The Will Thomas Legion (Article 69)

“William Holland Thomas was a White man by birth, and a Cherokee by choice – and he distinguished himself in both cultures.  He became a Chief by vote of the Cherokee and a State Senator by the vote of White men and served all his peoples well. And when he became a soldier by duty, he served honorably as a son of the South.” – anonymous obituary

When Will, (or sometimes Wil) as he was known to almost everyone, was about thirteen years old, his widowed mother apprenticed him to a trading post owner, Felix Walker, who was also a U.S. Congressman.  Such arrangements were common at the time because it provided some relief to his mother and gave Will an opportunity to learn a trade. The store was near the Cherokee Nation homeland in North Carolina and served not only tribal members but also local White farmers and hunters. Will was to be given room and board, an opportunity to receive some additional education, and $100.00 upon completion of his three years of service. It was a good bargain in those days and Will worked hard to earn the respect of Mr. Walker; even becoming a voracious reader under Walker’s tutelage. As Will was nearing the end of his service as an apprentice, Walker was forced to close the business and informed Will that he could not pay the $100 that would soon be due. As a substitute for the cash compensation, Mr. Walker offered Will his small collection of books which happened to include copies of the North Carolina Legal Code. Will accepted the unusual, and unexpected, form of compensation, not because he planned at the time to actually become a lawyer, but more likely because he understood that Mr. Walker would be unable to offer anything else; and Will did value the books.  Will wanted to remain in the area and, since he had proven to be honest, resourceful, and a dedicated worker, he found enough odd-jobs to support himself.

Many of the customers at the trading post were Cherokee, and over the prior two years, Will had shown a sincere respect for their culture and began to learn the basics of their language; which earned him the friendship of tribal members. Over time, he became fluent in the native language and began to study his collection of legal books with the goal to help serve the Cherokees in matters involving state and federal laws which affected the Natives. Struck by young Will’s work ethic and commitment to embrace the traditions of his Native people, Yonaguska, Chief of the Nation, took Will under his wing and the two became as close as any father and son. At some point, Chief Yonaguska officially adopted Will and gave him the Cherokee name of Wil-usdi (Little Wil).

With the knowledge gained from his time running the trading post for Mr. Walker, Will, at about eighteen years of age, started his own small store which slowly grew into a successful series of trading posts serving White farmers, Mountain men (referred to as Highlanders), and the local Cherokees. Although he never had any university education, in his early twenties, Will was able to study under a local attorney and became sufficiently versed in the law to be recognized as a practicing lawyer; a common path to a legal career in those days. Will was popular within both the White society and the Cherokee Nation and, in addition to his trading posts, he quickly built a viable law firm serving clients from both cultures. Then, in 1831, when he was only twenty-six, he officially became a legal representative for the Cherokee Nation.

He served as the legal advisor to the Cherokee without much controversy until 1835 when, under the Indian Removal Act, the federal government began to force the relocation of Cherokee from their ancestral lands in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia to the newly designated Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The relocations were a blatant method of securing valuable Indian lands for acquisition by White settlers; however, to legitimize the removal, the federal government “negotiated” the New Echota Treaty with a small selective group of “Western” Cherokee elders, who the government agents knew did not have the authority to commit all of the Cherokee Nation. Political divisions among the Cherokee people erupted almost immediately because other Cherokee believed that the New Echota Treaty was illegal, and essentially, three factions of the Cherokee Nation emerged. The Western Cherokee split into two groups with the one group, which had claimed authority to sign the New Echota Treaty, accepting re-establishment to the Indian Territory, while a second group chose to try to re-negotiate the Treaty before removal in the hope for better compensation. Eventually, both factions of these “Western” Cherokee were re-located in what became known as the “Trail of Tears.”  However, the third group, the Eastern Cherokee (or Qualla), represented by Will Thomas, chose to challenge the order in federal courts. Thomas negotiated with the federal government from the perspective that, even if legal, the New Echota treaty did not apply to the Eastern (Qualla) Cherokee, who had signed an earlier treaty under which they had secured “reserved” land of about 600 acres in North Carolina. Thomas was ultimately successful, and, thereafter, the Qualla remained on their traditional land in North Carolina.

