BY PHILLIP RUTHERFORD
Captain N.W. Gillitine and twenty-three militiamen of the Texas 2d Military District stared into the grave they had just opened. On the bottom lay a two-year-old Indian girl, dead not 48 hours. To Gillitine, she was less a dead child than the final proof he needed for an alarming report he was sending Confederate Colonel James Barry at Fort Belknap. As the soldiers kicked loose sand back into the hole, Gillitine began the communiqué that would soon lead to his own death in a battle unlike any other fought in Texas during the Civil War.
After pushing through bone-chilling cold and marching thirty miles beyond the ruined chimneys of old Fort Phantom Hill, an abandoned west Texas cavalry outpost, Gillitine’s routine scout had struck heavy Indian signs on December 9, 1864. They first discovered a fresh trail nearly 100 yards wide, then found a deserted campsite containing the remnants of 102 dwellings and the debris of a tribe on the move. Gillitine, a veteran Indian fighters, estimated the Indians to number about 500. His men were nervous. They did not like the odds, and they suspected they had been spotted. The commander hurried through his report and gave it and one of the dead child’s moccasins to a courier for delivery to Colonel Barry, asking him to bring a force of Confederate regulars to meet them some miles east of the Indian trail on Paint Creek.
Under a weak winter sun, Gillitine rapidly withdrew toward the Paint, becoming ever more apprehensive: Large, recently-abandoned Indian camps seemed to be everywhere. Now he was scared himself. He decided not to wait for Barry at the creek, but to warn the frontier settlements and make his report directly to Major George Erath, commander of the state militia’s 2d District at Meridian.
At first glance, Gillitine’s alarm seems justified. A concentration of Indians anywhere in west Texas during the Civil War was a cause for real concern. Although the frontier had been progressing steadily westward since the 1830s, it had not only ceased advancing but had actually regressed after U.S. troops surrendered to the Texas militia in 1861. The Kiowas and Commanches took advantage of the military vacuum and raided with impunity, stealing horses, burning the isolated ranches, and killing settlers. In their first communication with the new Confederate government, Texas authorities had pleaded for troops to protect the western settlements. Indeed, hostile Indians were a serious threat.
But in this particular case, Gillitine failed to ask the obvious question: Were the Indians hostile? He was a scout; he could read sign. The Indians could not be a war party, even a large one. The dead baby, the campsite littered with scraped hair, scraps of calico, broken tableware, and pieces of trimmed skin showed that there were women present. Dog droppings were everywhere. The shelters were of a semi-permanent sort used to house entire families and were of an eastern woodland variety rather than that of the plains tribes. Even the trail was fifty to sixty miles west of the most western settlements and led in a west-south-westerly direction, away from the settlements and toward Mexico. That this was a peaceful tribal migration was evident by even the most cursory examination. Gillitine ignored the obvious and set the stage for needless confrontation.
When Gillitine reached Meridian and found Major Erath absent, he made his report to Captain S.S. Totton, a former Confederate officer who had resigned his commission in the East because of wounds. Totton’s militiamen did not like him. He enjoyed hunting deserters just a little too much to suit them. Also, he had tried to teach the independent Texas frontiersmen a bit of discipline, which they did not care for. Texas troops in the regular army paid little attention to military details and orders they did not like; home guard units did strictly as they pleased. In an emergency, Totton could not necessarily count on his men obeying him.
Upon receiving Gillitine’s report, Totton immediately contacted Colonel Barry, requesting him to meet the militiamen at Camp McCord on December 25 so that they could field a combined expedition against the Indians. Next, he ordered his men to assemble with provisions and equipment for a winter campaign. Then as the 325 militiamen gathered from Coryell, Erath, Johnson, Bosque, and Commanche counties, Totton left for Waco to secure a new supply of percussion caps (those furnished by the state were defective); and hire four Tonkawa Indians as scouts.
For his part Colonel Barry turned the Confederate army’s piece of the operation over to Captain Henry Fossett, a Maine native, with orders to cooperate “as far as practicable” with the state troops. Then before leaving his home post at Camp Colorado, Fossett sent word to Totton that he would meet him at Fort Chadbourne rather than at McCord. After that, 112 regulars of the Camp McCord regiment and forty-nine attached state troops concentrated at Fort Chadbourne on December 31, accompanied by their pack train carrying ammunition, provisions, and fodder. But they arrived surprised; Totton was not there.
After consulting his officers on December 27, Totton had decided to ignore Fossett’s request and “go where Capt. Gillitine had seen the trail and follow it.” He ordered his command into their saddles, and the motley “flop-eared militia” (as the regular troops called them) fell into line clutching a variety of weapons, ranging from military muskets and pistols to squirrel rifles and shotguns. Then the column with its skimpy pack train marched west to Elm Creek, where they picked up the Indian trail.
