Clampitt on Yarbrough, 'Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country'
Fay A. Yarbrough. Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 268 pp. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6511-5.
Reviewed by Bradley R. Clampitt (East Central University) Published on H-CivWar (August, 2022) Commissioned by John R. Legg (George Mason University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57820
Civil War scholars have long known that the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations exhibited greater affection for the Confederate cause than did most of their Indigenous neighbors in Indian Territory. In fact, the Choctaw Council passed a resolution in favor of the Southern states two months before the events at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861. Unlike other nations and tribes within the territory, the Chickasaws and Choctaws aggressively allied with the Confederates because of shared cultural interests (including slavery), a common enemy, and the pursuit of sovereignty. In my 2018 Civil War History essay, “The Civil War and Reconstruction in Indian Territory: Historiography and Prospects for New Directions in Research,”, I posited that scholarly examination of those two groups’ actions and motives could reveal a great deal about not merely the war in Indian Territory, but also Confederate identity overall. Those two nations’ active support of the Confederacy forces historians to grapple with Confederate identity beyond a simple white Southern model. In her latest work, Fay A. Yarbrough examines the Civil War and Reconstruction experience of the Choctaw Nation.
Yarbrough’s excellent discussion of the Choctaws’ “Southern identity” constitutes the volume’s most substantial contribution. Generations of living among white Southerners, and of course intermarriage, led to the mingling of religious, economic, and legal constructs. Indeed, once the Choctaws allied with the Confederacy, tribal leaders enacted legislation that required an oath of allegiance to the Confederate States of America and deemed criticism of the Confederacy treason. Other historians have made the point, but Yarbrough skillfully illustrates that Choctaw officials envisioned that Confederate states’ rights ideology “would translate into respecting Native sovereignty rights as well, which would permit the Choctaw Nation to maintain rights to land and self-government” (p. 2). Unfortunately, more than once Yarbrough states that Choctaw commitment to the Confederate cause exceeded that demonstrated by white Southerners. That statement is unconvincing and unsupported throughout the monograph.
After the excellent discussion of the Choctaws’ Southern identity, Yarbrough logically transitions to an analysis of the diplomatic wrangling that produced the Choctaw-Confederate alliance. Historians of the war in Indian Territory have examined the motives and loyalties of the various groups more than any other wartime topic. “Choosing sides” is well-trodden ground. Yarbrough provides more detail on the Choctaws’ experience than any scholar to date, but the general conclusion remains—Choctaw leaders supported the Confederacy primarily to protect slavery and to secure sovereignty. Interestingly, in analysis of the actual treaty, the author posits that the partnership demonstrates a greater Choctaw commitment to self-government than to the Confederacy. That is indeed a perfectly reasonable contention, though the author’s explication of the treaty’s contents actually reveals a remarkable degree of common ground between the allies. That shared identity with white Southerners continued into postwar generations, as Yarbrough expertly demonstrates some Choctaws’ later attempts to distance their support of slavery from their participation in the rebellion. One criticism of the author’s analysis of the treaty is that it rather substantially diminishes the Choctaws’ concerns about physical security against tribes from the western portion of the territory. Confederate diplomats recognized an opportunity and promised security because the withdrawal of Federal forces opened the Five Nations to greater risk of attack from the Plains tribes to the west.
Yarbrough’s coverage of the war period covers familiar ground and follows the standard narrative set forth by other scholars; however, the author convincingly demonstrates Choctaw soldiers’ commitment to the rebellion. Moreover, through excellent analysis of compiled service records for individual soldiers, Yarbrough creates an intriguing collective portrait of Native-Confederate combatants. That insightful analysis of service records sets an admirable standard for the study of common Civil War soldier.
The Reconstruction chapter follows the standard narrative and offers little new information but includes an excellent section that analyzes the experiences of certain individuals. Yarbrough examines the experiences of individual freedpeople, particularly with regard to emancipation. That expert analysis illustrates the substantial diversity, although the reader is left with the conclusion that the range of experiences resembled that of former slaves elsewhere in the fallen Confederacy. Yarbrough also builds on the works of other scholars to explicate the Choctaws’ subversive efforts to resist Federal postwar demands, particularly with regard to the rights of freedpeople. Choctaw leaders actually proposed what amounted to removal of former slaves—ironic at best, hypocritical at worst—and granted freedpeople limited citizenship in 1883.
Overall, Yarbrough’s expert discussion of the Choctaws’ Southern identity constitutes the strength of the book. That aspect alone should encourage scholars to consider Confederate ideology and identity beyond the simplistic white Southern model. Coverage of Confederate-Native diplomacy, the war period, and Reconstruction is capable, detailed, and useful, though not especially original. Still, in light of the burgeoning scholarly interest in the West, historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction should read Choctaw Confederates and appreciate Yarbrough’s important contribution.
Citation: Bradley R. Clampitt. Review of Yarbrough, Fay A., Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. August, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57820This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.