Thomas Legion Marker
This historic marker commemorates the site where the Confederacy's "Thomas' Legion" was raised. Led by William Holland Thomas, the Thomas Legion was a mix of white and Cherokee soldiers that saw action in the western parts of Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia during the Civil War. Thomas's "experiment" was highly controversial among Southern whites, given prevailing white sentiment against Native Americans. The regiment saw combat at Cedar Creek, Winchester, Staunton.
Backstory and Context
Thomas Legion Marker
During the course of the Civil War, the Demographics that made up each side consisted of all Americans be they white, black etc. The war involved all Americans to fight in this tumultuous period which would decide the social outcome and identity of the United States. While this idea sounds extremely farfetched especially when looking at the Confederacy and its’ motives, the truth is that even the confederacy incorporated African Americans and other minorities into their ranks to support their cause. One of the most dramatic examples of minorities joining the Confederate forces occurred in the form of Colonel William H. Thomas and his legion of soldiers comprised of both Cherokee and white Americans. Thomas’s group so dubbed “Thomas’s Legion” was comprised of four components, which included 1,000 troops in what was known as the Love Regiment, Walker’s Battalion which mustered service in Cherokee county by William Stringfield, the artillery named the Levi’s battery and finally the Indian Battalion.
While the Legion had multiple components of focus, its’ founder William Thomas’ role in the creation of the group holds a much more profound understanding as to how the legion was able to stay together despite fighting for the Confederacy who favored white Anglo Saxon dominance. Born in Haywood County in the year 1805, Thomas began to work as an apprentice at a store owned by congressman and Revolutionary War veteran Felix Walker following the death of his father. By around the time he turned eighteen, William acquired his own store that soon expanded to three other stores in Haywood County. Because of his business and acquiring several tracts of land Thomas cane into contact with the local Cherokee natives. It was also during this time that Thomas was adopted by the Cherokee due to that Thomas was adopted by the Cherokee due to his friendship with the Chief Yonaguska and was given the name Wil-Usdi or “Little Will.” Following Yonaguska’s death in 1839, Thomas became chief of the Cherokees in Quallatown. Following President Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of the Cherokee peoples to Oklahoma along the infamous “Trail of Tears,” Thomas helped hundreds of Cherokees secure land holdings in Western North Carolina where to this day their decedents remain.
Following the ordeals of the Jackson policies towards the Cherokee for the next two decades, Thomas spent his time as chief fighting for Native American Rights. This would include his purchase of 50,000 acres of land in his own name in North Carolina and then handing ownership over to the Cherokees since North Carolina’s law prohibited Native Americans from buying land. The territory Thomas had purchased included Paint Town, Bird Town, Wolf Town, Big Cove, and Yellow Hill. Nine years later Thomas would be elected to North Carolina’s senate. During his period in the senate, Thomas took advantage of his influence in the state and organized several plank road projects in western North Carolina, and served as the head of the Committee on Internal Improvements. However, despite his projects and achievements in office, by the 1850s, Thomas had made several failed investments that caused him to become bankrupt. To help out their white chief and friend, the Cherokees tried to help compensate Thomas by buying practically every item in his stores for months that eventually turned into years. Although thoughtful, this method proved ineffective in giving Thomas the compensation he needed. Despite being in a dire situation, Thomas continued to help out the Cherokees in any way he could. However, with the eruption of the Civil War Thomas would soon be thrust back into leadership only this time with his Cherokee brothers by his side.
Following the outbreak of the American Civil War, Thomas initially served as representative for Haywood County who personally voted for secession at the state convention. “With the opening of the war, Thomas, a staunch supporter of the south and secession.” After siding with the Confederacy, Thomas pleaded with his Cherokee friends to join up with him. After much negotiation, they eventually sided with Thomas and the Confederate cause. On the onset of the year 1861, North Carolina realized that its state militias lacked the means to be able to defend itself from a northern invasion let alone a war in general. As a solution to this dilemma, Thomas used his influence to allow the creation of a Cherokee regiment for defense. This notion was taken as a joke by most western North Carolinians who saw this as an excuse for natives to attack the whites. This was demonstrated through the newspapers that made comments such as “Northern barbarians with A. Blinkun at their head.” Despite the ridicule that emerged from his idea, Thomas’ idea was coolly endorsed by the state government. With the support of the federal government behind him, Thomas’s regiment of Cherokee soldiers was assembled in September or 1862. Comprised of 1125 men that included ten companies composed of eight white regiments, two Cherokee regiments that made up the infantry called “Loue’s Regiment” in honor of its’ commanding officer Colonel James R. Love II. The Legion also incorporated two other battalions the Walker from battalions, the Walker from Cherokee North Carolina led by Lieutenant Colonel William C. Walker and the Cherokee Battalion made up of 400 Cherokee soldiers.
