Pittsburg man’s find returned to its home

Morning Sun Lifestyle Editor

A Cross of Honor marking the grave of a Civil War general is finally back where it belongs, thanks to retired Lt. Col. Floyd Lyerla of Pittsburg.

The cross, which honored Brig. Gen. Stand Watie, the only Confederate officer of American Indian heritage to attain such a high rank, was formally returned during ceremonies June 25 and 26 at the Cherokee Nation Heritage Foundation near Tahlequah, Okla.

Lyerla said he found the cross nearly 14 years ago, when he and his wife, Donna, visited her brother and family in Broken Arrow, Okla.

"The brother’s wife, Jenan, took us to visit the Tulsa flea market, and I noticed a cross-shaped piece of cast iron on a display table," Lyerla said.

He examined the cross and saw that it was embossed with the name of "Gen. S. Watie" and the Confederate flag.

The name was very familiar to Lyerla, who majored in history and military science in college.

"I assumed that this was an item of museum caliber, and I purchased it for $500," he said.

In addition to being the only American Indian Confederate brigadier general, Watie was also the last to surrender his command when the Civil War ended.

Lyerla said Watie was a member of the Ridge Party, also known as the Treaty Party, of the Cherokee Nation, which was led by Major Ridge, his son John, and his cousin Elias Boudinot. They executed a treaty with the U.S. government and moved west to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, shortly before the forced removal of American Indians known as the "Trail of Tears."

Lyerla said a great deal of animosity developed between the Ridge Party and the other American Indians who had been forced to migrate to Indian Territory.

"Shortly after that, Major Ridge, John and Boudinot were slain," Lyerla said. "Whether or not they were murdered depends on your politics at the time. Watie was a brother of Ridge and was also targeted for death, but escaped."

When the Civil War broke out, the Cherokee Nation was split, Lyerla said. Many believed in abolishing slavery, and they sided with the Union.

"Many others, like Watie, were slaveholders, and they took sides with the Confederacy," he said.

Two regiments of American Indian troops were mustered in Baxter Springs and headed off to fight for the Confederacy. Watie led a regiment of volunteers called the Cherokee Mounted Rifles.

Lyerla said Watie he was a capable leader.

"He had many successful operations," he said.

One of them was a raid on a Union military supply train that originated around Fort Scott or Leavenworth and was headed to Fort Towson near Big Cabin, Okla.

"Watie intercepted the train and got all the military supplies and food and more than 700 mules," Lyerla said.

He added that Watie and his force of 2,000 to 3,000 men, mostly American Indians, blocked all Union attempts to focus on Texas.

"His marauding techniques were often disastrous to Union sympathizers, whether they were white, black or Indian," Lyerla said. "At one time during the Civil War, there were 2,000 Cherokee refugees – old people, children and women – near Fort Scott. Watie was responsible for that."

For his efforts, Watie was made a brigadier general in 1864. He finally laid down arms on June 23, 1865, at Doaksville, Okla.

Following the end of the war, he farmed in Oklahoma. He died in 1871 and is buried in Polson Cemetery in Delaware County, Okla.

For a time, his grave was marked by the cast iron cross, which was placed by the United Confederate Daughters, an organization formed after the Civil War to help disabled veterans and families who had lost their men in the war.

"These Crosses of Honor were commissioned by the UDC prior to World War I and placed at the graves of Confederate heroes and leaders," Lyerla said.

However, Watie’s cross was taken from the gravesite in 1921 and remained missing until recently, when two members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans contacted Lyerla.

"They called a collector friend of mine to talk about a Confederate flag he supposedly had, and he gave them my name," Lyerla said. "They came down to look at a cannon tube I have, but they weren’t interested in it."

Then he showed them the museum in his home and they spotted the iron cross, which Lyerla has kept on display on his sandstone fireplace.

"They almost erupted when they saw that," Lyerla said.

He said many people had attempted to purchase the cross, but he had refused all offers.

"I had decided that I would part with it only when I was convinced it would be put on display in an appropriate setting that was open to the public," he said.

He decided the time was right and gave the cross to the SCV. It was received by Loy Mauch, commander, and Don Dukes, adjutant, of the James M. Keller Camp 648 SCV of Hot Springs, Ark.

The camp, in turn, presented the cross to the Cherokee Nation at Tahlequah.

Lyerla almost didn’t attend "A Matter of Honor," as the rededication ceremony was titled. He and his wife had just returned from a long trip and he just wanted to stay home for a while. However, his wife persuaded him to go.

"I thought we might just get lost in the shuffle, but that’s not what happened at all," he said.

He said many dignitaries of the state of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation took part in the event, as well as SCV and UDC members and reenactor groups. There was also a 21-gun salute by smooth-bore cannon.

"I had the pleasure of meeting many descendants of Watie and the Ridge family," Lyerla said. "I’m also very happy that the cross will be placed on public display in a secure location. A replica will be placed at Watie’s grave."

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