstrom: The Indian Nations in the Civil War, 1861-1865, is one of those books that helps the general reading audience see further into the conflict.” Agreed, this is a good source for anyone that wants a good general understanding of the war period in the Indian Nations. Of Interest to me in any new account is where the author places the Round Mountain engagement. On page 48 in footnote he states; “The Battle of Round Mountain has long been disputed.” Then follows with his sources, and a short review and his conclusion that the battle probably took place at the Yale location. While I disagree with his conclusion, at least he fairly states the site is disputed.

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