Independence Day, 1863, witnessed climacteric scenes in the war dramas, east and west. The Federal victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, all-decisive in the history of the great American conflict, when considered in its entirety, had each its measure of immediate and local importance. The loss of all control of the Mississippi navigation meant for the Confederacy its practical splitting in twain and the isolation of its western part. For the Arkansas frontier
and for the Missouri border generally, it promised, since western commands would now recover their men and resume their normal size, increased Federal aggressiveness or the end of suspended. Initial preparation for such renewed aggressiveness was contemporary with the fall of Vicksburg and lay in the failure of the Confederate attack upon Helena, an attack that had been projected for the making of a diversion only. The failure compelled Holmes to draw his forces
back to Little Rock.
Confederate operations in Indian Territory through May and June had been, as already described, confined to sporadic demonstrations against Federal herds and Federal supply trains, all having for their main object the dislodgment of Phillips from Fort Gibson. What proved to be their culmination and the demonstration most energetically conducted occurred at Cabin Creek,797 while far away Vicksburg was falling and Gettysburg was being
fought. A commissary train from Fort Scott was expected. It was to come down, escorted by Colonel Williams who was in command of the negro troops that Blunt had stationed at Baxter Springs. To meet the train and to reinforce Williams, Phillips dispatched Major Foreman from Fort Gibson. Cooper had learned of the coming of the train and had made his plans to seize it in a fashion now customary.798 The plans were quite elaborate and
involved the coöperation799 of Cabell's Arkansas brigade,800 which was to come from across the line and proceed down the east side of the Grand River. Thither also, Cooper sent a part of his own brigade and at the same time ordered another part under Stand Watie to go to Cabin Creek and to take such position on its south bank as to command the crossing. It was a time when the rivers were all in flood, a
circumstance that greatly affected the outcome since it prevented the forces on the east side of the Grand from coming to Stand Watie's support. As Foreman proceeded northward to effect a junction with Williams, he detached some Cherokees from the Third Indian, under Lieutenant Luke F. Parsons, to reconnoiter. In that way he became apprised of Watie's whereabouts and enabled to put himself on his guard. The commissary train, in due time, reached Cabin Creek and,
after some slight delay caused, not by Stand Watie's interposition, but by the high waters, crossed. Federals and Confederates then collided in a somewhat disjointed but lengthy engagement with the result that Stand Watie retired and the train, nothing the worse for the hold-up, moved on without further molestation to Fort Gibson.801
The action at Cabin Creek, July 1 to 3, was the last attempt of any size for the time being to capture Federal supplies en route. The tables were thenceforth turned and the Confederates compelled to keep a close watch on their own depots and trains. Up to date, since his first arrival at Fort Gibson, Colonel Phillips had been necessarily on the defensive because of the fewness of his men. Subsequent to the Cabin Creek affair came a change, incident to events and
conditions farther east. The eleventh of July brought General Blunt, commander of the District of the Frontier, to Fort Gibson. His coming was a surprise, as has already been casually remarked, but it was most timely. There was no longer any reason whatsoever why offensive action should not be the main thing on the Federal docket in Indian Territory, as elsewhere.
