BY JACK D. FOWLER William Woods Averell was a man on a mission–at least he wanted to be. He had come to Washington, D.C., from his New York home to attend President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861. But after the festivities, the world turned upside down. Forces of the newly formed confederacy of seceded Southern states fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor on April 12, and the fort returned fire. Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to halt the Southern seizure of federal property, and war had begun.
War! To a professional soldier like Averell, who had graduated from West Point in 1855, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Lieutenant Averell had been on convalescent leave for two and a half years with a serious leg injury, but he desperately wanted to be part of the action. On April 16, he wrote a letter to the War Department pleading to be returned to active duty. “Although the restoration of strength to my injured limb is not complete,” he wrote, “a sense of duty to the United States Government, now that it is in danger, impels me to…request that I may be considered ready for duty.” To ensure his request was noticed and acted upon, he visited General-in-Chief Winfield Scott the same day.
That evening, Captain James B. Fry, from the staff of Colonel Lorenzo Thomas, the army’s adjutant general, met with Averell in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. While the two men played billiards, Fry quietly asked where Averell was staying, and told him to return there after the game. Soon, Fry visited Averell in his lodgings, along with Majors Irvin McDowell and Fitz John Porter, also of Thomas’s staff. The three officers grilled Averell: Had he indeed recovered sufficiently, as his letter implied? If so, was he willing to undertake a long and possibly dangerous journey?
They certainly had reason to ask. On October 8, 1858, while commanding a company of mounted riflemen along the Rio Puerca in New Mexico Territory, Averell had been shot in the leg by a Navajo warrior. The musket ball grazed his femur, requiring him to use crutches. While recovering, however, he accidentally dropped his crutches and put his full weight on the injured leg. The bone snapped, he later said, “like a clay pipestem.” Averell was on crutches until the summer of 1860; almost a year later, he was still using a cane.
Averell assured the men he was ready, and Fry, McDowell, and Porter told him to report to the War Department in the morning. As the three officers left the room, they warned Averell not to tell anyone about their meeting. A mission like this, they explained, had to be kept secret. The next morning Averell learned what he was to do: clad in civilian garb, he was to travel through secessionist lands, past Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Fort Arbuckle, in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Once there, he was to present Lieutenant Colonel William H. Emory with orders to withdraw from the fort and march some 450 miles north to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Then, Averell was to return to Washington with any information Emory might have about secessionist activity in the territory. Ordinarily, orders to frontier posts were telegraphed to Fort Smith–some 180 miles east of Fort Arbuckle–and a courier dispatched from there. But with Arkansas likely to secede at any time, such orders might be intercepted by secessionists.
Porter told Averell to memorize the orders he would deliver, and the two men studied maps of the route west. Porter described the land in detail; he himself had served there before the Civil War. After this briefing Averell bought what he described as a “rough traveling suit of citizen’s clothing” and a carpetbag. These, along with his own black overcoat and slouch hat, would be his disguise. At 2:45 p.m. on April 17, Averell quietly left Washington for Fort Arbuckle. Little did he know he was being sent to the wrong fort.
Emory’s command–six companies of the 1st U.S. Cavalry and five companies of the 1st Infantry–garrisoned Fort Smith, the supply base for the command, and three posts in Indian Territory: Forts Arbuckle, Washita, and Cobb. These three forts sat isolated deep within Indian Territory, all within easy striking distance for Texan Confederates. The orders Averell was to deliver would remove the garrison from this dangerous area.
Unknown to Averell, however, even before he began his mission, General Scott had ordered the imperiled troops in Indian Territory to concentrate, not at Fort Arbuckle, where Averell was headed, but at Fort Washita, some two dozen miles to the east. Emory received Scott’s order on March 18, and three days later was told that if Arkansas seceded he should “march all troops beyond its limits.” But Emory knew that his command was already in danger; most of his supplies arrived from Fort Leavenworth via an old military road that ran close to the Arkansas border, and any supply convoys headed along this road could easily be intercepted. So rather than wait for Arkansas to secede (which it would do on May 6), Emory and a number of his troops left Fort Smith and marched toward Fort Washita.
Unaware of Emory’s movements, Averell headed west. The train ride from Washington to St. Louis took two days, and Averell spent the night of April 19 in the Mississippi River city. From St. Louis onward, Averell would travel disguised as a member of a pro-secession St. Louis family, whose sister was married to an officer stationed at Fort Smith. His story: he was on his way to escort his sister home “in view of the threatened troubles in Arkansas.”
