Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The March to Honey Springs, Oklahoma (July 16, 1863)

Civil War ruins and earthworks at Fort Gibson
One of the most dramatic encounters of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River began to take shape 150 years ago today in the Cherokee Nation of what is now Oklahoma.

Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt, commander of the U.S. Army's District of the Frontier, had arrived at Fort Blunt (better known as Fort Gibson) in the Cherokee Nation of what is now Oklahoma on July 11, 1863. The Arkansas River was flooded and blocked his command from the Confederate forces of Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Cooper camped 25 or so miles to the south in the Creek Nation at the Honey Springs of Elk Creek.

Water flows from Honey Springs, Oklahoma
Informed that Cooper commanded 6,000 Confederates and that Brigadier General "Old Tige" Cabell was on the way to join him with another 3,000 men, Blunt decided to strike before the Confederates could join forces. Accordingly he ordered his men to begin building boats for a crossing and started scouting for a way to get across the river without provoking a fight with the Confederate sentries that picketed the opposite shore.

Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt, USA
Cooper's command included nowhere near 6,000 men - it was actually about half that - but Blunt had no way of knowing the accuracy of the intelligence he had received. The size of the column reinforcements under Cabell, advancing from Fort Smith, also was wildly overestimated.

On July 15th, as Blunt's 3,000 men neared completion of their boats, General Cooper received word that the Arkansas River was beginning to drop and had become fordable above the mouth of the Verdigris River and that Union officers could be seen examining the fords. At midnight, Blunt began to move:

At midnight of the 15th, I took 250 cavalry and four pieces of light artillery, and marched up the Arkansas river about 13 miles, drove their pickets from the opposite bank, and forded the river, taking the ammunition chests over in a flat-boat. I then passed down on the south side, expecting to get in the rear of their pickets at the mouth of Grand River, opposite this post, and capture them, but they had learned of my approach and had fled. I immediately commenced crossing my forces at the mouth of Grand River in boats.... - Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt, USA (July 26, 1863).
Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Cooper, CSA

Gen. Cooper told a similar story of the crossing. According to his version, news reached him early on the 16th that Federals were crossing in force at the Creek Agency west of Fort Gibson. His scouts told him the Union force numbered between 200 and 300 and were moving from the Creek Agency down the south bank of the Arkansas toward the fords near Fort Gibson to drive off his pickets. He believed, however, that his pickets were still in position watching for any large movement of the Federals.

Accordingly, he ordered Col. Tandy Walker forward with the First Cherokee and Choctaw Regiment, along with Captain L.E. Gillett and his squadron of Texas cavalry, to take up a position between Elk Creek and the Arkansas River, where the roads from the Creek Agency and Fort Gibson intersected at Chimney Mountain.Walker was to call in the pickets from the south bank of the Arkansas and send out detachments to watch both of the roads leading to Chimney Mountain.
Col. Tandy Walker, CSA

As Walker and Gillett moved forward with the Cherokee, Choctaw and Texas troops, Blunt's command continued its crossing of the Arkansas River at the mouth of the Grand. The crossing continued all day on the 16th - 150 years ago today - but by 10 p.m. the long column of 3,000 Federals had started south on the road to Chimney Mountain and Elk Creek.

The Battle of Honey Springs, also called the Battle of Elk Creek, would take place the next day. Oklahoma's largest battles of the War Between the States, it has been called the "Gettysburg of the West" by some writers.

I will post more about the battle tomorrow in commemoration of its 150th anniversary.  Until then, you can read more at  www.exploresouthernhistory.com/honeysprings1.

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