To protect its own supplies and to recuperate, the strength of the Confederate Indian brigade was directed toward Red River, notwithstanding that Steele had still the hope of dislodging the Federals north of the Arkansas.802 His difficulties803 were no less legion than before, but he thought it might be possible to accomplish the end desired by invading Kansas,804 a plan that
seemed very feasible after S.P. Bankhead assumed command of the Northern Sub-District of Texas.805 Steele himself had "neither the artillery nor the kind of force necessary to take a place" fortified as was Gibson; but to the westward of the Federal stronghold Bankhead might move. He might attack Fort Scott, Blunt's headquarters but greatly weakened now, and possibly also some small posts in southwest Missouri, replenishing his
resources from time to time in the fertile and well settled Neosho River Valley. Again local selfishness rose to the surface806 and Bankhead, surmising Steele's weakness and that he would almost inevitably have to fall back, perhaps vacating Indian Territory altogether, became alarmed for the safety of Texas.807
Steele's recognition and admission of material incapacity for taking Fort Gibson in no wise deterred him from attempting it. The idea was, that Cooper should encamp at a point within the Creek Nation, fronting Fort Gibson, and that Cabell should join him there with a view to their making a combined attack.808 As entertained, the idea neglected to give due weight to the fact that Cabell's men were in no trim for immediate action,809
notwithstanding that concerted action was the only thing likely to induce success. Blunt, with scouts out in all directions and with spies in the very camps of his foes, soon obtained an inkling of the Confederate plan and resolved to dispose of Cooper before Cabell could arrive from Arkansas.810 Cooper's position was on Elk Creek, not far from present Muskogee,811 and near Honey Springs on the
seventeenth of July the two armies met, Blunt forcing the engagement, having made a night march in order to do it. The Indians of both sides812 were on hand, in force, the First and Second Home Guards, being dismounted as infantry and thus fighting for once as they had been mustered in. Of the Confederate, or Cooper, brigade Stand Watie, the ever reliable, commanded the First and Second Cherokee, D.N. McIntosh, the First and Second
Creek, and Tandy Walker, the regiment of Choctaws and Chickasaws. The odds were all against Cooper from the start and, in ways that Steele had not specified, the material equipment proved itself inadequate indeed. Much of the ammunition was worthless.813 Nevertheless, Cooper stubbornly contested every inch of the ground and finally gave way only when large numbers of his Indians, knowing their guns to be absolutely useless to them,
became disheartened and then demoralized. In confusion, they led the van in flight across the Canadian; but enough of those more self-contained went thither in an easterly or southeasterly direction so as to create the impression among their enemies that they were retiring to meet the expected reinforcements from Fort Smith.814
But the reinforcements were yet far away. Indeed, it was not until all was over and a day too late that Cabell came up. A tragic sight confronted him; but his own march had been so dismal, so inauspicious that everything unfortunate that had happened seemed but a part of one huge catastrophe. He had come by the "old Pacific mail route, the bridges of which, in some places, were still standing in the uninhabited prairies."815 The
forsaken land broke the morale of his men—they had never been enthusiastic in the cause, some of them were conscripted unionists, forsooth, and they deserted his ranks by the score, by whole companies. The remnant pushed on and, in the far distance, heard the roaring of the cannon. Then, coming nearer, they caught a first glimpse of Blunt's victorious columns; but those columns were already retiring, it being their intention to recross to the Fort Gibson side of
the Arkansas. "Moving over the open, rolling prairies,"816 Nature's vast meadows, their numbers seemed great indeed and Cabell made no attempt to pursue or to court further conflict. The near view of the battle-field dismayed817 him; for its gruesome records all too surely told him of another Confederate defeat.
In the fortunes of the Southern Indians, the Battle of Honey Springs was a decisive
event. Fought and lost in the country of the Creeks, it was bound to have upon them a psychological effect disastrous to the steady maintenance of their alliance with the Confederacy, so also with the other great tribes; but more of that anon. In a military way, it was no less significant than in a political; for it was the beginning of a vigorously offensive campaign, conducted by General Blunt, that never ended until the Federals were in occupation of Fort Smith
and Fort Smith was at the very door of the Choctaw country. No Indian tribe, at the outset of the war, had more completely gone over to the South than had the Choctaw. It had influenced the others but had already come to rue the day that had seen its own first defection. Furthermore, the date of the Confederate rout at Honey Springs marked the beginning of a period during which dissatisfaction with General Steele steadily crystallized.
Within six weeks after the Battle of Honey Springs, the Federals were in possession of Fort Smith, which was not surprising considering the happenings of the intervening days. The miscalculations that had eventuated in the routing of Cooper had brought Steele to the decision of taking the field in person; for there was just a chance that he might succeed where his subordinates, with less at stake than he, had failed. Especially might he take his chances on winning
if he could count upon help from Bankhead to whom he had again made application, nothing deterred by his previous ill-fortune.
