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Reading 3: The Battle of Honey Springs

Report of Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt, U.S. Army, commanding the District of the Frontier.

Headquarters District of the Frontier,

In the Field, Fort Blunt, C[herokee] N[ation], July 26, 1863


The rebels, under General Cooper (6,000), were posted on Elk Creek, 25 miles south of the Arkansas, on the Texas road, with strong outposts guarding every crossing of the river.... General Cabell, with 3,000 men, was expected to join him on the 17th, when they proposed attacking this place. I [had barely] 3, give them battle on the other side of the river.

...[M]y forces [were] mostly Indians and negroes, and twelve pieces of artillery.... I came upon the enemy's...main force, which was formed on the south side of the timber [north] of Elk Creek, their line extending 12 miles, the main road running through their center.

While the column was closing up, I went forward with a small party to examine the enemy's position, and discovered that they were concealed under cover of the brush awaiting my attack.

As my men came up wearied and exhausted, I directed them halted behind a little ridge, about one-half mile from the enemy's line, to rest and eat a lunch from their haversacks. After two hours' rest, and at about 10 a.m., I formed them in two columns one on the right of the road...the other on the left...I moved up rapidly to within one-fourth of a mile of their line, when both columns were suddenly deployed to the right and left, and in less than five minutes my whole force was in line of battle, covering the enemy's entire front. Without halting, I moved them forward in line of battle, throwing out skirmishers in advance, and soon drew their fire, which revealed the location of their artillery. The cavalry, which was on the two flanks, was dismounted, and fought on foot with their carbines. In a few moments the entire force was engaged. My men steadily advanced into the edge of the timber, and the fighting was unremitting and terrific for two hours, when the center of the rebel lines, where they had massed their heaviest force, became broken, and they commenced a retreat. In their rout I pushed them vigorously, they making several determined stands, especially at the bridge over Elk Creek, but were each time repulsed. In their retreat they set fire to their commissary buildings, which were 2 miles south of where the battle commenced, destroying all their supplies. I pursued them about 3 miles to the prairie south of Elk Creek, where my artillery horses could draw the guns no farther, and the cavalry horses and infantry were completely exhausted from fatigue. The enemy's cavalry still hovered in my front, and about 4 p.m. General Cabell came in sight with 3,000 re-enforcements. My ammunition was nearly exhausted, yet I determined to bivouac on the field, and risk a battle in the morning if they desired it, but the morning revealed the fact that during the night they had retreated south of the Canadian River. The enemy's loss was as follows: Killed upon the field and buried by my men, 150; wounded, 400; and 77 prisoners taken, 1 piece of artillery, 1 stand of colors, 200 stand of arms, and 15 wagons, which I burned. My loss is 17 killed, 60 wounded, most of them slightly.

My forces engaged were the First, Second, and Third Indian, First Kansas (colored), detachments of the Second Colorado, Sixth Kansas, and Third Wisconsin Cavalry, Hopkins' battery of four guns, two sections of Second Kansas Battery, and four howitzers attached to the cavalry.

Much credit is due to all of them for their gallantry. The First 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. One Texas regiment (the Twentieth Cavalry) that fought against them went into the fight with 300 men and came out with only 60. It would be invidious to make particular mention of any one where all did their duty so well.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
James G. Blunt,

Report of Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Cooper, C. S. Army, commanding Confederate Forces

Headquarters First Brigade, Indian Troops,

Imochiah Creek, near Canadian, August 12, 1863.

General: * * *

About daylight on the morning of the 17th, the advance of the enemy came in sight of the position occupied by the Choctaws and Texans; commenced a brisk fire upon them, which was returned and followed by a charge, which drove the enemy back upon the main column. Lieutenant Heiston reported the morning cloudy and damp, many of the guns failing to fire in consequence of the very inferior quality of the powder, the cartridges becoming worthless even upon exposure to damp atmosphere. Soon after the Federals had been driven back, it commenced raining heavily, which rendered [our] arms wholly useless. These troops then fell back slowly and in good order to camp, for the purpose of obtaining a fresh supply of ammunition and preparing for the impending fight. A few remained...about 3 miles north of camp on the [Texas] road, and were so disposed as to create the impression...that a large force was [waiting].... [T]heir advance halted until the main body came up and formed in line of battle.... [M]y aide...reported their force to be probably 4,000, which I found...some 500 under the mark. After ascertaining that the enemy were advancing in force, orders were issued to the officers commanding corps to prepare for immediate action and take their positions....

