The War In Oklahoma
By Ralph Jones
(June 2010 Civil War News - Preservation Column)
“There was no Civil War out here!” A few years ago, those words were hurled at me by a Virginian. I assured him that there was, indeed, a Civil War in what is now Oklahoma.
We tell people that the Civil War here began with the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Alabama, in March 1814, when the Muscogee Nation split. Those along the upper creeks fought with the British as they had during the American Revolution while those along the lower creeks fought under William McIntosh with Andrew Jackson.
Following the War of 1812, McIntosh signed a treaty with his cousin, the governor of Georgia, ceding several hundred acres of Creek land to that state. For this “treason” he was executed on orders of the tribal council.
McIntosh descendants and followers then signed treaties ceding all of the Creek land in the Southeast to the United States and they moved west to lands granted them in what is now Oklahoma. Within two years, a minority of the Cherokee ceded land and also moved west.
In the early 1830s the government rounded up the majority of the Cherokee and the Muscogee and forced them west on what is known as “The Trail of Tears” for the number of Native Americans who perished. The Choctaw and Chickasaw moved willingly after signing treaties and many Seminole were rounded up and forced west as well.
When the majority of the Cherokee and Creek arrived in their new lands, they began “executing the traitors” or “assassinating the patriots,” depending on who’s telling the story, until the army stepped in.
So the tribes maintained an internal peace, of sorts, until the outbreak of the American Civil War, which served as an excuse to continue the bloodshed.
The Choctaw and Chickasaw, under the leadership of their agent, Douglas Cooper, who had commanded a company in Jefferson Davis’ Mississippi Rifles during the Mexican War, quickly signed treaties with the provisional government at Montgomery.
The majorities of the Creek and Cherokee declared they would honor their treaties with the U.S. and remain “neutral” in the “white man’s conflict.”
The slave-owning planter class in those tribes considered themselves Southerners and created Confederate-allied regiments of Cherokee, Creek and Choctaw-Chickasaws. They along with regiments from Arkansas and Texas chased the “neutralists” into Kansas where they remained as ill-clothed and ill-fed refugees until after the March 1862 Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas.
Treaties negotiated with each of the Five Civilized Tribes by Albert Pike stipulated that the Confederate government would provide white regiments to protect the Indian Territory and that tribal-raised military units would be used only for home-guard duties.
However, the depredations in Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri quickly drew the Indian regiments into cross-border conflicts that, just as Pike had feared, brought Federal retaliation within the tribal homelands.
The refugee Indians, realizing there was a chance the Federal government might actually win the war, wanted to be part of that effort and organized the 1st and 2nd Indian Home Guards regiments under the laws of the State of Kansas.
A 3rd Indian Home Guards regiment was organized from members of the former Confederate 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles. They were recruited with the promise they would never have to fight outside their nation, but they were forced to fight at Pea Ridge. After that debacle, the men deserted only to re-form in Kansas in blue uniforms.
The Union Indian Brigade occupied Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory in the fall of 1862 under orders of Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt. When they could not be supplied through the winter the brigade went to Fort Scott, Kansas.
The brigade returned to Fort Gibson in spring 1863. When a supply train escorted by the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry survived a July 1 attack by Col. Stand Watie’s 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles at Cabin Creek, the brigade posed a real threat to Confederate operations north and east of the Arkansas River.
Confederate Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Cooper ordered eight regiments to assemble at his temporary headquarters at the supply depot at Honey Springs, a well-known watering place on the Texas Road, the principal north-south route through the territory.
These 5,400-plus men were comprised of the 1st and 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles, the 1st and 2nd Creek Volunteers, the 1st Choctaw-Chickasaw Regiment, the 20th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted), the 29th Texas Cavalry, the 5th Texas Partisan Rangers,and two squadrons of Texas Cavalry.
They awaited a 3,000-man brigade from Fort Smith under Brig. Gen. William Cabell, whose trek was hampered by rain-swollen creeks and rivers.