It was not, by any means, Steele's intention to attempt the reduction of Fort Gibson;818 for, with such artillery as he had, the mere idea of such an undertaking would be preposterous. The defensive would have to be, for some time to come, his leading role; but he did hope to be able to harry his enemy, somewhat, to entice him away from his fortifications and to make those fortifications of little worth by cutting off his supplies.
Another commissary train would be coming down from Fort Scott via Baxter Springs about the first of August.819 For it, then, Steele would lie in wait.
When all was in readiness, Fort Smith was vacated, not abandoned; inasmuch as a regiment under Morgan of Cabell's brigade was left in charge, but it was relinquished as department headquarters. Steele then took up his march for Cooper's old battle-ground on Elk Creek. There he planned to mass his forces and to challenge an attack. He went by way of Prairie Springs820 and lingered there a little while, then moved on to Honey Springs,
where was better grazing.821 He felt obliged thus to make his stand in the Creek country; for the Creeks were getting fractious and it was essential for his purposes that they be mollified and held in check. Furthermore, it was incumbent upon him not to expose his "depots in the direction of Texas."822
As the summer days passed, Cabell and Cooper drew into his vicinity but no Bankhead, notwithstanding that Magruder had ordered him to hurry to Steele's support.823 Bankhead had not the slightest idea of doing anything that would put Texas in jeopardy. In northern Texas sympathy for the Federal cause, or "rottenness" as the Confederates described it, was rife.824 It would be suicidal to take the home force
too far away. Moreover, it was Bankhead's firm conviction that Steele would never be able to maintain himself so near to Fort Gibson, so he would continue where he was and decide what to do when time for real action came.825 It would be hazarding a good deal to amalgamate his command,826 half of which would soon be well disciplined, with Steele's, which, in some of its parts, was known not to be.
As a matter of fact, Steele's command was worse than undisciplined. It was permeated through and through with defection in its most virulent form, a predicament not wholly unforeseen. The Choctaws had pretty well dispersed, the Creeks were sullen, and Cabell's brigade of Arkansans was actually disintegrating. The prospect of fighting indefinitely in the Indian country had no attractions for men who were not in the Confederate service for pure love of the cause.
Day by day desertions827 took place until the number became alarming and, what was worse, in some cases, the officers were in collusion with the men in delinquency. Cabell himself was not above suspicion.828 To prevent the spread of contagion among the Indians, his troops were moved to more and more isolated camps829 across the Canadian830 and,
finally, back in the direction of Fort Smith. Ostensibly they were moved to the Arkansas line to protect Fort Smith; for Steele knew well that his present hold upon that place was of the frailest. It might be threatened at any moment from the direction of Cassville and Morgan had been instructed, in the event of an attack in prospect, to cross the boundary line and proceed along the Boggy road towards Riddle's station.831 Steele was
evidently not going to make any desperate effort to hold the place that for so long had been the seat of the Confederate control over the Southern Indians.