Three weeks of heavy rain and the passage of a huge buffalo herd had almost obliterated it. They made little headway following the dim track, distinguishable now only by pulverized horse droppings. The cold and poor fodder began wearing out the horses, so much so that by January 3 Totton had to send home those men whose horses were unfit for further service. By January 5, the soldiers’ meager supplies began to run so low that Totton detailed fourteen men to Fort Chadbourne thirty miles away to secure a supply of army beef.
In the meantime Fossett had tired of waiting for Totton, who had made no attempt to contact him, so he set out to find the Indians on his own. Immediately his troop discovered four large, abandoned Indian camps containing 875 wigwams that would house about 5,000 Indians. They also found where the Indians had blazed a tree with an ax to make a target. From the bullets in the tree, they determined that the Indians were both well armed and good shots. Although the Confederates could read sign well enough to draw these conclusions, they overlooked the fact that their prey could not possibly be a war party, just as Gillitine had thought.
In view of the probably number of Indians, Fossett called a halt to his march and camped on the North Concho River, hoping that Totton would soon catch up with him. While he waited, he sent forward eight experienced scouts under a Lieutenant Mulkey, himself a Cherokee, to locate the Indians.
After five days of consuming supplies, suffering from the intense cold, and accomplishing nothing, Fossett decided to move out, even though neither Totton nor Mulkey’s scouts had appeared. Before leaving, he posted a message on several trees: “Your assistance is greatly needed; make all haste to overtake us. My scouts have not been heard from for the past week; I fear they have been killed.” Shortly after the Confederates left on the morning of the seventh, the scouts met them and reported the Indians were camped fifty miles to the west of Dove Creek. They numbered about 4,000 and were herding some 7,000 horses. Mulkey and a Lieutenant Brooks Lee told Fossett they felt the Indians were not hostile and that the Confederate commander should communicate with them to discover their intentions. He ignored the advice.
Instead, Fossett ordered his troopers to march to the Middle Concho, where they would fire their guns to clear any damp powder and camp until midnight. Then the 161 men would saddle up and ride to Dove Creek. They would attack at dawn, regardless of the number of Indians and regardless of Totton’s arrival.
Very late that evening as the Confederates were mounting up for the last leg of the pursuit, Captains R.S. Barnes, William Culver, and Gillitine of Totton’s command rode into camp on worn-out horses. Totton had found the note and sent them ahead to ask Fossett to wait for him. Fossett sent them back with one of his scouts who knew the location of the Indians’ camp and the message that he would wait for him in a dry gulch about three miles north of the Indian encampment.
Having only fifty miles to travel–Totton had eighty–the regulars reached the rendezvous about 2:00 the morning of the eighth. The men were ordered to get some rest before the planned surprise dawn attack, but the excitement was too great for most of them. They sat together in their companies and talked quietly of the coming battle. I.D. Ferguson of Company G said they naturally discussed the possibility that some of them would be killed, but each thought it would be the other fellow. The only man who correctly predicted his own death was Private Jim Gibson.
The sky lightened: Totton did not show up. The sun appeared; Totton still was not there. Just as Fossett was about to give up on him and begin the attack alone, he saw the mile-long line of Totton’s command far in the distance.
The militiamen had ridden all night in the face of a cold south wind, exhausting themselves and their already weakened horses. By the time they linked up with the Confederates at nine o’clock, only 220 of them were on hand. The others with their exhausted mounts had been left miles behind with the pack train. Although ordered to come up when they could, they turned back without ever reaching Dove Creek.
The attack was already three hours late, and Fossett was impatient. When Totton arrived, they exchanged only a few words. Although Fossett ranked Totton, he refused command. Totton took charge without viewing the battlefield.
The Indian encampment would have given paused to even the rashest commander. Located in an almost impenetrable, 100-acre thicket of live oak and green briar, it was protected on the west by Dove Creek, on the north and east by two dry branches and a bluff, and on the south by a steep hill. Totton admitted later that the Indians “were completely concealed by brush and briars, forming the very best of rifle pits. Their position was such that it was impossible to ascertain its strength until the attack was made.” Fossett added that the camp was “well fortified by nature.” But the commanders gave no thought to postponing the attack and scouting the position further.