On the morning of Saturday, April 20, Averell boarded a train for Rolla, Missouri, some 100 miles southwest of St. Louis. The train reached Rolla that afternoon, and Averell walked into the local office of the stagecoach line only to learn that no coach was headed west until Monday. He joined a handful of fellow passengers in the station, and waited. The others seemed to accept him at face value, but he felt so uncomfortable, a Unionist in secessionist territory, that he always remembered that Sunday as the longest, most lonesome day of his life.
At 5:00 on Monday morning, the stage departed Rolla with Averell and five other passengers. Fifty miles and a full day’s travel later, the coach stopped at Lebanon, Missouri, where Averell “passed the night amid bedbugs and drunken secessionists.” He later recalled, “Except for the suffering from aching bones and weary limbs, I was rather pleased with my experience so far. Exhaling their alcoholic and political excitement in wild talk, boasting, and profanity, people seemed to be too much occupied with themselves to scrutinize others closely, and provided a stranger acquiesced but moderately in oaths and whiskey, he was all right and might pass unquestioned.”
Averell spent the next night in Springfield, about 45 miles southwest of Lebanon. There, most of the other passengers left the stage. Only one other traveler continued through to Fayetteville, Arkansas, with Averell–an old woman on her way to her son’s murder trial. The following night, April 24, the stage stopped in Cassville, Missouri, another 50 miles to the southwest, and Averell occupied a room where a man had been robbed and nearly murdered the night before. Things did not improve the next day; the stage driver was drunk and wrecked the coach. Averell managed to find a lumber wagon, made a deal with the owner, and “attached the fractious horses, loaded up the mail, the old woman and the drunken driver, and thus drove to Bentonville,” he recalled.
Finding a replacement coach and driver in that northwestern Arkansas town, Averell and the old woman continued to Fayetteville, some 50 miles southwest of Cassville. As they arrived, four men on horseback approached the stage. One of them sidled up alongside Averell, who was riding with the driver, and questioned him cautiously. Who are you, the rider asked him, and why are you here? Averell, holding a pistol concealed in his overcoat, fired off a few menacing words. None of your business, he answered. His bold approach worked; convinced Averell was not a Yankee, the riders let the stage pass.
The coach rolled into Fayetteville and stopped in front of the Prendergast Hotel. A crowd gathered around the driver to hear the latest news and to question him about his passengers. Exhausted, Averell walked through the crowd, rented a room in the hotel, ordered a drink, and lay down in his room to rest. The innkeeper soon brought up his drink–and a warning: “This is a pretty hard set around here and they are a little curious about you and I advise you to come out and show yourself.” He cautioned Averell, “They are mighty jealous about strangers, and if you don’t come out and satisfy them in some way, there may be trouble. But be careful and on your guard, I don’t want any trouble here.”
Averell wisely took the advice. At the bar, he found the man he took to be the local secessionist ringleader and offered to buy drinks and cigars for him and his friends. Calmly, Averell lit the man’s cigar and, taking him aside, explained that he was traveling to Fort Smith on important business for the Southern cause. His trip, he told him, was confidential, but he would have important news on his return. The ringleader accepted this story, and Averell was left in peace until the stagecoach left the following day, April 26, at noon.
The stage traveled about 35 miles southwest until it reached Evansville, a village that straddled the border between Arkansas and the Indian Territory. Rumors were rampant there, and Averell heard that Fort Smith had been taken by 800 Arkansas state troops under the command of Colonel Solon Borland. The coach continued around the Boston Mountains toward the fort, and that night, passengers from a passing coach that had recently left Fort Smith confirmed that it had been captured a few days earlier. The Federal garrison–two companies of the 1st Cavalry under Captain Samuel D. Sturgis–had withdrawn to the west. Averell was uneasy, but he knew his mission had to continue.
Averell’s stagecoach continued through the night until it reached Van Buren, a scant five miles from Fort Smith. While the mails were being changed, Averell sought a livery stable, hoping to bypass the secessionists in Fort Smith by hiring a horse and buggy to take him to Tahlequah, a village in nearby Cherokee territory. From there, he believed, he could travel alone to Fort Arbuckle. It was a reasonable plan, but the livery stables had no horses; they had all been requisitioned by the secessionists. Averell had no choice but to go on to Fort Smith and trust to luck.