Throughout the years 1831-1839, Principal Chief Yonaguska involved Thomas (Wil-usdi to the Natives) in the administrative and financial affairs of the Qualla Cherokee and encouraged the other elders to consider Will as their next Principal Chief. The other leaders respected Wil-usdi in his own right; and, when Yonaguska died in 1839, Wil-usdi, a White man, was elected as the Principal Chief of the Qualla Cherokee Nation.

Thomas’s trading posts prospered during this period, serving White farmers and mountain dwelling hunters, as well as the Cherokee. However, as Principal Chief of the Nation of Qualla Cherokee, Thomas realized that the “reserved” land originally allotted to the Nation was limited, and a problem was developing as the Native population increased and White settlers began to encroach near the borders.  As Chief Wil-usdi, Thomas embarked on a mission to increase the size of the lands dedicated to the Cherokee. His problem; the Cherokee were prohibited from signing contracts or holding land titles except those held in trust or granted by the federal government. To assure his people had sufficient land for the future, Thomas began acquiring adjacent land in his own name and personally assumed the debts; but held the land in trust for the Cherokee. It was a grand and noble gesture; however, the loans would later prove to be a financial hardship and nearly wiped out all that Thomas had accomplished.

But for now, Will Thomas’s ability to successfully straddle the two very different societies enabled him to serve both, to the remarkable extent that he simultaneously, and honorably, served as principal Chief of the Eastern Cherokee Nation and as a State Senator in the North Carolina legislature, representing his White constituency. When asked about his loyalty to both cultures, Thomas wrote; “When entrusted with defending the rights of a White or Red man, I hope I shall always be found faithful to my trust and act worthy of the confidence reposed in me without regard to the consequences. The Indians are as much entitled to their rights as I am to mine.” 

However, by 1857, Thomas began to face financial problems as he became weighted down by the debts he incurred to acquire additional lands for the Cherokee. His local reputation bought him some time with creditors, but, the debt load was unsustainable and began to consume his income from both the trading posts and his law practice. Thomas realized that he was about to lose all for which he had worked so hard and so long; but then, fortuitously, he met, and soon proposed marriage to, Sarah Love, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. He was honest with Sarah’s father about his circumstances, reportedly saying, “I want not for land, but only for gold.” (In today’s language, he was “land rich but cash poor”). Thomas must have won over his soon to be father-in-law, because Sarah’s father not only approved the marriage, but helped Thomas stabilize his financial situation. Despite the convenient timing, and contention by some that the marriage was a monetary arrangement, by most accounts, his marriage to Sarah was respectful and happy; and they had three sons in successive years. With his debts under control, the Cherokee lands he held in trust secured, his trading posts and law practice again thriving, and now as a husband and father, life was good for Will Thomas.

But, that would soon change!

In 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a raid on a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to obtain arms for a planned slave revolt. Although U.S. Army troops, led by Robert E. Lee, quickly regained control of the arsenal, and Brown was tried and executed for his crime, the thought of a future successful slave uprising sent shock waves throughout the South. As secession flames began to burn in 1860, White politician Will Thomas, now 55 years-old, reminded his constituents that the U.S. government had had acted swiftly to end Brown’s plan. Thomas also spoke out against the potential break-up of the United States and cautioned that Civil War would likely result if southern states seceded. At the same time, as Principal Chief of the sovereign Qualla Cherokee, Wil-usdi urged neutrality, but expected his people would be in harm’s way if war broke out between Northern and Southern states. At first, to Will Thomas’s relief, North Carolina resisted a secession vote and did not initially join the new Confederate States of America; however, after the attack on Fort Sumter and Union President Abraham Lincoln’s announcement that the U.S. army would be increased by 75,000 men to put down the rebellion, North Carolina voted to secede on May 20, 1861. A devoted Southerner and North Carolina legislator, Will Thomas cast his vote for secession. Then, Thomas and the other Oualla Cherokee leaders, realizing that they could not remain neutral, offered to raise troops to act as a “home guard” in North Carolina and to support, but not join, the Confederate Army.

