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How Union forces won the “Gettysburg of Indian Territory.”

In most histories of the Civil War, scant attention is paid to the battles and actions in the Trans-Mississippi area – the vast region west of the Mississippi River. Although the scale and scope of the battles and engagements fought in the West were dwarfed by the clashes of massive armies in the East, the stakes nonetheless were high: access to the region’s abundant resources (increasingly important to the Confederacy as Union armies overran vital agricultural areas in other parts of the South); and control of the Union states of Missouri and Kansas, the Confederate states of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, and Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

Some historians assert that the Confederacy won the battle for control of the Trans-Mississippi at Wilson’s Creek, Mo. (August 10, 1861), but lost it again at Pea Ridge, Ark. (March 6-8, 1862). The answer, however, is not that simple. The western conflict continued unabated throughout the war despite the fact that the larger battles east of the Mississippi River dominated the headlines.

The objectives on both sides in the West were basically threefold: seizing geographic control; winning population allegiances; and exploiting resources (both to supply local forces and to export supplies to other theaters of war). The main struggle in the region west of Missouri and Arkansas centered on the Texas Road, the major north-south artery, much of which ran through the eastern part of Indian Territory. This became the focal point of the war in Indian Territory, including its most significant action, the 1863 Battle of Honey Springs.

The U.S. government in the 1830s created Indian Territory as land set aside for the resettlement of eastern Indian tribes. From 1831-42, U.S. government policy forcibly removed Indians, primarily from the southeastern states, and relocated them to Indian Territory. These were principally Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole – known as the “Five Civilized Tribes.” By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, a number of factors split the allegiance of Native Americans in Indian Territory between the Union and the Confederacy: longstanding resentment over the brutal removal; rival factions competing for tribal leadership; animosity between the different tribes; and the fact that many Indians were slaveholders (at the time of Indian removal, the five tribes combined owned 10,000 African-American slaves).

Former U.S. government Indian agents who after 1861 sided with the Confederacy, notably Brigadier General Albert Pike and Brigadier General Douglas H. Cooper, led the South’s efforts to win or maintain the allegiance and active support of the tribes in Indian Territory. Union efforts to control Indian Territory were headed by abolitionist doctor and District of the Frontier commander Major General James G. Blunt. (See You Command, January 2013 ACG.) Both sides appointed Indian leaders to combat commands, including Creek chief Opothleyahola (Union) and Cherokee chief Stand Watie (Confederate). The nearly 100 skirmishes and battles in Indian Territory, tribe-splitting allegiances, and four years of partisan warfare combined to produce in the territory a higher rate of death and destruction on a per capita basis than in any other Civil War theater.

The Battle of Honey Springs (also known as the Battle of Elk Creek) was the result of Blunt’s decision to trump a planned offensive by Cooper. Early in July 1863 the Confederates failed to capture a Union wagon train at Cabin Creek in northeast Indian Territory. The train was headed south from Fort Scott, Kan., to Fort Gibson – the lynchpin in the Union’s Indian Territory defense, as it dominated the junction of the Arkansas River and the Texas Road. The Union fort, in the center of the Cherokee portion of Indian Territory, had been active since 1824 but was abandoned in mid-1862. The Confederates occupied Fort Gibson for a time, until April 1863 when the Union-raised Indian Home Guard led by Colonel William Phillips advanced and reoccupied it. Confederate District of the Indian Territory department commander Brigadier General William Steele placed a high priority on the fort’s recapture. Therefore, after missing the chance to stop the Union reinforcement of Fort Gibson at the failed Cabin Creek wagon train attack in early July, Steele ordered Cooper to mount an assault on the fort.

To ensure success, Cooper chose to await reinforcements from Fort Smith, Ark., under Brigadier General William L. “Old Tige” Cabell. While awaiting the arrival of Cabell’s force of 3,000, Cooper and his men occupied and gathered supplies at a venerable trading post on Elk Creek called Honey Springs Depot. Spending the early part of July at Honey Springs, the Confederates built a camp with three log buildings, a stone powder magazine and a sprawling tent city. Food supplies, camp equipment and uniforms were amassed as well as gunpowder – imported from Mexico via San Antonio, Texas. Cooper’s force of 6,000 included 1st and 2d Regiments of Creek Mounted Volunteers, 1st Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Volunteers, 2d Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles and Colonel Tandy Walker’s 1st Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Volunteers.  The rest of his force was composed of organized Texas units – 5th Regiment of Texas Partisan Rangers (mounted), Lee’s Light Battery, 29th Texas Cavalry, 20th Texas Cavalry (dismounted), and two independent cavalry squadrons under Captain John Scanland and Captain L.E. Gillette.

Meanwhile, Blunt was alerted to the precarious position of the garrison at Fort Gibson by the Cabin Creek wagon train attack. Therefore, he dispatched a division to the area and arrived on July 11 to take command personally. Cooper’s position and intentions were garnered from spies. On July 15, Blunt forded the rain-swollen Arkansas River with 250 cavalry and four mountain howitzers. He drove off Confederate pickets from Scanland’s and Walker’s units and started down the south bank of the river. At 10 p.m. on July 16, Union infantry crossed the river on flatboats and the expedition marched all night on the Texas Road. In Blunt’s force was 1st Kansas Volunteer Infantry (Colored), one of the initial African-American regiments organized in the Union Army. Other units were 1st, 2d and 3d Indian Home Guards, made up primarily of Creek and Cherokee tribesmen (plus a few Osage, Delaware, Kickapoo, Seneca, Quapaw and Shawnee). Rounding out the Union force were Smith’s Kansas Battery, Hopkins’ Kansas Battery, 2d Colorado Infantry, 6th Kansas Cavalry and 3d Wisconsin Cavalry. Blunt’s total effective force was 3,000 with 12 pieces of artillery.

