The Norman Transcript

July 16, 2006

Civil War battles brought suffering for natives

On July 17, 1863, that's 143 years ago today, the Battle of Honey Springs gave Union forces control of the Indian Territory for the rest of the Civil War.

Army shoot-outs in that war were relatively small in this part of the country, but the fighting was just as fierce, the strategy just as important and the deaths just as final as in the terrible slaughter to the east.

The Honey Springs site was near Rentiesville, south of Muskogee in McIntosh County. The battle followed one to the north known as the Battle of Cabin Creek.

Confederate Gen. Douglas H. Cooper sent troops to intercept a federal train bringing supplies to Union Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt. The train had a military escort of 1,000 troops. Before it left Baxter Springs, Kan., on the I.T. border, 600 mounted men with a howitzer were dispatched to back up the escort.

"The Historical Atlas of Oklahoma," published by the University of Oklahoma Press, gives a good, concise account of the two battles.

The Cherokee leader Stand Watie, the only Indian in the Confederate Army to make general, took about 1,400 men to the place where the train would cross the Grand River. Gen. William Cabell had left Fort Smith with 1,500 Confederate troops. If his forces could cross the Grand River to join Watie the combined forces would be able to capture the train.

The colonel in charge of the supply wagons shelled the Southern troops with artillery fire before entering the swollen stream with the Third Indian Regiment. When they had almost completed the crossing Confederate riflemen in a trench concealed by low-lying tree branches, opened fire.

"The second federal line, composed of Kansas colored infantry, moved rapidly forward and broke through the Confederate battle line," the Atlas says.

The Southern troops rallied, but Federal reserve forces moved in.

"Stand Watie's army scattered in all directions" the Atlas says.

Blunt moved quickly to hit Cooper forces before he could get more troops from Fort Smith. Even without them, though, Cooper had the most men in the Honey Springs Battle.

"But the Union Army had better artillery and more dependable ammunition," the story continues. "Both armies provided many examples of cool, steady valor and of reckless, raw courage."

The Confederate line began to fall back after two hours of "unremitting and terrific fighting" and the battle was soon over.

That cleared the way for Union capture of Forts Gibson and Smith. But the suffering of Indian Territory people continued.

"No people ... suffered more," the Atlas says.

Last week's column said incorrectly that there were nine U.S. presidents during the Oklahoma Territory years. There were only four.