...[T]here was a body of troops on my extreme right. A part of Second Cherokee Regiment...who were getting breakfast at camp, were then ordered up and conducted by myself to the right, and a messenger sent for half of the Choctaw regiment, which soon arrived and were placed also on the right along the edge of the prairie. Upon reconnoitering the enemy from the high prairie, I found their force larger than...I supposed they would bring from [Fort] Gibson, and seeing a heavy force wheeling off to their right and taking the road the second crossing above the bridge--our weakest point, and from which the road continues up to the third crossing, where the Creeks were posted--I rode back to the main road, sent orders to the Creeks to move down and...flank the enemy on our left. I then rode to where I expected to find the Choctaws, in order to bring them to the support of Colonel Bass' command and the battery, which was engaged with that of the enemy. [But they had mistaken the order and] moved off on the mountain several miles with his whole force.... Messengers were sent after him and he returned promptly, but too late for the defense of the bridge. Riding back near the creek, I discovered our men in small parties giving way....

We have to mourn the loss of many brave officers and men who fell here, sacrificing their lives in opposition to an overwhelming force to save our little battery, all of which was brought off, except one howitzer, dismounted by the heavy ordnance of the enemy.

...Our forces were now in full retreat and the enemy pressing them closely. The Texans...were ordered to join me at Honey Springs, and the Creeks to withdraw from the extreme left and also to concentrate at the same place. Captain Gillett's squadron, arriving promptly...and for a short time held the advance of the enemy in check. The Choctaw...opportunity arrived at this time, and under my personal direction charged the enemy, who had now planted a battery upon the timbered ridge about 1,000 yards north of Honey Springs. With their usual intrepidity, the Choctaws went at them, giving the war-whoop, and succeeded in checking the advance of the enemy until their force could be concentrated and all brought up. The Choctaws...remained formed for hours in full view of the enemy, thus giving the train time to gain some 6 or 8 miles on the road to Briartown....

Too much praise cannot be awarded the troops for the accomplishment of the most difficult of all military movements--an orderly and successful retreat, with little loss of life or property, in the face of superior numbers, flushed with victory. The retreat of the forces under my command eastward instead of south completely deceived the enemy [creating] the impression that the re-enforcements from Fort Smith were close at hand, and that by a detour...our forces might march upon [Fort] Gibson and destroy it while General Blunt was away with almost the whole Federal force. Under the influence of this reasonable fear, General Blunt withdrew forces and commenced a hurried march for Gibson. North Fork [Town], where we had a large amount of commissary stores, was then saved, as well as the whole of the train, except one ambulance purposely thrown in the way of the enemy by the river. A quantity of flour, some salt, and sugar were necessarily burned at Honey Springs, there being no transportation for it.

Our loss was 134 killed and wounded and 47 taken prisoners, while that of the enemy exceed 200....

I feel confident that we could have made good the defense of the position at Elk Creek but for the worthlessness of our ammunition.... [T]here was a general feeling among the troops that with such ammunition it was useless to contend with a foe doubly superior in numbers, arms, and munitions, with artillery ten times superior to our, weight of metal considered. Notwithstanding all these untoward circumstances, the [Texans] stood calmly and fearlessly to their posts...until the conflict became a hand-to-hand one, even clubbing their muskets and never giving way until the battery had been withdrawn; and, even when defeated and in full retreat, the officers and men readily obeyed orders, formed, falling back and reforming at several different positions, as ordered, deliberately and coolly. Their steady conduct under these circumstances evidently intimidated the foe, and alone enabled us to save the [supply] train and many valuable lives. The Creeks...behaved admirably, moving off in good order slowly and steadily across the North Fork road in full view of the enemy. They contributed greatly to the safe retreat of the train and brigade.

...[The] Choctaws behaved bravely, as they always do.

Douglas H. Cooper,

(After the Battle: In July, 1863, the Union saw the Civil War swing in its favor through the pivotal battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Though Honey Springs was not as important as those two, it did change the course of the war in the Trans-Mississippi West. The Union soon captured Fort Smith on the Arkansas border, and from there attempted to reassert its authority over the entire region. In early 1864, its troops marched through Indian Territory, destroying crops, burning homes of suspected Southern sympathizers, and fighting with the remaining Confederate troops in the area. This effort, rather than putting an end to rebellion, hardened the position of Native Americans supporting the Confederacy; they continued to fight. By the end of the war, 14% of all children in the Territory were orphans and 33% of all women were widows. The victorious Union decided that because the Five Civilized Tribes allied with the South, they had to forfeit all their annuities and half their land.)

Questions for Reading 3

1. According to each general, how many men fought for each side at the Battle of Honey Springs? Why might a general give figures that are higher or lower than the actual numbers?

2. In what other ways do Blunt's and Cooper's accounts of the battle differ? In what ways do they agree?

3. Why did General Blunt halt his attack rather than pursue the Confederates after his victory at Honey Springs?

4. What roles did Native American soldiers play for both sides? How did their commanders evaluate their performance? In the early years of the War, many people believed that African Americans and Native Americans could not fight. What does this battle say about those beliefs?

5. Was the end result for the Five Civilized Tribes fair? Explain your answer.

Reading 3 is excerpted from The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, vol. 22 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1900) 447-62.


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