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home : people : opinions June 25, 2016

10/31/2013 12:29:00 AM
One for the Book
Oklahoma Historical Society
By Max J. Nichols


While the Civil War is famous for its battle over slavery in the United States, American Indians also were involved, especially in what was then Indian Territory and is now Oklahoma.

"The First Battle of Cabin Creek was the first of many engagements in Indian Territory where Indian, African American and white troops fought in a Civil War battle," said David Fowler, director of the George M. Murrell Home in Park Hill, the Cabin Creek Battlefield and the Honey Springs Battlefield for the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Just 15 days later the same Federal troops attacked the Confederates at the Confederate supply depot at Honey Springs, Indian Territory, defeating the forces of Confederate Gen. Douglas Cooper, a former U.S. Choctaw-Chickasaw Indian agent.

"That was the beginning of more than 100 Civil War battles and skirmishes fought in Indian Territory," said Dr. Bob Blackburn, director of OHS. "American Indians were highly involved in battles and other significant events.

"November is American Indian Heritage Month, so it is important for the Oklahoma Historical Society to recall the significance of the involvement of American Indians in the Battles of Cabin Creek and Honey Springs, which were more than fought 150 years ago, and in other Civil War events."

Strategically located to be in either a buffer zone or an invasion route between Unionist Kansas and secessionist Texas and Arkansas, the Indian nations in Indian Territory had little hope of remaining neutral toward the developing sectional conflict, said Christopher Price, director of the Honey Springs Battlefield for OHS.

"In February 1861, within weeks of the creation of the Confederacy, its emissaries visited the five Indian nations in Indian Territory with generous treaty offers," said Price. "They found a welcome among Indian leaders who retained economic and kinship ties with the South, wanted to protect their slave property and feared the loss of their new lands under President Abraham Lincoln.

"Meanwhile, the Union alienated them by withdrawing treaty-guaranteed military protection from Indian Territory and withholding annuity payments used to protect their school systems. Four weeks after the beginning of the war, the August 1861 Confederate victory at Wilson's Creek in Missouri persuaded all five Indians Nations to sign treaties of alliance with the Confederacy."

The decision to sign treaties was not accepted by all members of the five tribes, and each nation split into almost equal halves on which side to join. Beginning in the fall of 1861, life changed drastically for the Indian Territory population of about 100,000 as a mass migration began, said Price.

Nearly half of the Creek population fled into exile in Kansas. Many pro-Confederate Creeks and Cherokees took their families, slaves and livestock south to the Red River Valley, which separated Indian Territory and Texas.

On July 1-2, 1863, Confederate Col. Stand Watie formed his men along Cabin Creek to ambush a Federal supply column moving from Fort Scott, Kan., to Fort Gibson in Indian Territory, said Fowler. After delaying the crossing the first day, the Confederates were forced to withdraw after a combined Federal artillery, cavalry and infantry attack.

The Battle of Honey Springs occurred on July 17, 1863, where the Texas Road crossed Elk Creek as a major north-south road from Kansas to Texas. Confederate Gen. Cooper intended to attack the Union-held Fort Gibson, but Union Gen. James Blunt met the Confederates at Honey Springs.

The Union victory at Honey Springs affected not only American Indian national regiments, but also Indian civilians and slaves by completing the mass migration started in 1861, said Price. When the Confederates retreated south of the Canadian River on the Texas Road, Confederate-allied Creeks and Cherokees wavered between fleeing to the safety of the Red River Valley or staying to face pro-Union Creeks and Cherokees and their former slaves.

Fort Gibson, which was established in 1824, remained under the control of Union troops throughout the war. Fort Towson served as a Confederate headquarters until 1865, when Brig. Gen. Watie surrendered his command near the fort and Doaksville, becoming the last Confederate general to lay down arms.

The Choctaws and Chickasaws had signed the 1837 Treaty of Doaksville to lease the western portion of the Choctaw Nation for settlement. A Chickasaw constitution was signed there in 1856, but the region's plantation-based economy was devastated by the Civil War, and Doaksville declined in importance.

Cherokee Chief John Ross had built a plantation home called Rose Cottage in Park Hill, near the Murrell family home. Ross wanted the Cherokee Nation to remain neutral, but he signed the Cherokee treaty of alliance with the South. Most of Park Hill was damaged or destroyed by guerilla warfare in the Civil War. Confederate troops eventually burned Rose Cottage.

All this illustrates how American Indians played significant roles for the Union and Confederate forces in the Civil War, said Blackburn, and how numerous American Indians paid dramatic prices for a war they didn't start.






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