The stage crossed the Arkansas River by ferry, and at about 9:00 a.m. on April 27, it entered the town of Fort Smith. There, Averell saw “a mob of wild Southern borderers boiling over with political frenzy and unlimited whiskey, mounted men riding wildly, secession banners flying and women displaying them from windows,” he recalled. “Horsemen galloped alongside the stage and peered into the windows, making inquiries or yelling like bedlamites. That I reached the St. Charles Hotel without being shot or hanged seemed like a special providence. About the tavern, men were yelling, women screeching and fluttering secession flags, and everybody was in a sublime state of glorification except the landlord, whose countenance was downcast and full of trouble.”
Realizing he would need help to remain undetected, Averell decided to approach the hotel’s landlord, who told him to go out the back door and meet him in the stables behind the hotel. Averell confided in the landlord, and he in turn explained how the fort had fallen. His son and all his hired hands had joined the secessionists, and the Arkansas troops were drinking him out of business. He feared that at any time they would take his seven horses.
Averell offered to buy one of those horses, so he could ride out toward Emory’s command. The innkeeper tried to talk him out of it, but finally relented, selling Averell a horse, saddle, and bridle for $20 and a gold watch. Averell chose “a well-made, bright bay horse whose only defect was one blind eye.” The landlord agreed to keep his carpetbag, and quietly carried Averell’s overcoat to the stable so it wouldn’t appear as if the mysterious stranger were leaving. Averell expected to blend into the crowd of riders in the streets; what he did not know was how he would get out of town without being stopped. It was a problem that would quickly take care of itself.
Averell mounted the horse and learned that it had one other defect: it had not been saddle-broken. Any hopes of avoiding the public eye ended in a bronco-riding exhibition in the middle of the street. Averell had not been on horseback since his wounding in New Mexico, but he was a superb rider, and he managed to stay in the saddle. After the horse failed to throw him, it bolted down the dusty street. The crowd gave way, laughing and cheering. Bursting onto an open field at the end of the street, Averell and the horse charged through the middle of a drilling regiment of secessionists. Laughing soldiers scattered, and Averell galloped past the pickets and out of town. After about three miles, the muddy road wore the horse down, and Averell reined it in. The fear of riding an out-of-control horse gave way to exhilaration; Averell realized he had made his escape.
He knew it was only a matter of time until someone started asking questions about the stranger on the bucking horse, and pursuit was sure to follow. So Averell rode along side paths and through open woods where he could not be trailed as easily. Eventually he lost track of the main road, but he continued to wander to the southwest. When he struck the high-running Poteau River, he followed it until he reached the road again. The retreating Federals had burned the bridge over the river, so he took off his overcoat, laid it across his pommel, and rode into the rushing water.
It was a decision the horse did not favor. In the struggle that followed, Averell lost his overcoat and nearly drowned, but finally got the horse headed toward the far shore. The current carried them a quarter-mile downstream, and by the time they reached the other side of the river, both were so exhausted they could hardly climb out. Averell lay on his back on the far shore and held up his feet to drain his boots. Drenched with water and drained of energy, he remounted and rode on.
Fifteen miles out of Fort Smith, Averell rode through Scullyville and continued until the road split–one branch headed west toward Fort Arbuckle, the other went south toward Fort Washita. Averell studied the dusty fork and found the tracks left by Sturgis’s retreating column heading south. Averell rode west toward Arbuckle for a mile to lay a false trail and then cut across the grassland and headed south.
By sunset Averell had reached Daniel’s Station. There, he turned his mount out in the corral while he ate and rested. He also bought an old blue infantry coat for $5 to replace his lost black overcoat. Averell knew it would be safer to travel by night, so he waited for the moon to rise, and at 10:00 p.m. he resumed his journey. The moon was three days past full, so he found the road easy to follow but “awfully lonesome.”
At 3:00 a.m. on April 28, Averell arrived at Holloway’s Station, 50 miles out of Fort Smith. The station was a double log cabin with an attached lean-to kitchen and a corral. In the cabin, Averell found a woman and several children asleep on the floor in front of the fire. Averell woke the woman, and she gave him a candle stub and led him to a loft above the cabin, where he found a bed “made of a hay mattress and a blanket on a bedstead of barrel staves laid across two poles.” He fell asleep immediately.
