Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Battle of Honey Springs (Elk Creek), Oklahoma (July 17, 1863)

War-time Sketch of the Battle of Honey Springs, Oklahoma
150 years ago today on July 17, 1863, having skirmished with Confederate forces at Chimney Mountain, the Union army of Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt reached the battlefield at Honey Springs, Oklahoma. Please click here to read about the preliminary skirmish at Chimney Mountain.

Halting his men at the northern end of today's Honey Springs Battlefield State Historic Site, Blunt gave them time to rest while he and his escort scouted the position of Brigadier General Douglas H. Cooper's Confederate army.

Scene of Heavy Fighting early in the Battle
Although each general believed he was heavily outnumbered, their two effective forces were fairly close in size (about 3,000 men each). The Confederates had a few more men, but many never were engaged and all were experiencing problems with faulty ammunition. Under the rainy conditions that day quite often their guns would not fire.

As he arrived on the field, Blunt discovered that the Confederate army was positioned in thick brush and timber facing open ground across which his men would have to advance. Seeing that Cooper was prepared to fight, he ordered his men into the ranks:

Map showing location of the Battle
Courtesy National Park Service
...After two hours' rest, and at about 10 a.m., I formed them in two columns, one on the right of the road, under Colonel [William R.] Judson, the other on the left, under Colonel [William A.] Phillips. The infantry was in column by companies, the cavalry by platoons and artillery by sections, and all closed in mass so as to deceive the enemy in regard to the strength of my force. In this order 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. - Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt, USA.

The Union force then moved forward, with skirmishers out front, and "soon drew their fire."

On the Confederate side of the field, General Cooper waited until the Union troops were within easy range and then opened on them with his artillery:

Elk Creek on the Honey Springs Battlefield
...I rode forward to the position north of Elk Creek where Captain [R.W.] Lee's light howitzer battery had been posted, and found it supported by Colonel Bass' regiment (Twentieth Texas Dismounted Cavalry), by a portion of the Second Cherokee  Regiment, and a body of skirmishers on the right, under command of Captain Hugh Trinn, of the First Cherokee Regiment, the remainder of the Cherokee Regiments being near the Creek. - Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Cooper, CSA.

Things quickly began to go wrong for the Confederates. General Cooper arranged his forces for a defense in detail, which allowed the Federal troops to put more power into position against his front lines. Col. Tandy Walker, meanwhile, mistook his orders and moved far out of position with his Cherokee and Creek troops.

Texas Road on the Honey Springs Battlefield
As Captain R.W. Lee and the men of his battery had watched, the Federals had begun to wheel 12 pieces of artillery into position. Rather than let them get this superior artillery force into position, Lee opened on the guns with his howitzers and a small experimental rifled cannon. A Union cannon was demolished by Confederate fire, but the Federals soon found the range and returned effect fire.

Heavy fighting erupted up and down the line but after two hours, the critical moment of the battle came. Confederate officers mistook a re-positioning of a portion of the Union line and thought a retreat had gun. They ordered an immediate counter-attack. The Confederates surged forward to within just 25 paces of the Union lines when the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers suddenly unleashed a deadly volley on them. The charge was shocked to a stop as dozens of men fell dead and wounded.

Site of the Elk Creek Bridge on the Battlefield
At this point the Confederate line began to fall back for the crossings of Elk Creek and General Cooper ordered his men to withdraw. A force of Texas soldiers held the vital Elk Creek Bridge on the Texas Road under heavy fire, giving Cooper time to withdraw most of his men.

The Southern forces continued to fight, but their faulty ammunition caused so many problems that they began to lose hope. A retreat degenerated into a rout.

As total disaster seemed about to overwhelm the Confederate army, Col. Tandy Walker suddenly arrived on the field with his Cherokee and Choctaw soldiers. Cooper immediately ordered them to charge:

Site of Walker's Charge at Honey Spring
...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 brought up. The Choctaws, discouraged on account of the worthless ammunition, then gave way, and were ordered to fall back with the others in the rear of the train, which had moved off in an easterly direction, covered by our own troops.... - Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Cooper, CSA.

The "Gettysburg of the West" had been fought - and lost - by the Confederates and the end of the battle found them in full retreat for the Canadian River and the reinforcement column then coming up under General Cabell.  Cooper ordered his supplies that could not be saved set afire and by the time the Federals occupied their camps, there was little left to capture. General Blunt did report taking one piece of artillery, 200 stand of arms, 15 wagons and one stand of colors.

Monuments at Honey Springs Battlefield
The Battle of Honey Springs (sometimes called the Battle of Elk Creek) shifted the war in the far west from the Cherokee and Creek Nations all the way south into the Choctaw Nation. It opened the door for Blunt's capture of Fort Smith in September. Great misery would follow in the Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations as the Union troops pushed south over coming months and thousands of American Indian refugees would flee south for the Texas line, the smoke from their burning homes filling the skies behind them.

The battle will be reenacted in November, when the weather is a little cooler, and a major weekend of activities is planned for the 150th anniversary commemoration at the same time.

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