General Blunt arrived at Fort Gibson with a portion of the Army of the Frontier’s First Division, being the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment, the 2nd and 3rd Batteries of Kansas Artillery, and one battalion each of the 2nd Colorado Infantry, the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry and the 6th Kansas Cavalry.
When informed by brigade commander Col. William A. Phillips that the fort would soon be attacked, Blunt didn’t wait. Taking a squadron of cavalry up river he drove the Confederate pickets off the west side of the Arkansas while his troops constructed rafts to move their 12 cannon across the river.
By 11 o’clock the night of July 16, all his men and equipment were across and began a 24-mile march down the Texas Road toward the Confederate supply depot at Honey Springs. At 2 a.m. they encountered a Confederate picket which was quickly driven off.
Eighteen miles farther they met a reconnaissance force which was driven back into the main Confederate line. By 8 a.m. the U.S. division had reached a small ravine on the prairie one mile north of Elk Creek, about 1.5 miles north of the supply depot.
The men rested for two hours. Blunt and his staff moved to a small hillock north of the tree line, where the three Texas regiments were formed in line of battle, to scan for signs of gun emplacements. One of the four guns of Lee’s Light Battery of Texas Artillery sent a shell into the scout position, killing Blunt’s aide.
Blunt formed his division into two brigades under Colonel Phillips and Col. William Judson, commander of the 6th Kansas Cavalry. At 10 a.m. the brigades moved forward a quarter-mile on the double quick and within 15 minutes had formed a line of battle three-quarters of a mile wide.
From this position the Federal artillery commenced a 75-minute barrage into the Confederate line.
Then the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry were ordered forward. Marching to within 40 paces of the tree line they were given the order “Ready! Aim! Fire” upon which both sides fired at once.
This was followed by a Federal charge and a Confederate counter-attack in which the 29th Texas flag-bearer fell. A second Federal charge and another Confederate counter-attack resulted in the fall of a second flag-bearer.
During the third Federal charge, approximately 2.5 hours after the first, the 2nd Indian Home Guards rode into the line of fire, prompting the yelling of “Cease fire!” and “Pull back!” Members of the 29th Texas rushed into an enfilade.
This action caused the Confederate line to collapse and the Texans began retreating toward the toll-bridge over Elk Creek. Reports at the end of the day noted 17 Federal and 150 Confederate dead, with another 150 wounded and/or captured.
The regiments formed a retreating line of battle to hold off the on-coming Federals and were joined by the 1st Choctaw-Chickasaw about three-quarters of a mile south of Elk Creek. This line allowed Confederate teamsters to load many of the 700 hogsheads of salt, molasses, flour and meat, as well as some of the ammunition. Supplies that couldn’t be rescued were burned.
That night half of the Federals returned to Fort Gibson and the remainder rounded up contraband and what supplies could be salvaged.
General Blunt reported the day’s event as “The Engagement at Honey Springs” while General Cooper called it “The Action at Elk Creek.”
It was the largest of 107 hostile encounters in the Indian Territory. As a result of the fight, and the action at Perryville (near present-day McAlester) a month later, the Confederates no longer had free run beyond the Arkansas. This cleared the way for the Federal capture of Van Buren and Fort Smith, which opened the Arkansas toward Little Rock from the west.
While Oklahoma had no battles by definition, if General Cabell had shown up in time there would have been more than two generals and more than 10,000 men engaged, so Honey Springs would have been an official battle.
Today Honey Springs Battlefield is a historic site maintained and administered by the Oklahoma Historical Society, which is a statutory agency of the State of Oklahoma, as well as a private membership organization. The Friends of Honey Springs Battlefield are raising $1 million to construct a visitor center.
The battlefield is near Rentiesville seven miles northeast of Checotah. The site is open Tuesday-Saturday 8-5 and Sunday 1-5. The park has six walking trails and 55 interpretive signs. For information call (918) 473-5572 or write firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ralph Jones recently retired as Honey Springs Battlefield superintendent, ending a 40-year career as a museum director and historic site superintendent with the state. He spent three years as director of the 45th Infantry Division Museum during which time the Jordan B. Reaves Gun Collection and the Bill Mauldin “Willie and Joe” originals collection were acquired.