War in the Indian Nations 1861-1863
Eyewitness sketch of Federal Cavalry at Honey Springs Depot
War comes to the Indian Territory
The Civil War threatened the Five Indian Nations with catastrophe. The tribes had recovered from the 1838 Trail of Tears. The Indian economy of cattle, cotton and slaves compared favorably to White Mississippi planters. However, hard currency was rare. The Civilized Nations depended on Federal treaty aid to buy tools and modern amenities. Furthermore, “wild” Comanches to the west threatened the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chicasaw, Creek and Seminole farmers, who relied on the U.S. Army for safety. Now the Five Nations was on its own in a hostile environment, and their leaders were unsure what to do. Chief John Ross’ view from Talequah, the Cherokee capitol, illuminates the difficulties.
The Cherokee divided into two factions. The Southerners wished to assimilate more closely with the Mississippi valley. Their leaders, like charismatic Stand Watie, saw their future with the Confederacy. John Ross’ supporters, called “pin” indians for badges they wore, were abolitionist, pro-Union and committed to traditional Indian customs. Indian peacetime contact with Washington, however, led through Fort Smith, AR, now in Southern hands.
By April, 1861 the U.S. Army evacuated its Indian Nations posts from Fort Smith to Fort Cobb, regrouping at Fort Leavenworth, KS. A Confederate cavalry brigade under ex-Texas Ranger Ben McCulloch in nearby Arkansas meant the Union could no longer protect the Five Nations.
In early 1861, Missouri refused President Lincoln’s call for troops and turned out its State Guard under Maj Gen Sterling Price to oppose the Federal government. With Arkansas also pro-South, access to Federal support lay through Kansas, prostrated by the drought of 1860-61 and unable to help.
Meanwhile the Cherokees' neighbors gradually took sides. In February, 1861 the Choctaws voted to seek relations with the South. The Confederacy’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Albert Pike, was greatly respected among Indian leaders. Soon the Seminole and Chickasaw declared for the South.
Union defeat at Bull Run, VA and at Wilson’s Creek in nearby Missouri in the fall of 1861 precipitated matters. On August 21, the Executive Committee of the Cherokee Nation severed relations with the United States and allied with the Confederacy. The Committee offered a regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles, conditional on receipt of Confederate arms. Nevertheless a strong minority, including John Ross and John Drew, remained opposed to slavery, and might change sides if opportunity arose.While the Cherokee deliberated, ex-Indian Agent Col. Douglas Cooper formed a Choctaw and Chicasaw Mounted Rifle Regiment, raised, without weapons, in late July.
Creek Paramount Chief Opoethlehola remained loyal to the Union. In August he requested help from Washington and gathered his men to resist Confederate inroads. Tribal factions, led by Daniel and Chilly McIntosh formed the Creek Mounted Rifles for Confederate service. Cooper, leading the Indian Mounted Rifles plus the 4th Texas Cavalry, moved to overawe Opoethlehola. In skirmishes lasting from mid-November until the ragged and starving survivors reached Kansas in January, Cooper,with Col. James McIntosh’ CSA cavalry, chivvied the Creeks and Cherokee loyalists north.
In early 1862 the Trains-Mississippi was quiescent. Samuel R. Curtis’ 12,000 man US Army of the Southwest watched McCulloch and Price in NW Arkansas. Price and McCulloch weren’t speaking to one another, so CSA Major General Earl Van Dorn took charge of both, uniting them with an Indian force under newly commissioned Brigadier General Albert Pike. With 15,000 men, Van Dorn planned to smash Curtis, drive to St. Louis and on to glory.
Uncooperative Curtis handled his small army brilliantly and drove Van Dorn from the field at Pea Ridge. John Drew’s Cherokee Rifles promptly offered their services to the Union. Pike’s remaining Indian troops returned to the Five Nations.
Meantime, Kansas feared for its safety. With few Federal troops for home defense and burdened with destitute loyal Indians, state officials authorized two Indian Home Guard regiments, officered by experienced whites. Drew’s Cherokee Mounted Rifles transformed to the 3rd Indian Home Guard. Abolitionists began forming a State regiment of ex-slaves in defiance of Lincoln’s ban on black soldiers.
These regiments, with the 2 Colorado Infantry, 6 Kansas Cavalry & 3 Wisconsin Cavalry formed the core of the Army of the Frontier, Kansas Division. Brigadier General James G. Blunt, Kansas medical doctor, abolitionist, friend of Lincoln’s political ally, the radical Sen. Jim Lane, got the job. His mission was to secure the borders with the Five Nations. Blunt’s pugnacity delivered much more.
Blunt and Brigadier General James Herron orchestrated a decisive victory at Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862, pushing the Southern frontier back to Little Rock. Blunt’s reward for Prairie Grove, plus a later raid to the Arkansas River, was promotion from Lincoln and vituperation from his superior, John Shofield, on sick leave in St. Louis during the battle. Shofield banished Blunt to the Kansas frontier forthwith.