All this time, General Blunt had been patrolling the Arkansas for some thirty miles or so of its course832 and had been thoroughly well aware of the assembling of Steele's forces, likewise of the disaffection of the Indians, with which, by the way, he had had quite a little to do. Not knowing exactly what Steele's intentions might be but surmising that he was meditating an attack, he resolved to assume the offensive himself.833
The full significance of his resolution can be fully appreciated only by the noting of the fact that, subsequent to the Battle of Honey Springs, he had been instructed by General Schofield, his superior officer, not only not to advance but to fall back. To obey the order was inconceivable and Blunt had deliberately disobeyed it.834 It was now his determination to do more. Fortunately, Schofield had recently changed his mind; for word
had come to him that Congress had decided to relieve Kansas of her Indian encumbrance by compassing the removal of all her tribes, indigenous and immigrant, to Indian Territory. It mattered not that the former had a title to their present holdings by ancient occupation and long continued possession and the latter a title in perpetuity, guaranteed by the treaty-making power under the United States constitution. All the tribes were to be ousted from the soil of the
state that had been saved to freedom; but it would be first necessary to secure the Indian Territory and the men of the Kansas tribes were to be organized as soldiers to secure it. It is difficult to imagine a more ironical proceeding. The Indians were to be induced to fight for the recovery of a section of the country that would make possible their own banishment. Blunt strenuously objected, not because he was averse to ridding Kansas of the Indians, but because
he had no faith in an Indian soldiery. Said he,
There are several reasons why I do not think such a policy practicable or advisable. It would take several months under the most favorable circumstances to organize and put into the field the Indians referred to, even were they ready and willing to enlist, of which fact I am not advised, but presume they would be very slow to enlist; besides my experience thus far with Indian soldiers has convinced me that they are of little service to the Government compared with
other soldiers. The Cherokees, who are far superior in every respect to the Kansas Indians, did very good service while they had a specific object in view—the possession and occupation of their own country; having accomplished that, they have become greatly demoralized and nearly worthless as troops. I would earnestly recommend that (as the best policy the Government can pursue with these Indian regiments) they be mustered out of service some time during the
coming winter, and put to work raising their subsistence, with a few white troops stationed among them for their protection. I would not exchange one regiment of negro troops for ten regiments of Indians, and they can be obtained in abundance whenever Texas is reached.
In ten days from this date, if I have the success I expect, the Indian Territory south of the Arkansas River will be in our possession.835
Blunt's mind was made up. He was determined to go forward with the force he already had. Ill-health836 retarded his movements a trifle; but on the twenty-second of August, two days after the massacre by guerrillas had occurred at Lawrence, he crossed the Arkansas. He was at length accepting General Steele's challenge but poor Steele was quite unprepared for a duel of any sort. If Blunt distrusted the Indians, how very much more did he
and with greater reason! With insufficient guns and ammunition, with no troops, white or red, upon whom he could confidently rely, and with no certainty of help from any quarter, he was compelled to adopt a Fabian policy, and he moved slowly backward, inviting yet never stopping to accept a full and regular engagement. Out of the Creek country he went and into the Choctaw.837 At Perryville, on the road838
to Texas, his men did have a small skirmish with Blunt's and at both Perryville and North Fork, Blunt destroyed some of his stores.839 At North Fork, Steele had established a general hospital, which now passed from his control.
797: For an official report of the action at Cabin Creek, see Official Records, vol. xxii, part i, 378-382. While, as things eventuated, it was
an endeavor to cut off the supply train, there was throughout the possibility that it might also result in heading off Blunt, who was known to be on his way to Fort Gibson [Steele to Cooper, June 29, 1863; Duval to Cooper, June 29, 1863; Duval to Cabell, June 29, 1863].
798: Steele to Cabell, June 25, 1863 [Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 268, p. 97; Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 885].
799: Steele to Cabell, June 29, 1863 [Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 268, p. 105; Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 893-894].
800: Of W.L. Cabell, the Confederate Military History, vol. x, has this to say: "Maj. W.L. Cabell, who had been sent to inspect the accounts of quartermasters in the department, having well acquitted himself of this duty, was, in March 1863, commissioned brigadier-general and requested to collect absentees from the service in northwestern Arkansas. Given Carroll's and Monroe's regiments, he was directed to perfect such organizations as he could
..." He collected his brigade with great rapidity and it soon numbered about four thousand men. Even, in April, Steele was placing much reliance upon it, although he wished to keep its relation to him a secret. He wrote to Cooper to that effect.