Averell awoke to the sound of voices; the pursuit he had been expecting since he left Fort Smith had caught up to him. He peered through cracks in the floor of the loft and saw two men in “Texan sombreros” questioning the landlady. Just then a servant girl announced that breakfast was ready. Averell considered pushing through the roof, climbing down the corner of the cabin, saddling up, and escaping, but he knew the struggle his strong-willed horse would put up, so he pulled on his shrunken boots and went down to a breakfast that he feared might be his last.
No words were spoken at the breakfast table; Averell choked down cornbread and bacon “while considering what use might be made of the table cutlery in a close fight.” After a few minutes, the two secessionists turned to face Averell, and one of them asked, “Stranger, where did you start from yesterday?” Averell recited his cover story, and one of the men asked him if he had seen any other travelers this side of Fort Smith. Quickly remembering the coat he had lost in the river, Averell said he had seen a horseman in a black overcoat the night before disappear into the woods as he approached. “That’s the man we’re after,” the secessionist told Averell, “and we believe it’s Montgomery from Kansas or some other damned Yankee spy. He left Fort Smith yesterday morning.”
The men told Averell that they had sent one man to Riddle’s, 18 miles ahead, and that another was sleeping in the cabin. Then they helped Averell catch and saddle his horse, and Averell promised to do all he could to help capture the “damned Yankee.” As he rode out toward Fort Washita, the secessionists backtracked toward Fort Smith.
Averell knew he had made a narrow escape, and he rode some 10 miles before he left the road to hide behind a cabin. He dismounted to let his horse feed while he kept watch on the road. An hour later three men–the two who had questioned him and the one who had been sleeping–galloped up, paused at the cabin for a moment, then rode on. Averell mounted his horse and followed them at a safe distance, hoping to trail them to Riddle’s, circle around them, and continue unseen toward Fort Washita.
Less than two miles farther on, Averell met a man on foot who recognized him from the description his pursuers had given. “I don’t know what you’ve been a doin’ of, and I go for every man havin’ a fair chance; but believe me, if them fellers catches you, you’re gone up certain sure,” the man told him. “They say you’ve fooled ’em bad, and they’re turribly riled about it.” If Averell couldn’t get by his would-be captors on this road, the stranger suggested, he should cross the Sans Bois Mountains, part of the Ouachita range, and continue until he hit the Fort Arbuckle road, about 35 miles to the north. This, Averell remembered, was the fork he had bypassed west of Scullyville.
Another two miles down the road, Averell saw four men approaching on horseback, their heads bent as they examined the road before them. It appeared as if his trio of pursuers had picked up the fourth at Riddle’s. Averell rode quickly into the woods north of the road. Finding his way barred by a brush-choked gully, he dismounted and led his horse through it. As he climbed back on his horse, he heard the four horsemen shouting; they had discovered his tracks. Fortunately, the woods were thick, and Averell found he could “make a trail faster than they could follow it.” He lost them before he reached the mountains.
The steep south face of the Sans Bois rose some 600 to 900 feet above the valley floor. The straight-line distance between the spot where Averell took to the woods and the Fort Arbuckle Road was actually only some 14 miles, but the Sans Bois Mountains were a maze of ridges and canyons, so he could not ride straight in any direction. Averell spent the rest of the day leading his horse up and down the steep rocky slopes.
As the sun set, Averell led his horse into a ravine where he found water and a small patch of grass. He pulled the saddle off, tied the bridle to one stirrup, hooked his arm through the other, and lay down to sleep. He woke to the howling of coyotes, and found his horse standing over him, trembling with fear. Averell dispersed the coyotes with a few well-thrown rocks, but the horse was still too terrified to graze. At moonrise Averell saddled up and set out again. He reached the road to Fort Arbuckle about 2:00 a.m. on April 29 and followed it west until daybreak, when he again tied up his horse and let it graze while he slept.
When Averell awoke he was so stiff he could not get up until he had rubbed his legs for some time. He returned to the saddle and soon met an Indian leading a herd of cattle. After giving Averell some cold cornbread and bacon, the Indian told him that Perryville was several miles ahead. Several men from the town had been out searching for someone, he added. Averell assumed his pursuers had tried to head him off by taking the road around the west end of the mountains from Riddle’s. So, riding slowly and stopping often to allow his exhausted horse to graze, he headed for Perryville, intending to circle around the town and continue to the fort.
Three horsemen approached him outside of town, and Averell galloped into the woods north of the road. The secessionists spotted him crossing a clearing and chased him, but he lost them by riding through a herd of horses. The price of escape was another night spent wandering in the woods.