Ever combative, Blunt took to the newspapers, allied with Jim Lane. Lane’s enemies, Led by Kansas Governor Curtin, in turn began a campaign of invective against Blunt. After he thwarted Curtin’s scheme to issue Kansas officer commissions as political favors, pressure to relieve Blunt mounted. Lincoln’s patience with everybody grew thin. By 1863, Major General Blunt badly needed a victory.
1863 in Indian Territory
Back in the Five Nations, the Confederate shoestring was frayed. Arms for the Mounted Rifles were castoffs, gunpowder was impure and scarce, uniforms non-existant. Promised white reinforcements turned out to be a few hundred Texas cavalry. Lingering effects of Pea Ridge, Prairie Grove and Grant’s siege of Vicksburg drained the Confederate Trans-Mississippi of troops. The only slim comfort was the Union’s apparent disinterest in the region.
Nevertheless, Union cavalry patrols probed deep into Cherokee land while Indian units like Colonel Stand Watie’s 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles preyed on supply convoys and isolated detachments. Union Fort Gibson marked the edge of disputed land.
Douglas Cooper, now commander of the Five Nations Indians, called on General William Cabell at Fayetteville, AR, for reinforcements. Cabell agreed to bring a cavalry brigade to Honey Springs Depot, in the Creek Nation. In reaction, Blunt staged to Fort Gibson, picking up various reinforcements, including the 1st Kansas Colored, a mule train, and a friendly newspaper reporter and sketch artist.
Battle of Honey Springs
On July 17, the Army of the Frontier moved out, pushing back Confederate mounted scouts. About 2 miles from the Depot, his men sighted enemy troops in the tree line in front of Elk Creek. Blunt halted for an early lunch, then, about 10am, advanced over a low rise and into combat.
Blunt’s two US brigades were in line, cavalry on each flank and infantry in the center, anchored on the 1st Kansas Colored. 12 cannon gave supporting fire. The 3rd Indian Home Guard probably formed a tactical reserve during the early battle.
Cooper’s Indians, on paper, had the larger army, but his squadrons were thin. The Confederates were handicapped by poor powder for their small arms while the Federal Indians had muskets and obsolescent “indian rifles”, forcing the fight into point blank range. Initial fire was inconclusive. Then the 2nd Indian Home Guard mistakenly advanced in front of the battle line. Their officers’ command to fall back was heard by the 20 TX Cavalry, who, thinking the Federals were beaten charged. Instead, the 1st Kansas Colored rose, volleyed, and charged, shattering the Confederate battle line.
The Southerners held long enough for Capt. Lee’s 4 gun battery to fall back over the bridge, then the whole force broke for the creek. On the south side, Col. Tandy Walker’s Choctaw & Chickasaw Rifles held briefly, but the whole force was pushed back by stages to the Depot. There a third stand was made, but by late afternoon Blunt’s men held the field.
Cabell’s men were nearby, delayed by the need to keep his conscripts from deserting and by uncertainty as to the situation. When they finally reached the scene they could only parry Blunt’s pursuit and rally the survivors. The next day everyone retreated.
After the Battle
Blunt’s victory did him little political good. His enemies accumulated new evidence of corruption and misuse of funds. When he and his bodyguard were jumped and nearly annihilated by Quantrill’s raiders, Kansas newspapers made him a laughingstock. His military usefulness seemed at an end.
Ironically, at the very end of the war, Blunt’s love of a good fight would again save Kansas during Stirling Price’s October, 1864 raid. At the battle of Westport, Blunt held Price’s veterans until Union reinforcements could drive him from the State. Blunt’s final victory enabled Kansas militiamen to return home in time to re-elect Senator Jim Lane in the November election. After the war, Kansas’ only Major General was unable to maintain his wartime popularity. He left Kansas for Washington, where he died, obscure and insane, in 1881.
Colonel Stand Watie, who missed Honey Springs, was a thorn in the side of the Union until the very end, when then-Brigadier General Watie became the last Confederate General to surrender his army.
John Ross soon left Talequah and the Cherokee Nation to settle in Philadelphia. The Cherokees came out of the Civil War poorly, as the Federal Government refused to renew their broken treaties, while much Cherokee land was given to other tribal groups. Loyal Indians of the Home Guard regiments received veteran benefits, but lost treaty rights along with their rebel brothers.
Militarily, Honey Springs firmed the Union hold on the Arkansas River Valley. This lush granery would no longer provide Confederate armies with beef, grain and horses. Irrelevant to the larger campaigns that decided the war, vital to the Indian Nations, Honey Springs Depot is today a quiet Oklahoma Battlefield Park, a forgotten footnote of history.