The battle plan was too simple for the Indians’ strong position. Totton would advance with his 220 men to the left of a small peak on the west side of the creek, cross on horses, and charge the main part of the camp. Fossett and his 161 men would move to the right of the peak, capture the horse herd, and then attack across the creek in support of the militia. As Brigadier General J.D. McAdoo stated in a critical report of the action, “. . .without any formation of a line of battle, without any preparation, without any inspection of the camp, without any communication with the Indians or inquiry as to what tribe or party they belonged to, without any knowledge of their strength or position, the command ‘forward’ was given. . . .”
They made a deadly mistake.
Since before the days of the Lone Star republic, Texans had paid little attention to the odds in an Indian fight. Generally the conflict was on horseback with the whites in pursuit of Indians who had stolen horses. As the Indians broke up into groups that rode off in all directions, few whites or Indians were engaged at one time. Even if frontiersmen were attacked by a war party greatly outnumbering them, they still did not worry unduly, as they fought from cover in more or less prepared positions and could therefore outlast the hostiles who had to expose themselves. In addition, the whites were almost always better armed than the Indians. At Dove Creek, it was as if the usual positions were reversed. But the Texans were confident. They had been whipping Indians for thirty years.
Fossett formed his men in columns of four and came out of the ravine at a gallop, riding for the horse herd grazing in the distance. AS the Confederates closed, the Indian herders spotted them and stampeded the 7,000 horses toward their camp. The Confederates, spurring hard, yelling, and firing wildly, descended on the herd and turned it just before it crossed the creek. The fifteen herders dove from their horses into the brush to hide, taking a few casualties in the process. I.D. Ferguson later commented wryly on the first part of the action: “I was mad at my bad luck not to get to kill an Indian and thought that they would all be killed and I would not get a shot at them. . . but I soon learned that the boys had not killed all the Indians, that there were plenty left for me to kill, and I had all day in which to do it. . . I had all the killing I could attend to, and I would have been glad to have turned the job over to someone else, but every man had a like business of his own. So I had to try to hold my job down the very best I could.”
Captain Jack Cureton’s militia company, which was attached to the Regulars, and the four Tonkawas drove the horse herd about 1,000 yards west of the battlefield where they held most of it for the rest of the day. Fortunately as it turned out, Cureton ordered the Tonkawas to cut out 250 head and take them some miles to the north.
Just as the horses were secure, Fossett observed Totton’s militia dismounting to cross Dove Creek on foot, their horses being “too jaded” to stand up to a charge. To cut off the Indians’ retreat when Totton hit them, Fossett dispatched seventy-five Confederates under Lieutenant J.A. Brooks to the hill south of the camp. Here, the soldiers had a perfect view of the attack.
The militia captains waded into he knee-deep creek followed by their men. Not a shot was fired. They scrambled up the bank and entered the thicket along three or four trails. The men on the hill said the silence was unearthly. As the militia filed into the center of the seemingly deserted camp, they could not see the 400 or 500 braves lying in wait for them. Without warning, the brush and high weeds erupted in flames, as the warriors poured shot after shot into them from their new Enfield rifles. The curtain of silence was rent by a crescendo of noise: Wounded and dying men screamed, Indians yelled, dogs barked, and the roar of the Enfields deafened the trapped men in the close-packed clearing. Slow-drifting clouds of acrid, black-powder smoke hung in the damp morning air obscuring the well-hidden warriors even more. The surviving militiamen fled like rabbits back down the narrow trails with 100 of the braves pursuing them. Many in their fear threw down their weapons to lighten their loads. Hand to hand fighting broke out briefly as the stragglers were overtaken, overpowered, and finally butchered. The mass of Totton’s men clawed through the briars along the east side of the creek, stumbling and falling down the bank before rushing wildly through the icy water for the safety of the far side. They did not stop to offer covering fire for their comrades. They did not stop at all, even at the shouts and threats of their surviving officers. In act, they did not stop until their mad scramble had taken them three miles north to Spring Creek. In minutes they had suffered at least eighteen dead–including Captains Gillitine, Barnes, and Culver–and fourteen wounded. Totally demoralized, they could not be forced back on to the field to aid the remaining Confederates for the rest of the day.
Just as the slaughter of the militiamen began, Lieutenant Brooks and his force charged down the steep hill in the Indians’ rear, leaving six men holding the horses. About halfway down the incline, the Regulars met a wall of fire that drove them back. Along with two men wounded, twelve of their mounts were killed on the spot. Brooks could see that the last thing he had to worry about was the Indians escaping. Trying the dodge the Enfield bullets, he shouted for the men who had lost horses to double mount those that were left and rejoin Fossett’s command before they were cut off.
