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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

“Now boys, this aint a Christian way to fight a war!”

As I study history, the part which really makes it come alive for me are the stories behind the stories. Everyone knows what Gettysburg is, but how many people know who Jenny Wade is? Most know Yorktown was where George Washington finally defeated the English but who were the heroes who took the outlying redoubts? It is the little vignettes which tell the whole story.

As my partner in crime and I were researching for an upcoming project, I ran across an account of an ambush which took place in the rugged mountains of the Kentucky/Tennessee boarder. This event includes troops, Indians, and scalping. Sounds like a John Wayne movie right? Well it is an actual event. Trying to adhere to good research principals, I verified this story through a couple of primary sources before I would completely believe it. As we sometimes find out, the truth is stranger than fiction.

On September 12, 1862, two companies of the 33rd Indiana were dispatched from Cumberland Gap to Bishop Gap. Marching west through the Appalachian Mountains, some of the roughest country this side of the Rockies, the Indiana troops moved into the mountain pass arriving on the evening of the 12th. The Troops were ordered to block the pass to keep the Rebel troops from flanking the Cumberland Gap.

On 8 September 1862, Major J.P. McCown informed General Samuel Cooper in Richmond that the federals were attempting to flank the Confederate positions in front of the Cumberland Gap and cut their communications with Big Creek Gap.[1] To counter this, McCown ordered “every available man to that point and to Rogers Gap”[2]. This jumbled force of partisan rangers included several companies of the 69th North Carolina, also known as Thomas’s Legion, were ordered into Powell Valley between Jacksboro Tennessee and the Cumberland Gap.

The 69th was organized in the mountains of North Carolina. It was made up principally of white troops but it included 2 companies of Cherokee Indians. Its founder, William Holland Thomas was an advocate for the rights of the Cherokee people and the only white man to become the Chief of the Oconaluftee Indians. He remains the only white man to ever hold this high office.

On September 13, 1862, one of the Cherokee companies was crossing back to Powell Valley through Bishop Gap (located west of the Cumberland Gap). A company of the 33rd Indiana lay in ambush and opened fire at close range. After two days of skirmishing, on September 15, 1862, 1st Lt. William Terrell Ordered the Cherokee company to assault the Federal position. The first Confederate to be felled was none other than the grandson of the Cherokee Chief Junaluska. 2nd Lt. Astoogatogeh was well liked among his fellow Cherokee’s his death struck a chord in them. Instead of the death causing the attack to fall apart in disarray, it brought up a blood lust from the days of their ancestors. [3]

Before they could be stopped, the Cherokee attacked the Federals. In fierce hand-to-hand combat, the Cherokee’s routed the company from the 33rd Indiana. As the Union troops retreated, the Cherokee began to scalp the wounded. It is said the cries could be heard for many miles. If you think about it, the 33rd never had a chance once the Indians closed within 21 feet. This is what modern law enforcement calls the deadly force distance for a man with a knife. Within 21 feet, the attacker can stab you before you can react. The 33rd was up against the finest light infantry and skirmishers in the world. In hand-to-hand combat there were no equal to the Indian.

On returning to the headquarters of General Stevenson, the Confederate division commander before Cumberland Gap, they presented him the scalps. Stevenson took the scalps and even paid them a bounty for them. Once the transaction was finished, he is reportedly to have lectured them not to take scalps as” this was a Christian War!”. It is reported however the scalps were returned to the 33rd to be buried with their dead.

This would not be the last instance of the Cherokee of the 69th scalping federal troops.


Huptman, Laurence M. Between Two Fires: The American Indian in the Civil War. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1995.

McKnight, Brian D. Contested Borderland. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

[1] Brian D. McKnight, Contested Borderland (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 85.
[2] Brian D. McKnight, Contested Borderland (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 85.
[3] Laurence M. Huptman, Between Two Fires: The American Indian in the Civil War (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1995), 113-114.

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