After nearly a year, Thomas’s independent military force had grown to include four hundred Cherokee warriors and over five hundred White Highlanders; and, Thomas and his men decided that they could, and should, do more to support the Southern cause and offered to formally join the Confederate Army. Initially designated as a battalion, the term Legion was adopted because the unit combined cavalry, infantry, artillery, and even snipers and demolition experts. Thomas’s organization was controversial from the start, with some traditional Generals opposed to its bi-cultural composition and suggested that the White men and the Cherokee would not serve well together. Thomas however, convinced enough of the Generals that he knew his men and that they were, and would continue to be, an effective military unit; besides, he also knew the Confederates needed all the men they could get. He had expected his Legion to be assigned to continue guarding outposts and rail lines in North Carolina, and was surprised when the Confederate military staff, some say at the insistence of President Davis, asked Thomas to take his men into Tennessee where Union forces were beginning to have some success.  Thomas knew that his home area in North Carolina was, at the time, relatively safe from Union attack, so he agreed to lead his troops across the border; and quickly found himself facing U.S. Army forces at a place in Tennessee called Baptist Gap. To the surprise of some Confederate Generals, and perhaps the opposing Union commander, but certainly not to Thomas, the Legion held ranks in the brief battle and fought to what was probably a tactical draw, but by some accounts was a Confederate victory.

However, what happened next left Thomas, by now promoted to Major, with a public relations nightmare and put the very future existence of the Legion at risk!

After the fighting ended for the day at Baptist Gap, Thomas’s men learned that a popular young warrior had been killed and some of the angry Cherokee went back to the battlefield and scalped several dead Union soldiers. Thomas was horrified and immediately recognized that the intemperate retaliation would be condemned throughout the North and South by those both in the military as well as civilians. Under a white flag of truce, Thomas returned the scalps for proper burial to a Union Officer and apologized for both the act as well as for his failure to control his new troops. While the episode became known to the public at large through newspaper reports, most accounts included Thomas’s quick and contrite response, and the fall-out was minimized. One can surmise that there was, what is referred to today as a “sensitivity” training session for the Cherokee soldiers; because, after that one event, such desecration was never repeated.

That public relations episode aside, the Will Thomas Legion was a battlefield success story and they accomplished nearly every mission assigned by Confederate officials; and even were victorious in a few skirmishes which no one had ordered or expected. While most of their action came in Tennessee, they were given assignments in North Carolina and were once sent by Confederate Commanders into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley (called the breadbasket of the South) to protect the Army’s food chain. The Legion was often cut off from any communication from other Southern units and would be on their own for an extended period between specific assignments; during which times, Thomas, by now promoted to Colonel, would engage in opportunistic attacks on Union supply trains, arsenals, and storehouses. Occasionally, he would receive an order with which he disagreed and would move his men toward an engagement of his own choosing. For disobeying such an order, Thomas was once ordered arrested by an indignant General but was quickly released when superior officers realized the Legion would not serve under any other officer except Will Thomas.

By early 1865, he began to realize the futility of the Confederate cause, but, he believed it was his duty to continue to lead his Legion in attacks against Union troops. However, his missions became more difficult because the casualties from three years of fighting had reduced the Legion to only about five hundred men, down from a peak of nearly two thousand. Further, he was so out of touch with Confederate officials that, in May 1865, by now back in North Carolina, he was still planning and executing attacks against Union forces; several weeks after the Capital city of Richmond had fallen, Robert E. Lee and other Generals had surrendered, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, and there was no functioning Confederate Government.

