The history of the Civil war furnishes no darker page than that which records the suffering and privations of those Indians who, opposing any treaty with the Southern Confederacy, and proclaiming their loyalty to the United States Government, were compelled to leave their homes and seek protection in the North during the cold winter of 1861-62, inasmuch as the Government had failed to furnish them with adequate protection in their homes.
It has been deemed advisable to let eye-witnesses tell the story.
George W. Collamore was appointed as a special agent by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to visit Southern Kansas and report upon the condition of the Indian refugees assembled there. His report, dated April 21, 1862, is as follows:
Agreeably to your request I furnish herewith an account of my visit to the loyal Indians who were obliged to flee from their pursuers (rebel Indians and Texans) in the dead of winter, and who are now encamped on the Neosho River in the southern part of Kansas.
“Having heard of their great destitution and suffering, in company with the Rev. Evan Jones, who has been for the last forty years a missionary among the Cherokee, and who was driven from his station by the rebels in August last, I visited their encampment the latter part of March last for the purpose of observation as to their actual condition and wants.
“It is no doubt well known to you, but not generally so, what the position of these people has been in the great struggle in which the whole country is involved, and with what resolute firmness and endurance they have resisted all the appeals and temptations held out to them by the rebel leaders to abandon the Government which has always protected them. While apparently the attitude of the various tribes was for a season equivocal, and, the disposition seemed to incline to aid and comfort the enemy, or at the best ‘ neutrality,’ yet the evidence is ample and clear that a large portion of the Cherokee Nation were determined to stand firm in their ‘loyalty to the Union, as is sufficiently evidenced by the correspondence herewith enclosed between John Ross, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and Gen. Ben McCulloch and David Hubbard, commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Confederacy. And the same may be observed of the other tribes. But the strongest testimony consists in the troops they have furnished and the battles they have fought; and it is the fortune of these battles that has brought them into their present miserable condition in the bare prairies of Kansas.
“Large numbers of them, driven from their comfortable homes, leaving their farms and their herds (many of them it may be said having lived in affluence), joined the armies of the Union. Their houses were fired by the enemy and their horses and cattle driven off. The battles in which they participated and which eventuated in their expulsion from their country, and forced them to seek shelter in Kansas, formed a part of the history of this war. The battle of December last was particularly unfortunate to these people, and the disasters of the defeat left them in the helpless condition I found them.
“They are now located near Leroy, in Coffey County, Kan., a distance of not less than one hundred and seventy-five miles intervening between them and their former homes. Their march was undertaken with a scanty supply of clothing and provisions and cooking utensils, entirely without tents, and during their progress they were reduced to such extremity as to be obliged to feed upon their ponies and dogs, while their scanty clothing was reduced to threads, and in some cases absolute nakedness was their condition. Let it be remembered that their retreat was in the midst of a winter of unusual severity for that country, with snow upon the prairie. Many of their ponies died from starvation. The women and children suffered severely from frozen limbs, so did also the men. Women gave birth to their offspring upon the naked snow, without shelter or covering, and some of the new-born babes died for want of clothing.
“Thus I found them encamped upon the Neosho River bottom, in the timber extending a distance of some seven miles, not a comfortable tent was to be seen. Such coverings as I saw were made in the rudest manner, being composed of pieces of cloth, old quilts handkerchiefs, aprons, etc., stretched upon sticks, and so limited were many of them in size that they were scarcely sufficient to cover the emaciated and dying forms beneath them. Under such shelter I found in the last stages of consumption, the daughter of Opothlevohola, one of the oldest and most influential and wealthy chiefs of the Creek Nation.
“In company with Doctor Coffin I visited nearly fifty patients in one afternoon. Not a few he pronounced incurable, their diseases being consumption and pneumonia, brought on from exposure and privations of the common necessaries of life. Dr. George A. Cutler informed me that in two months 240 refugees of that nation had died. Those of other tribes suffered in like degree. Doctor Cofffin informed me that upward of one hundred amputations of frosted limbs had taken place. Among them I saw a little Creek boy, about eight years of age, with both feet taken off near the ankles; others lying on the ground, whose frosted limbs rendered them unable to move about. Five persons in a similar condition the physician pronounced past recovery. A cold drenching rain fell on the last day of the visit and for eight hours I went from lodge to lodge and tribe to tribe, and the suffering of the well, to say nothing of the sick, is beyond description. Their numbers as ascertained were as follows : Creek, 5,000; Seminole, 1,096; Chickasaw, 140; Quapaw, 315; Uchee, 51.4; Keeshie, 83; Delaware, 197; Ironeye, 17; Caddo, 3 ; Wichita, 5 ; Cherokee, 240. (About two thousand Cherokee were encamped farther east, not far from Fort Scott.)