"Who will be in command of the Choctaws when you leave? Will they be sufficient to picket and scout on the other side of the river far enough to give notice of any advance of the enemy down the river? I do not wish it to be generally known that Cabell's forces are under my command, but prefer the enemy should think them a separate command; for this reason I do not send these troops west until there is a necessity for it; in the meantime the other troops can be
brought into position, where if we can get sufficient ammunition all can be concentrated. I cannot direct positively, not having the intimate knowledge of the country, but you should be in a position which would enable you to move either down the Ark. River or on to the road leading from Boggy Depot to Gibson as circumstances may indicate. Let me hear from you frequently."—STEELE to Cooper, April 28, 1863, Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 270, pp. 217-218.
801: In describing what appears to be the action at Cabin Creek, Steele refers to "bad conduct of the Creeks," and holds it partly responsible for the failure [Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 910]. It is possible that he had in mind, however, a slightly earlier encounter, the same that he described, adversely to D.N. McIntosh's abilities as a commander, in his general report [ibid., part i, 32]. Steele had little faith in the Indian brigade
and frankly admitted that he expected it in large measure, to "dissolve," if the Confederates were to be forced to fall back at Cabin Creek [Steele to Blair, July 1, 1863, Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 902]. Nevertheless, he anticipated a victory for his arms there [Steele to Blair, July 3, 1863, ibid., 903]. From his general report, it might be thought that Stand Watie disappointed him at this time, as later; but the Confederate failure was most certainly
mainly attributable to the high waters, which prevented the union of their expeditionary forces [Steele to Blair, July 5, 1863, ibid., 905].
802: Steele took umbrage at a published statement of Pike that seemed to doubt this and to intimate that the line of the Arkansas had been definitely abandoned [Steele to Pike, July 13, 1863, Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 925].
803: For new aspects of his difficulties, see Steele to Boggs, chief of staff, July 7, 1863, ibid., 909-911.
804: Ibid., p. 910.
805: Steele to Bankhead, July 11, 1863, ibid., 921-922.
806: Arkansas betrayed similar selfishness. President Davis's rejoinder to a protest from Flanagin against a tendency to ignore the claims of the West struck a singularly high note. Admitting certain errors of the past, he prayed for the generous coöperation of the future; for "it is to the future, not to the past, that we must address ourselves, and I wish to assure you, though I hope it is unnecessary, that no effort shall be spared to promote
the defense of the Trans-Mississippi Department, and to develop its resources so as to meet the exigencies of the present struggle" [Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 932]. Five days afterwards, Governor Reynolds, in commending Secretary Seddon for a very able ministry, expressed confidence that his gubernatorial colleagues in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana would, with himself, "act in no sectional or separatist spirit." It was saying a good deal, considering
how strong the drift of popular opinion had been and was to be in the contrary direction. However, in August, the four governors appealed collectively to their constituents and to "the Allied Indian Nations," proving, if proof were needed, that they personally were sincere [ibid., vol. liii, supplement, 892-894; Moore's Rebellion Record, vol. vii, 406-407].
807: Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 922.
808: The plans for such concerted action were made as early as July 8 [Steele to Cooper, July 8, 1863, Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 911-912]. Cabell was instructed to take position between Webber's Falls and Fort Gibson [Duval to Cabell, July 10, 1863, ibid., 916-917] and more specifically, two days before the battle, "within 15 or 20 miles of Gibson and this side of where Gen. Cooper is now encamped on Elk Creek" [Steele to Cabell, July
15, 1863, Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 268, p. 145].
809: Steele knew of the deficiencies in their equipment, however, and of their exhausted state [Duval to W.H. Scott, Commanding Post at Clarksville, Ark., July 8, 1863, Confederate Records, p. 133; Steele to Blair, July 10, 1863, Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 917; same to same, July 13, 1863, ibid., 925].
810: See Blunt's official report, dated July 26, 1863 [ibid., part i, 447-448].
811: Anderson, Life of General Stand Watie, 21.
812: With respect to the number of white troops engaged on the Federal side there seems some discrepancy between Blunt's report [Official Records, vol. xxii, part i, 448] and Phisterer's statistics [Statistical Record, 145].