On May 8, 1865, unaware that the war was at an end, Colonel Thomas prepared to attack a Union staging area at Waynesville, North Carolina. The Legion’s five hundred remaining men were substantially less that the Union force which held the town; but Colonel Thomas had a plan! First, he sent a man in civilian clothes to assess the town’s fortifications and to spread the rumor that he had seen over a thousand Confederates in the surrounding hills. Then, on the night of May 9, Thomas had his men build hundreds of campfires in the hills around the town and then they yelled, screamed, and whooped all night, leading the Union commander to believe a very large force was about to attack the next morning. One Union soldier wrote later, “It looked as if the mountains were alive. Fires could be seen on every hill and the yells and war cries of the Cherokee made it impossible to think about anything, but what would happen when daybreak arrived”

Realizing the effect that the Confederate forces were having on his men and hoping to avoid further loss of lives, just after dawn, the Commander of the Union troops approached Thomas’s line and asked for surrender terms. The ruse had worked and Colonel Thomas agreed to come into Waynesville to formally accept the surrender of the Union force. During that meeting, the Union commander shared dispatches he held which announced the surrender in April of almost all Confederate armies, the death of Lincoln, and the collapse of the Confederate government. Finally convinced the war was indeed over, Thomas reversed the dialogue and offered to surrender to the Union commander. After signing a surrender document which granted pardons to him and his men, Thomas had one more deception in mind. He asked the Union Commander to issue over one thousand pardon documents because he was not yet ready to admit he only had five hundred men. Returning to his troops, Colonel Thomas announced to the Legion that their war was over, that they would receive pardons, and that they should return to their homes and families; but he had one final request. As part of the surrender terms, he had given his word that none of his men would engage in any guerrilla war-fare against Union forces and he asked that they honor his promise. The Legion then disbanded, and the Cherokee and Highlanders alike simply went home.

For Thomas personally, the war had taken a terrible financial toll as his stores were looted or burned and his lands were unproductive; but, fortunately, his wife and three boys had weathered the war under the care of her family. Also, those lands he acquired for the Cherokee remained intact, and, as one of his final acts as their Chief, Thomas assured that nearly 56,000 acres held in trust were perpetually added to the “reserved” lands of the Eastern Cherokee. However, at sixty years old, and after the deprivations of continuous warfare, Thomas’s own health was failing and the most cruel blows were emotional. The combined stresses of command during the war and then watching the dismantling of his lands and businesses were too much for Will.  He descended into a form of dementia, with only occasional times of lucidity, and was in and out of mental hospitals for the rest of his life. Certainly, a sad end for a dynamic man.

A few historians, including some affiliated with the “Western” Cherokee, have claimed that Thomas speculated in some of the Cherokee lands which were seized by the federal government during the forced relocations in 1835, and in doing so, exploited other Cherokee. As with many historical disputes, there is a measure of truth, but not the whole truth, to their assertions.  Thomas did obtain some former Cherokee land, but then, over time, sold that land and used the proceeds to acquire more property in North Carolina adjacent to the Qualla “reserved” land. He clearly was making the most of a controversial situation, but primarily to benefit the Qualla, for whom he served first as their legal advisor and then as their Principal Chief.  Most historians who are familiar with Wil Thomas’s life-story still write respectfully about the man, who by any measure, led a remarkable life. He was a successful businessman, an honorable politician, an effective Chief to the Cherokee, and he bridged two cultures. He not only brought diverse peoples together, but successfully lead them as a cohesive team in the most difficult of situations; where they faced life or death on the battlefield.

But, William Holland Thomas’s place in history was cemented on May 10, 1865 at Waynesville, North Carolina, when, in one of the last military engagements of the Civil War, his under-manned Confederate force tricked a superior Union army into surrender, and then, instead, surrendered themselves; all without a shot being fired. And, with that, the Will Thomas Legion became the stuff of legend.