“This large number of people have been deprived of shelter for four months and they have been supplied with clothing wholly inadequate to their actual wants. Some whom I saw had not a single garment on their bodies, nor has their food been sufficient in quantity or of proper quality. Neither coffee, sugar, vinegar nor pepper has been allowed them, only upon a requisition from the physician for the sick. Only about one pound of flour is given them per week each, and a scanty supply of salt.
“To all these necessaries of life they had been accustomed. They had been told by rebel emissaries, as the chief informed me, that they would fail to obtain these articles from their Union friends, which having turned out to be the fact, has affected them with suspicion and discontent. Great complaint was made by the chiefs and others as to the quality of the bacon furnished, it being as they expressed it, `not fit for a dog to eat.’ Notwithstanding all their hardships and disappointments, these people who have exhibited a courage and endurance beyond any in the United States, breathe but one spirit of fidelity to the, Union, and a desire once more to be restored to their homes and friends, and there sustained by the Federal government to defend the cause they have espoused. I was assured by Opothleyohola that he and his people were willing, on being properly armed, to fight their own way back; but more lately learning from reliable information that there were camps consisting of from five thousand to six thousand rebel Indians and Texans to oppose him, he would now require assistance from our troops.”
Superintendent Coffin’s Report
Mr. W. G. Coffin, superintendent for Southern Indians, made a report of the condition of these Indian refugees to the commissioner of Indian Affairs on the 13th of February, 1862, a portion of which is as follows:
“Having now been here (at Fort Roe on the Verdigris River) long enough to make a pretty thorough examination of the Indians here, I send you the enclosed census of those now here and in one or two days’ journey of this place. They are constantly arriving, from twenty to sixty per day, and sending runners for provisions to be sent to the destitute on the way, and for transportation for the sick and feeble and helpless.
“The destitution, misery and ‘Suffering among them is beyond the power of any pen to portray; it must be seen to be realized. There are now here over two thousand men, women and children, entirely barefooted, and more than that number who have not rags enough to hide their nakedness. Many have died and others are constantly dying. I should think, from a rough guess, that from twelve to fifteen hundred dead ponies are lying around in the camps and in the river.”
Numerous other agents of the Government, including several army officials, made similar reports as to the condition of these unfortunate Indian refugees, justifying the conclusion that the statements quoted above were in no degree exaggerated. It would be difficult to find any parallel in our history to the indomitable loyalty to government manifested by the unfortunate Indians.
The presence of these thousands of loyal Indians, the recital of their sufferings and their stoical determination to remain faithful to their treaty obligations to the Federal government had a tendency to arouse the North from its lethargic attitude toward Indian Territory and a campaign for recapturing Tahlequah, Fort Gibson and other important points, all of which were now in the possession of the Confederates, was set on foot.
Maj. Gen. D. Hunter, then stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., was instructed by the war department to organize an army for the purpose of invading Indian Territory, and was empowered to solicit recruits among the able-bodied Indian refugees. Several hundred Indians enlisted very willingly. James H. Lane, who had just been elected as first United States senator from Kansas, undertook to raise a regiment, composed largely of Indians, but a good deal of friction arose between the various military authorities and the Interior department upon the subject of enrolling Indians for the war. A mixture of Kansas politics with military jealousies and Indian office regulations tended toward hindering and delaying the organization of a military expedition for the recovery of Indian Territory and while precious time was being wasted by them in wrangling over the military policies to be pursued, Col. Stand Watie and Col. John Drew of the Cherokee Confederate brigade, aided by Colonel McIntosh of the Creek and Colonel Cooper of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles were scouting over the Indian Territory making life miserable for the Indians who had refused to join the Southern Confederacy.
A portion of Stand Watie’s regiment invaded Missouri in April, 1862, and engaged in a skirmish with a Federal cavalry regiment near Neosho. A few weeks later, reinforced by a section of Colonel Coffee’s regiment, he met and defeated a Missouri state militia regiment not far from Neosho. The task of redeeming Indian Territory was finally assigned to William Weer, a colonel of a Kansas regiment and in May, 1862, he was busily engaged in organizing his regiment, preparatory to capturing Tahlequah and Fort Gibson. Several companies of refugee Indians were assigned to his command, the plan being to use them principally as scouting parties, as they were presumed to be acquainted with the country and familiar with the Indians’ methods of warfare. As the advance guard of Weer’s army started south, Stand Watie retreated to Cowskin Prairie, where the two armies met in an indecisive battle early in June. Maj. William A. Phillips of Kansas was’ placed in charge of the Indian cavalry and Col. John Ritchie in command of the Indian infantry forces. As they advanced into the territory their commands were increased in size by voluntary enlistment’s of Indians.
A detachment of Major Phillips’ scouts were sent out in advance and met Stand Watie’s regiment in a skirmish between Fort Gibson and Tahlequah. Watie was obliged to retreat after a sharp contest, leaving his lieutenant colonel, Thomas Taylor, mortally wounded, on the battlefield.
On the third day of July, 1861, the advance guard of Colonel Weer’s army had a lively skirmish with a part of Stand Watie ‘s army at Locust Grove. Watie ‘s expected reinforcements did not arrive and he was compelled to retire farther to the south.