The effective force under Cooper on July 17 at Honey Springs was 4,500, since he had ordered Colonel Stand Watie and 1,500 troops to the vicinity of Webber’s Falls, about 25 miles east, to create a diversion. If Cabell’s command had joined the fight, the Confederates could have outnumbered Blunt 3-to-1. But unfortunately for Cooper, Cabell had a reputation for responding slowly to orders and he proved not to have changed his habits. Meanwhile, Blunt’s force arrived undetected, surprising Cooper’s advance guard 5 miles north of the depot. The Federal cavalry drove the Confederates back on their main force, and Blunt’s men paused for a short rest and meal after the grueling march.

At 10 a.m. on July 17, Blunt’s force advanced south on the Texas Road in two columns, the right wing under Colonel William R. Judson of 6th Kansas Cavalry and the left under Colonel William A. Phillips of 3d Indian Home Guard and Union Indian Brigade commander. As the Federals moved across the prairie, they came upon Cooper’s mile-and-a-half line stretched across the wooded north bank of Elk Creek. (See Battle of Honey Springs map.) Blunt ordered his columns into a single line of battle a mile wide. Skirmishers crept forward, artillery unlimbered and the cannonade began. Hopkins’ battery was attached to the left and Smith’s to the right.

Across the field, Cooper placed his veteran Texans in the center along with Lee’s battery containing three mountain howitzers and an experimental 2¼-inch rifled gun forged at Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. A group of Choctaw soldiers arrived in the Confederate center to extend the line of the dismounted troopers of 29th Texas Cavalry. Flanking the Texans were the Creek regiments on the left, commanded by Colonel Daniel N. McIntosh, and the Cherokee regiments on the right, under Colonel William Penn Adair (since Watie was leading the detached force near Webber’s Falls). Throughout the four-hour battle, the Confederates were seriously plagued by greatly inferior gunpowder. After storage in the damp magazine the powder frequently misfired, and it became especially unreliable when rain arrived during the latter part of the battle.

The artillery duel lasted about an hour and a quarter, with each side concentrating fire on the opposing guns and causing casualties among the crews. At the same time, the Union cavalry dismounted and skirmished with Confederates on the flanks in the brush and woods. The fighting was hot all along the lines as Union soldiers moved to within a quarter mile of the Confederates in the north bank timber. The concentrated fire of Hopkins’ battery knocked one gun of Lee’s battery off its carriage. By this time the lines were only a few hundred yards apart, setting the stage for the pivotal event of the battle.

The 1st Kansas was firing into the center of the enemy line when the left of 2d Indian Home Guard, positioned to the right of the African-American regiment, came into the line of fire. Lieutenant Colonel John Bowles ordered his men to cease firing to avoid hitting their fellow soldiers. At the same time, the commander of 2d Indian Home Guard ordered his men back into the line. Colonel Thomas C. Bass, in command of the center of the Confederate line, misinterpreted these events as the beginning of a Union retreat and rashly ordered a charge by 20th and 29th Texas. The Texans advanced into a deadly crossfire and were driven back, initiating a collapse of the Confederate line.

The fighting continued at a vicious level, sometimes hand to hand, as the Confederates fell back across the toll bridge over Elk Creek. The Confederates with Lee’s remaining three cannon stubbornly contested the bridge, but to no avail. Lieutenant Colonel Otis Welch of 29th Texas described the confusion during the retreat across Elk Creek: “I found that all our right had given away, and that the enemy were passing rapidly to our rear, on the right. I immediately ordered the remainder of my men out of the [creek], and being cut off from our horses and the main command, we made our way up Elk Creek, thence on foot to North Fork.”

The Confederates fell back on their camp at Honey Springs Depot and burned as much of their supplies as they could before abandoning it. The Creeks, who were but little engaged while guarding the extreme Confederate left against a Union flanking maneuver that never materialized, covered the retreat along with Scanland’s and Gillette’s squadrons. Cabell finally arrived in the area at 4 p.m., but it was too late. The inferior powder and limited artillery muscle doomed the Confederates to give way to a numerically smaller force, even though both sides fought fiercely. The Confederates, many mounted, retreated to North Fork Town to the south, the rear covered by Tandy Walker’s regiment. Blunt, his men exhausted and most on foot, did not pursue, but instead returned to Fort Gibson.

The Union victory at the Battle of Honey Springs prevented the Confederates from controlling Indian Territory north of the Arkansas River. This opened the path for Blunt and Union forces to move on Fort Smith, which was taken two months later in September. Combined with the Union advance under Major General Frederick Steele west from Helena, Ark., the base established there seriously compromised Confederate efforts to maintain control of that state.

Honey Springs is sometimes called “the Gettysburg of Indian Territory” for turning the tide of Confederate offensives in the region. After the engagement, Confederate efforts in most of the Trans-Mississippi were limited to defensive action, raids, guerrilla warfare and scattered pockets of resistance. The battle is also known for the distinguished showing by 1st Kansas Volunteer Regiment, the first African-American unit engaged in a large action – one day before Colonel Robert Gould Shaw famously led 54th Massachusetts against Fort Wagner on Morris Island, S.C. Blunt’s words in his post-battle report glowingly describe the African-American soldiers’ conduct: “The 1st Kansas Colored particularly distinguished itself; they fought like veterans and preserved their line unbroken throughout the engagement. Their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed; they were in the hottest of the fight and opposed to Texas troops twice their number, whom they completely routed.”


Jay Wertz is a filmmaker and the author of six books on American history, including the latest volume in his award-winning series “War Stories: World War II Firsthand” entitled “The Pacific – Volume Two.” He has also written for “Civil War Times Illustrated,” “America’s Civil War,” “Aviation History,” and

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Armchair General.