As they recrossed the Dove at a dead gallop, they found Fossett heavily engaged. He had occupied a live oak ridge facing the Indian camp and was in a “V” of land formed by a small branch adjoining Dove Creek, the branch to his right and the dove to his left. The position was poorly chosen. The Indians slipped up the two channels, caught the Confederates in. a deadly cross-fire and threatened to overrun the ends of the . To protect his flanks Fossett sent lieutenant J.R. Giddens and one company to the left along the Dove and Lieutenant Brooks and another company to the right along the branch. Fossett held the center with the remainder of the troops.
After only an hour of fighting, the mystery of the Indians’ identity and their intentions was solved. Fossett’s Confederates captures three of the herders, an old man who could speak English and two ten-year-old boys. When questioned, the old warrior told them that the Indians were Kickapoos and a few Potawatomies who had been in the service of the Confederacy in Kansas. Growing tired of the war, they had decided to migrate to Mexico where a small band of their tribesmen lived. He showed them a pass issued by W.M. Ross of the Potawatomy Agency in Kansas, authorizing him to hunt buffalo until February 4.(They later discovered similar passes on the bodies of two other Indians.) He also laconically informed them that the battle might be stopped if they could talk to his chief, No-Ko-Wat, but it might be dangerous to try it at that moment.
The soldiers asked Fossett what they should do with the prisoners. He replied, “In Indian fighting it is not customary to take prisoners.” the soldiers shot the old man and had turned their rifles on the boys when Brooks Lee told them he would kill the first man who harmed them. Fossett did not speak up, and the men backed down. Later in the day the boys escaped to their own camp. Even then, with disaster looming and knowing that the battle might be stopped, Fossett still made no attempt to contact the Kickapoo chief.
About 2:00 the temp of the fighting died down. Most of the Kickapoos retired toward their central camp, leaving about seventy-five sharpshooters to keep the troops pinned down. What the soldiers had guessed about the Indians’ accuracy with the Enfields was borne out when one warrior from several hundred yards dropped Private Wylie with a bullet through the head.
As the Confederates began to hope that the Indians were disengaging, a fierce fight broke out on the right. Fossett sent urgent word to Lieutenant Giddens that the withdrawing Indians had concentrated against Brooks and were overrunning him. Giddens sent all the men he could spare, thirty-five, as reinforcements. They joined a contingent released by Fossett and attempted to reach the embattled lieutenant. They found him and his men in full retreat toward the center, driven by the Indians after being forced out for their position in an oak grove. Rallying, the three squads charged the Kickapoos who bravely stood their ground. When the whites were within twenty yards of them, the Indians broke back to the cover of the creek. The soldiers reoccupied the position.
By three o’clock, everyone realized that the situation was desperate. The Indians had been rounding up stray horses all day and now had about eighty-five warriors mounted. Besides the dead, there were at least thirty-five Confederate wounded lying under the oaks at the aid station 500 yards to the rear. The Regulars could expect no help from Totton and his thoroughly beaten militiamen. Their only hope was to hold out until dark and make a run for it.
Fossett circulated the plan for the retreat. The wounded who could ride would be put on horses; those who could not would be tied in their saddles and led by the slightly wounded on foot. As soon as they had started, Cureton would move the herd. It was imperative that the horses be kept from the Indians: If they were to pursue the retreating Confederates in strength, they had to be mounted. The main force under Fossett would screen the wounded and the herd as they crossed Dove Creek upstream. A rear guard of two companies under Lieutenant Giddens would keep the mounted Indians busy. The order to cross the creek is inexplicable, as the soldiers could have retreated in safety to the west.
About a half hour before dark, the Confederates made their move. In the beginning, everything worked perfectly. The wounded moved out, followed by the herd. Fossett’s men slipped parallel to Dove Creek, staying between the Indian camp and the retreating column. The rear guard, now under Sergeant R.C. Porter, was keeping both the mounted Indians and those afoot busily engaged. Then, all the unmounted Indians suddenly disappeared from Porter’s front. In minutes they raced up the creek to the crossing and lay in wait there. As the wounded started splashing across, the Kickapoos fired into them from ambush. To save the wounded, the troops abandoned the herd, and every available rifle was brought to bear, including those of the rear guard that was called up. The mounted braves quickly disengaged, swooped down on the horse herd, and drove it off.
The Confederates now fought individually for their lives. All semblance of discipline was gone. They crossed the Dove in disorder but made a brief stand in a dry stream bed long enough for the wounded to get a head start. Then the position crumbled, and they remounted their horses in wild panic. The officers screamed and yelled, pleaded with them, hoping that an organized resistance could be formed, but nothing helped. They all raced madly over the plains, trying to outrun the mounted warriors.