Colonel Weer’s army continued its march southward in its eagerness to capture Tahlequah and while camped on the Grand River about fourteen miles north of Fort Gibson, he was arrested July 18th, by Colonel Salomon for violating the orders of his superior officer in advancing too far ahead of his base of supplies. Salomon retreated with the army to Wolf Creek, much to the disgust of the Indians who were anxious to regain possession of their homes.
Just prior to Colonel Weer’s arrest while in camp on Grand River, he dispatched Captain Greeno with about one hundred and fifty white and Indian soldiers to take possession of Tahlequah. He arrived at Tahlequah without encountering any of the roving Confederate bands, captured a few of the officials and arrested Chief John Ross at his Park Hill home, three miles south of Tahlequah. As the Federal army invaded the territory, many of the Indians who had aligned themselves with the Southern Confederacy were compelled to flee from their homes, hundreds of families going as far south as Texas for safety. The conspiracy against Weer, the Federal colonel who was arrested by his inferior officers while in camp on Grand River, once again checked the onward march of the Northern army, and Captain Greeno, having no hope of reinforcements was soon compelled to abandon Tahlequah. Hundreds of loyal Cherokee, accompanied by Chief John Ross, left their homes and traveled on foot and horseback to the refugee camp in Missouri, near Neosho. At the close of the year 1862, there were 1,900 Cherokee in this camp, mostly women and children.
The years 1863 to 1864 brought much suffering and wretchedness to the Indians whose bravery prompted them to remain in possession of their homes. Roving bands of bushwhackers destroyed their crops, burned many homes and drove away many cattle and horses.
The leaders of both the Northern and Southern armies seemed to realize that Indian Territory was being sadly neglected and both sides determined, early in 1863, to strengthen their forces in the Indian country. In January of that year Brig. Gen. William Steele was placed in command of all the Confederate forces in Indian Territory and about the same time General Schofield was selected to reorganize the Union forces. Both of these military leaders were hindered and embarrassed in their efforts toward planning their respective campaigns by petty jealousies displayed by their superior and associate officers. After entering the Territory General Steele was unable to secure sufficient guns and ammunition and was soon compelled to retire toward the Texas line, and was soon displaced by Colonel Cooper, who later in the year, was succeeded by General Maxey. General Schofield was fortunate in selecting Col. Wm. Phillips to take possession of Fort Gibson.
Colonel Phillips had been in command of an Indian regiment and probably understood Indian methods of warfare better than any of his superior officers. At this time the Union forces had regained control of practically all of the territory east of the Arkansas River while Stand Watie and Col. D. N. McIntosh with his Creek regiment were scouting the country west of the river, occasionally making surprise attacks but not engaging in many battles of importance.
In July, 1863, Gen. James Blunt, Phillips’ superior officer, arrived at fort Gibson with reinforcements, hoping to inaugurate a more active campaign against the Confederates. The Union forces in charge of the fort had been contenting themselves with guarding the hundreds of refugee Cherokee,. Creek and Seminole who had assembled there for protection, while the Confederate soldiers, were permitted to make disastrous raids through the surrounding country. Learning that Col. Douglas H. Cooper, with his regiment of Confederate Indians, was in the vicinity of Elk Creek, General Blunt decided to attack him at once. Cooper had called to his aid the Confederate Creek regiment under command of Col. D. N. McIntosh and Stand Watie’s regiment of mounted Cherokee, with the intention of making an effort to capture Fort Gibson, hence the sudden appearance of General Blunt’s army on the west bank of the Arkansas was something of a surprise to him. The opposing armies met near Honey Springs, about two miles southeast of the present Town of Oktaha, on July 17th, where a sharp battle was fought, which resulted in a victory for the Union forces, the Confederates retreating toward the south, many of the Indians scattering in different directions, never to return again to their regiments.
The battle of Honey Springs or “Elk Creek,” was one of the most disastrous to the Confederate cause of all the engagements which took place in Indian Territory oh account of the demoralizing effect it had upon the morale of the southern Indians, causing many of them to desert the Confederate army. It has sometimes been referred to as the “Gettysburg” of the Indian Territory. The fact that it took place within two weeks after the real Gettysburg campaign added dismay and discouragement to the Southern army. By the first of the following September Fort Smith, which had been a Confederate stronghold, was in the possession of the Union forces.
- Collamore’s Report
- Superintendent Coffin’s Report
- Letter of Chief John Ross
- Coffin Scores The Military
- Stand Watie’s Activities
Source: Benedict, John D. Muskogee and northeastern Oklahoma, including the counties of Muskogee, McIntosh, Wagoner, Cherokee, Sequoyah, Adair, Delaware, Mayes, Rogers, Washington, Nowata, Craig, and Ottawa. 3 v. illus., ports., facsims. 28 cm. Chicago, S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1922.