Baptists and the American Civil War: March 7, 1862

Lewis Downing, Baptist Minister and Cherokee Chief

Lewis Downing, Baptist Minister and Cherokee Chief

Today Union and Confederate forces clash in northern Arkansas in the Battle of Pea Ridge (or Elkhorn Tavern). In a battle for control of the border state of Missouri, Confederate¬†Gen. Earl Van Dorn’s army attacks an encroaching Union army led by Gen. Samuel R. Curtis. Confederate forces temporarily gain the upper hand today, but divided and disadvantaged in terms of battlefield intelligence, are ultimately unable to hold their ground. In a battle marked by relatively few casualties, the Union emerges victorious and solidifies control of Missouri.

Fighting in the battle is the Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles, an Oklahoma regiment comprised largely of full-bloodied Native Americans who are not slave owners. Cherokee Baptist minister Lewis Downing is chaplain of the regiment. Yet allegiances are quietly in flux. As Union strength in the West grows in the coming months, most of the members of the Cherokee Mounted Rifles, including Downing, switch loyalties to the Union. In July, the now-Union men join the Third Indian Home Guards of the Union Army. Downing is appointed Lieutenant Colonel.

In 1863 Downing travels to Washington as a representative of the Union faction of the Cherokee nation. Following the war, the fractured Cherokee nation re-unites under the leadership of Downing, who is elected as Principle Chief of the Cherokees. He holds the office from 1867 until his death in 1872.

Sources: “The Battle of Pea Ridge” (link); John B. Meserve, “Chief Lewis Downing and Chief Charles Thompson (Oochalata.),” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Volume 16, No. 3, September 1938 (link);¬† Lewis Downing biography and photo (link)