The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

July 12, 2013

Fight at Honey Springs

July of 1863 was a watershed month for this then-young nation. It was a month that most likely saved it from becoming two countries — the United States of America and the Confederate States of America.

You read those words on a history-book page and they are just words. You might conjure images of armies and battles and great leaders, but little else.

As a reader of history, you probably want to get to the bottom line and view results of an event you are studying or reading about. That’s human nature.

But the reality of history is we are talking about the very lives and outcomes for those lives, and the future of a nation. People lived, people died. People lost their homes, their husbands and sons and nephews by the thousands. Whole regional economies were affected. Homes and businesses were burned, fortunes were made and lost.

The American Civil War was a really big deal for every American 150 years ago, and it affects each and every American today — from its four-year hell to its eventual outcome.

That fateful July saw Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North turned away in one of the great battle’s in world history on the fields of Gettysburg.

Ulysses S. Grant finally captured Vicksburg, Miss., on the Fourth of July — the key to the Mississippi River and a victory that split the Confederacy from its western-most states.

Both those campaigns are major chapters in Civil War history.

A smaller, but marginally less significant chapter also was occurring right here in Oklahoma — Indian Territory — that saw July end a wave of Confederate victories in the East that very nearly had seen the South successful in secession.

It was hot and muggy in what now is east-central Oklahoma on July 17, 1863, just like it had been hot and muggy in southern Pennsylvania, and just as it had been hot and really muggy in Mississippi.

But one of the great peculiarities of the Civil War occurred north of the present town of Checotah, and very near to Rentiesville, which eventually would become one of Oklahoma’s all-black towns, founded in 1903.

The peculiarity? The largest and most far-reaching battle fought in Indian Territory was decided by two relatively small armies that were predominantly non-white in nature.

White soldiers were a minority during the fighting, with African-American troops and Indian troops making up substantial portions of Union and Confederate forces that steamy July day.

The area near Honey Springs Depot had seen frequent skirmishes in the first two years of the Civil War in Indian Territory. Being a border state, it had allegiances among its population both North and South.

In that regard, it was no different than Missouri, Kentucky or Maryland, which supplied troops to both sides during the four-year war.

Arrayed against one another at the Battle of Honey Springs were Union forces under Major Gen. James Blunt, who had a force of 3,000 men, including substantial numbers of black and Indian troops. His most noted unit was the First Kansas Colored Infantry.

Against him were the Confederate forces of Brig. Gen. Douglas Cooper, and his force of largely Native American soldiers, including Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Creek soldiers.

The Confederates had been supplying and gathering forces to attack Union-held Fort Gibson, at the confluence of the Neosho and Arkansas rivers. Before a brigade of Confederate infantry from Fort Smith could join Cooper for the move on Fort Gibson, Blunt decided to meet the Rebel forces, marching toward their supply depot at Honey Springs.

The Confederates — also numbering about 3,000 men — were at a huge disadvantage due to weather conditions, which saw them go into battle with wet gunpowder, causing many rifle misfires. The problem only intensified when it began to rain during the hotly contested battle.

Cooper repulsed Blunt’s initial attack in heavy fighting, but was forced to pull back to obtain new ammunition.

Command problems wracked the Confederate forces, and the withdrawal soon became more of a rearguard action.

When Cooper’s troops counterattacked the more cohesive and better-equipped Union troops — and failed — the Confederates were forced to flee the field.

Although casualty figures are notoriously inaccurate from fighting west of the Mississippi, it was thought Union forces lost about 79 men and the Confederates about 637, although Cooper reported only 181 men lost.

The final outcome was a huge blow for the Confederacy in Indian Territory.

The threat to the Union stronghold at Fort Gibson vanished, and for all intents and purposes, the Confederates were forced back to the Red River and Texas — leaving Union forces in firm control of the territory north of the Arkansas River.

The Oklahoma Historical Society today maintains the site of the battlefield, and its relatively small — yet pivotal — place in Civil War history.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking

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