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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Civil War In North Carolina: The Mountains, edited by Christopher M. Waterford, pg. 78.
Chief: The Motley Life of Colonel William Holland Thomas C.S.A., Paul A. Thomsen, pg. 164.
Chief: The Motley Life of Colonel William Holland Thomas C.S.A., Paul A. Thomsen, pg. 180.