The events described in this article relate to hex 2606 from Revolution Games’ Thunder in the Ozarks (2016).
It’s hard to imagine what Confederate and Union soldiers alike thought when they came upon the eighteen dead Union soldiers who had been scalped, some while still alive, following the skirmish around Foster’s Farm during the battle of Pea Ridge in 1862. Scalping, after all generally was used to exact revenge for killing Cherokee and then typically was only used against other tribes. The only other time it had been a widespread practice was following the promise of bounty payments by the British during the French and Indian War nearly a century earlier. To understand why the Cherokee might have returned to this practice, it’s important to understand how the Cherokee ended up at Foster’s Farm on March 7th, 1862.
The Cherokee were here when the Blue Ridge Mountains were even more mysterious in the morning fog than they are now. To some extent, the story of the Cherokee is the story of European invasion and then adaptation by first nations in the American colonies. The Cherokee, in some cases, adopted European farming practices, professions and even held slaves in rare cases. The promise of the founding fathers, particularly Benjamin Franklin who sought a permanent alliance with the first nations was completely erased by the Indian Removals, most prominently enacted by President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act.
In 1830, Cherokee Chief John Ross argued in front of the Supreme Court in the case of Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia. While the Supreme Court did hear the case, they ultimately decided not to rule on its merits given the “dependent nation” status of the Cherokee Nation. Only a year later, the Supreme Court did rule that the Cherokee Nation was sovereign and that prevented Georgia from imposing its laws inside Cherokee territory. President Jackson refused to acknowledge the decision.
In effect, the Cherokee Nation was left without a strong ally at either the state or federal level. Because the southern Cherokee had adopted (in some cases) of the practices of southern land owners, like owning slaves, Lincoln adopted a stance that he would condone white settlement on Cherokee lands. Enter Stand Watie, a full blooded Cherokee who in 1837 signed the treaty of New Echota which ceded Cherokee tribal lands in Georgia in exchange for lands in Oklahoma. The treaty would spell Watie’s exclusion from the Cherokee tribe and carried the penalty of death under tribal law. This was never enforced, however, and Watie moved his tribe to Oklahoma settling on the banks of the Honey Creek later that year. Watie was the sole survivor of an assassination attempt in 1839 which kicked off a cycle of violent retaliatory attacks that saw his uncle and brother killed. Watie was ultimately acquitted of all wrongdoing in 1850.
Watie was afraid of the federal intentions to create the state of Oklahoma in what was hitherto Indian lands. As a result, in 1861 Watie accepted a commission in the Confederate Army and immediately began recruiting a divided Cherokee Nation to the southern cause. These men would become the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles. The Confederates struggled to employ the Cherokee unit and while they fought Union forces, they were also used to fight other native tribes like the Seminoles and Creek who notably opted to support the Union cause.
It was, however, at Foster’s Farm on March 7th 1862 that Watie’s Cherokee would earn their notorious reputation and lead to the Confederate General Pike facing federal charges for inciting war atrocities. So, what happened around Foster’s Farm?
As the Confederates approached Leetown, federal troops had taken up positions around a series of farms north of the town. The northernmost of these positions was at the farm of Wiley Foster where a contingency of federal troops and artillery were posted. It fell to Watie’s 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles to support the attack on the Foster Farm. Instead of a direct attack on the farm, Watie’s men supported an ambush on the 3rd Iowa Cavalry who had been led up a lane by Henry H. Trimble, a veteran of the Mexican War. During the ambush Trimble suffered a grievous wound to his face that resulted in his discharge from service, eight of his men however suffered a far more grotesque fate.
During the confusion of cavalry and artillery fight at Foster’s Farm, Watie’s men scalped at least eight Union soldiers. According to a New York Times report from March 14, 1862 there were “Two thousand Indians involved in the battle.” The number, however, is greatly exaggerated by the Times and though the Times also claimed 18 Union soldiers were scalped, it’s more likely that this is a combined number of scalped and mutilated. Roughly 800 Cherokee soldiers took place in the battle, but the Times article ignited the imagination of savage warfare brought home by Cherokee Indians who had sided with the Confederates.
General Pike, once aware of the massacre, immediately condemned it and went so far as to court martial one of the involved Cherokee soldiers. The press, however, already captivated by the episode would call Pike the leader of an “Aboriginal Corps of Tomahawkers and Scalpers.” It would not, however, appease the public and though Pike resigned his commission in the Confederate Army in July 1862, he would later be brought up on federal charges of inciting war atrocities because of the strong press reaction to the conduct of Pike’s men during the battle.
Watie, would famously go on to be the last Confederate General to surrender at the end of the Civil War on June 23, 1865. As a result of this episode, and the subsequent backlash both in the the south and the north, the leader of the Cherokee Nation, John Ross, sent a letter in September 1862 to President Lincoln conceding that the “great mass of the Cherokee people rallied spontaneously around the authorities of the United States.” The letter, however, would be too little and too late. The conduct of Watie’s soldiers galvanized public opinion about the brutality of native peoples and would be a rallying cry following the Civil War that would lead to the destruction of First Nations sovereignty in the West.
This incident serves as a reminder of the poor treatment of first nations by American Colonists, federal and state governments. These were families looking for a piece of this bountiful land to call their own and live the lives promised to them by their forefathers. Instead, the incompatibility and racism of the European settlers and American Citizenry (including Lincoln) would create conditions in which the combat traditions of the Cherokee would collide with European notions of warfare and conflict. In an already bloody and savage war, the scalping of at least eight Union soldiers at Foster’s Farm by Watie’s men remains one of the most intriguing events of the American Civil War.
It may only be one hex on a map in a boardgame. The story told by that hex and the men who fought there in 1862, however, put into motion a legacy of racial stereotypes and contributed to the end of first nations sovereignty in the American west. The hex is just the culmination and flash point of a decades long struggle to fit in when Europeans came to the new world. Negotiating the harsh historical realities of public sentiment and national determination came to a head at Pea Ridge on Foster’s Farm that March afternoon.
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