813: See Cooper's report, dated August 12, 1863 [Official Records, vol. xxii, part i, 457-461]. The following references are to letters that substantiate, in whole or in part, what Cooper said in condemnation of the ammunition: Duval to Du Bose, dated Camp Prairie Springs, C.N., July 27, 1863 [Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 268, p. 159]; Steele to Blair, dated Camp Imochiah, August 9, 1863 [ibid., 185-187; Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii,
814: Cooper intended to create such an impression [Official Records, vol. xxii, part i, 460] and he did [Schofield to McNeil, July 26, 1863, ibid., part ii, 399-400].
815: Confederate Military History, vol. x, 199.
816: Ibid., 200.
817: Cabell might well be dismayed. Steele had done his best to hurry him up. A letter of July 15 was particularly urgent [Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 933].
818: Steele to Blair, July 22, 1863 [Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 940-941].
819: Steele to Bankhead, July 22, 1863 [Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 940]
820: Duval to A.S. Morgan, July 18, 1863 [ibid., 933; Steele to Blair, July 22, 1863 [ibid., 940-941].
821: Steele arrived at Prairie Springs on the twenty-fourth [Steele to Blair, July 26, 1863, ibid., 948] and moved to Honey Springs two days later [same to same, July 29, 1863, ibid., 950-951]. On August 7, his camp was at Soda Springs, whither he had gone "for convenience of water and grass" [same to same, August 7, 1863, ibid., 956].
822: Ibid., 951.
823: By August third, Bankhead had not been heard from at all [Steele to Blair, August 3, 1863, Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 953]. The following communications throw some light upon Bankhead's movements [ibid., 948, 956, 963].
824: Crosby to G.M. Bryan, August 30, 1863, ibid., 984.
825: Bankhead to E.P. Turner, August 13, 1863, ibid., 965-966.
826: Bankhead to Boggs, August 10, 1863, ibid., 966.
827: There is an abundance of material in the Confederate Records on the subject of desertions in the West. Note particularly pp. 167, 168, 173-174, 192-193, 198, 204-205 of chap. 2, no. 268. Note, also, Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 956.
828: Duval to Cabell, August 17, 1863, Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii 969-970.
829: Confederate Military History, vol. x, 202.
830: Steele to Scott, August 7, 1863, Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 957.
831: Steele to Morgan, August, 1863, ibid., 951; August 8, 1863, ibid., 957.
832: Steele to Blair, August 7, 1863, ibid., 956.
833: Blunt to Schofield, July 30, 1863, ibid., 411.
834: Blunt to Lincoln, September 24, 1863, ibid., vol. liii, supplement, 572.
835: Blunt to Schofield, August 22, 1863, Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 465.
836: Ibid., 466. There seems to have been a good deal of sickness at Fort Gibson and some mortality, of which report was duly made to Steele [ibid., 956; Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 268, pp. 192-193].
837: Steele had crossed the line between the Creeks and Choctaws, however, before Blunt crossed the Arkansas. On August sixteenth, he had his camp on Longtown Creek and was sending a detachment out as far south as within about ten miles of Boggy Depot [Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 968]. A few days later, he made his camp on Brooken Creek, a little to the eastward [ibid., 972]. By that time, Steele was evidently quite reconciled to the
thought that Fort Smith might at any moment be attacked and, perhaps, in such force that it would be needless to attempt to defend it. Cabell was to move to a safe distance, in the neighborhood of Scullyville, from whence, should there be reasonable prospect of success, he might send out reinforcements. In the event of almost certain failure, he was to draw off betimes in the direction of Riddle's station, where flour was stored [ibid.].
838: On the subject of roads and highways in Indian Territory, see ibid., vol. xxxiv, part ii, 859; vol. xii, part ii, 997; Sheridan, Memoirs, vol. ii, 340.
839: Blunt to Schofield, August 27, 1863, Official Records, vol. xxii, part i. 597-598; Steele to Snead, September 8, 1863, Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 268, p. 223.
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The American Indian as Participant in the Civil War, 1919
Participant in the Civil War