While this make up of soldiers both white and Native American seemed to be an imposing and formidable force, the legion was initially given the task of merely guarding Confederate owned territories. “Captain Thomas and his men were unable to join General Kirby Smith’s drive into Kentucky…the North Carolinians were instead relegated to the function of bridge-keepers and watchmen.” However, during the time they remained stationary, the Union’s forces were scaring victories in several battles throughout the Confederacy’s territories which included New Orleans, Shiloh and Fort Donaldson. With the Union Army effortlessly advancing towards Tennessee City, Captain Thomas and forty members of his legion were called in for assistance. During the course of their time, Thomas and his men worked as scouts in order to obtain intelligence. To that end, they clandestinely captured a lone Union soldier from his own battle lines and brought him back to Confederate territory to supply them with information.
In April of 1863, the Legion’s numbers had grown to a total of 2,800 soldiers along with an artillery unit, however it was divided to different campaigns with one unit sent to Madison County, North Carolina to eliminate activities of Union partisans and one to guard the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad; Thomas took lead of the group sent to Madison while the bulk of the Legion was left to guard the railroads. When the Legion was reunited, it was placed under the leadership of Brigadier General Alfred E. Jackson, whom Thomas did not get along with. The antagonism that arose from the two of them led to three court martials brought up against Thomas that were dismissed. Soon Thomas was ordered to report to Major General Simon B. Buckner in East Tennessee in which he took his two Cherokee regiments from Jackson’s battalions. While it was a positive thing that Thomas was no longer subjective to Jackson’s leadership his legion was divided with only a small portion of it still under his rule. During its’ period under Buckner, the Legion began to make a name for itself as a formidable fighting force. The legion participated in all battles of the Valley Campaign of 1864. One mission in which they participated involved the rescue of a portion of their own Cherokee comrades who were captured by Union soldiers. Their mission ended not only in a successful rescue of all prisoners but the capture of six Union soldiers and sixty East Tennessee Union supporters as well. While it appeared as if the Legion was going in a favorable direction for the Confederacy, during the course of the Shenandoah Campaign, the Legion suffered heavy losses and were therefore ordered back to North Carolina to recruit more troops. However, the heavy losses coupled with the charges brought against Thomas for receiving deserters from the 65th North Carolina Regiment between September 1863-1864 soon brought about a negative view from the Confederacy towards both the Legion and Thomas in general.
During the course of the final month of the war in April of 1865, the Legion consisted of a total of 1,000 with 400 natives comprised out of the entire unit. Throughout the remaining timeframe of the Civil War, the Legion participated at one of the war’s last skirmishes at Waynesville until they surrendered in May 10th 1865 long after a majority of the mainstream Confederate forces had already surrendered at Appomattox a few days earlier. Following the conclusion of the war and the surrender of the Confederate forces, Colonel William Thomas along with the rest of the Confederate Americans were required to sign an “oath of loyalty to the United States” signifying their returned loyalty to the Union. In the years which followed, Thomas’s life soon began to tragically collapse in several different areas. Specifically, his businesses had begun to collapse as well his loss of land as creditors began taking his properties to which 115,000 acres of such were sold 1869. Even more tragically, it was in the years which followed the Civil War that Thomas had begun to fall apart mentally and emotionally, to which he was placed in the North Carolina insane asylum at Raleigh after which he was diagnosed with Dementia. Throughout the remainder of his life Thomas would remain in and out of asylums until the passing of his beloved wife Sallie in May of 1877, after which he opted to remain in the “asylums” for the remainder of his life until his death on May 10th, 1893. While it is debatable what drove Thomas Dementia, it can be said that his melancholy was derived from the continued loss of his loved ones especially his wife and Cherokee brethren most of whom had died prior to and during the course of the Civil War.
Following his death, Colonel William H. Thomas was buried in a public cemetery in Waynesville. Despite his tragic end, Colonel Thomas nevertheless remains a heroic figure in the American conscious as a man who helped protect their way of life from being eradicated. Even to this day Colonel Thomas is celebrated by members of the Cherokee tribe as he is remembered as the man responsible for the creation of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee as well as the champion of the economic development of the mountain region of North Carolina. Recently, following the senate joint resolution 1171 of 2005, North Carolina continues to honor and celebrate Chief William Thomas as well as the Eastern Band of Cherokee.