The crowing of a rooster awakened him at sunup on April 30, and he followed the sound to a cabin. There, a Chickasaw woman offered him food and the word that he was 10 miles west of Perryville. This placed him 30 miles east of a ranch owned by Robert Cochran, a Fort Arbuckle sutler and a man Federal officials had told him he could trust. From the ranch, he would be only 70 miles east of Fort Arbuckle.
Averell’s mount was nearly played out, so he stopped and let it graze every two or three miles, but this slow progress forced him to spend another night in the open. As darkness arrived Averell fell asleep while his horse fed. Awakened a second time by the howling of coyotes, Averell found the horse trying desperately to fight off a pack of coyotes as they snapped at its legs. Averell drove the coyotes away and saddled up at once. The night was thick with fog, and it did not lift until well after sunrise on May 1. The first person he met that morning was an old black man who told him he had ridden some 15 miles past Cochran’s ranch. Frustrated, Averell backtracked.
He reached Cochran’s home at noon. It was there that he learned of Scott’s order; the troops had left Fort Arbuckle and concentrated at Fort Washita, 40 miles to his south. Cochran fed him, offered him a more rested horse, and sent him on his way at 2:00 p.m., guided by an Indian named Isar. In the late afternoon, a thunderstorm engulfed the two riders in a downpour of rain. In the deluge, Averell and Isar became separated. Averell wandered until he reached the Blue River. Knowing Fort Washita was on the other side, he swam his horse across, picketed his steed, and lay down to sleep in the wet grass.
During the night, Isar rejoined him, and in the morning, the two men rode from the river until they came to Pleasant Grove Mission. There, they learned that the Federal forces were encamped just to the north on the road to Fort Arbuckle. Six miles up the road they arrived at Averell’s goal. The blueclad infantrymen were already on the march, and Emory and his staff were watching the cavalry form up. Averell rode forward and delivered his dispatches. The date was May 2, 1861; in only five days he had ridden and walked some 250 miles.
Emory listened carefully to Averell’s words. Undoubtedly, he was pleased to receive the order to withdraw; he was already doing just that. Because he knew that a large force of Texans was marching on Fort Washita, Emory had evacuated the fort some two weeks earlier and in recent days had ordered the withdrawal of the forces left at Arbuckle and Cobb. The Texans had occupied Fort Washita the day before Averell arrived.
Averell, exhausted and weak, had completed his task. Officers in Emory’s command knew him, but none recognized him; the ride had taken its toll on his appearance. A West Point classmate, 1st Lieutenant Albert V. Colburn, offered Averell a change of clothing. Those he had worn since leaving Fayetteville a week earlier had to be removed by “something resembling a surgical operation,” Averell later wrote.
Averell traveled north with the command for a few days before making his own way east to Washington along a safer, more Federal-friendly route. On May 31, Averell submitted his report to Adjutant General Thomas. “I left Colonel Emory’s command on the march for Leavenworth at Eldorado, in Kansas, and reached Washington yesterday and endeavored to report at once to you,” Averell wrote. “Finding you engaged with the Secretary of War, I went to his house, but as you were unable to see me I avail myself of this first opportunity to report.”
By his amazing ride, Averell proved he was ready to fight for the Union, and his Western adventure heralded a series of military successes for the native New Yorker. Three months later he would be promoted from lieutenant to colonel of the 3d Pennsylvania Cavalry. In the next few years he would rise to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers, with brevets of all ranks from major through major general in the Regular Army. He would be instrumental in forming a mass of untrained mounted volunteers into a disciplined and effective cavalry arm of the Army of the Potomac in 1862, and when assigned to the Department of West Virginia in 1863, he would perform the same service there. His army career would effectively end on September 23, 1864, when Major General Philip H. Sheridan would relieve him of command over what he perceived as Averell’s lackadaisical pursuit of Confederates routed at Fisher’s Hill, Virginia.
Back in Washington in 1861, however, Averell’s future was unclear. The three officers who had offered Averell the mission into Indian Territory were themselves in the field–Fry and McDowell soon to fight in the upcoming First Battle of Bull Run, and Porter as colonel of the 15th U.S. Infantry–and Averell’s mission was so secret that no one remaining in the adjutant general’s office was aware of it. Puzzled, Colonel Thomas read the dispatches Averell had brought back from Emory, and dismissed them as “of no consequence whatever.”
Jack D. Fowler is a freelance writer from Guthrie, Oklahoma.