Soon the wounded horses gave out, and men began dropping to the rear to be pulled from their saddles and killed by the Kickapoos. Private Jim Gibson, fulfilling his own prophecy of death, went under. I.D. Ferguson began to fall behind. When the Indians were almost upon him, J.O. Alexander looked over his shoulder and shouted. “Here, boys, here! Follow me! Let us save that boy’s life!”
This impetuous gesture seemed to bring some order to the rout, as man after man wheeled to return. In. moment they were all spurring directly for Ferguson. Dismounting at a gallop, the men flopped down and formed a ragged line behind a low ridge. Even many of the wounded returned to the fight. While the Indians were regrouping for an attack, the Texans took an oath that they were finished with running. They would die there if they could not stop the Indians.
In a moment the Kickapoos were on them again, attacking from all directions. But this was Indian fighting more like the soldiers were used to: Fighting from at least a slight cover at Indians milling about on horseback. Now they could hold their own.
After dark the shooting slackened, and the Indians disappeared. Not wasting a second, Fossett ordered his men to move out and head for upper Spring Creek about eight miles away. Riding and walking slowly through the cloudy night with their remaining horses, they saw numerous campfires in the distance. Fossett was afraid that they might mark another Indian camp, so he sent scouts forward. They returned shortly with the word that it was only Totton’s men. Wearily, the defeated Confederates entered the camp for the beaten militia.
About 10:00 that night a cold rain began to fall, and within minutes a howling “blue norther” swept over them, plunging the temperature dramatically. At midnight the rain turned to heavy snow. The exhausted men could not sleep. They sat up all night feeding fires and talking over the almost incomprehensible fight: A strong force of veteran frontiersmen, many with formal military training, had been beaten badly in a pitched battle with Indians. And the Indians were not some fierce, war-like tribe such as the Comanche or Kiowa, but he relatively docile Kickapoo. Trying the rationalize this defeat, some soldiers circulated rumors that they had seen uniformed Federal officers and Kansas Jayhawkers leading the Indians.
Simply nothing quite like this had happened in Texas before, and the repercussions would sound for the remaining months of the war. The Texas and Confederate militaries set up courts martial and courts of inquiry: twenty-two of Fossett’s men deserted in the next month and a half; Texas civilians were outraged both at the attack and the defeat, and the frontier settlers lost further faith in the state and national governments’ ability to protect them.
The casualties were remarkably disparate for an Indian fight. As I.D. Ferguson said, “We had traveled [sic] 300 miles to catch the Indians, and just let them loose, leaving twenty-two men dead on the field and over sixty wounded.” Some reported the casualties much higher–36 killed and over 100 wounded. The Kickapoos claimed to have lost only fourteen killed when they were interviewed several weeks later in Piedras Negras, Mexico. While their estimate might be too low, even Fossett did not think that they had lost more than thirty.
But the privation and dying were not yet over for the weary soldiers. The night after the battle was a nightmare. The whistling wind did little to silence the cries of the wounded and the groans of dying horses. Few had blankets, and those who did gave them to the wounded. The temperature continued to fall so that by morning the snow-covered mounds of frozen horses dotted the camp ground. The next day the snow hardly abated, falling so heavily that a man at twenty feet was invisible. In the few intervals when it lightened, the men cut and trimmed pecan poles to make litters for the wounded. Regardless of the weather, they would have to leave the next day. They were 100 miles from the nearest settlement and had not eaten since the seventh.
Early on January 10 the snow stopped. It was hip-deep, the heaviest ever seen by most of the men. Standing one horse in front of a second, the soldiers lashed the ends of the pecan poles through the stirrups of both saddles. Then a rope was tied back and forth between the poles and covered with wet blankets. IN these crude stretchers severely wounded men traveled 100 miles. The men still mounted on serviceable horses were sent forward to break the snow, while those on foot led the litter horses, front and rear.
Floundering through snow-filled gullies, on the first day they made five miles; on the second, eight. On January 12 the sun began melting the snow. On the 13th, after they had traveled fifty miles, they spotted the Tonkawa scouts who still herded the 250 Indian ponies. It was a fortunate reunion. The column’s horses were totally worn out, the men fatigued and famished. From the herd the soldiers were remounted, and each company was given an Indian pony for meat. Although at first some of them rejected the idea of eating horseflesh, when they smelled it roasting, they changed their minds.
Paradoxically, as conditions improved, the severely wounded began dying and were buried by the side of the trail with what military honors could be mustered. Finally on January 17 under a bright sun, the column reach John Chism’s ranch, adequate medical care, and food. Their physical ordeal was over, but their chagrin at having participated in the most disastrous Indian fight in Texas during the Civil War, if not all of Texas history, was only beginning.