Major General James G. Blunt and Lt. Col. John Bowles’ Reports on the Battle of Honey Springs, or Elk Creek
White, Black, and Native American Union Soldiers Fought Confederate Native Americans and Texans for Control of Fort Gibson in Indian Territory
For the first two years of the Civil War, Confederate forces generally controlled what was then the Indian Territory, today’s Oklahoma. In the Spring of 1863, Union forces regained a foothold in the Territory with the capture of Fort Gibson, a former U.S. Army frontier installation that had fallen into Confederate hands.
The Federal position at Fort Gibson was tenuous. Deep in what was still mostly Confederate territory, the fort was resupplied by wagon trains from Fort Scott, Kansas, 175 miles to the north, which were subject to attack by fast moving Rebel cavalry. Confederate forces also operated in the rear and flanks of Fort Gibson, and in July of 1863, plans were made to drive the Federals out and retake the fort. The Union command found about the Confederate plans to attack, and reinforcements under Major General James G. Blunt set out from Fort Scott on July 6th and arrived at Fort Gibson on July 11th. The reinforcements boosted the Union strength to 3000 infantry, cavalry, and artillerymen.
About 25 miles southwest of Fort Gibson was a Confederate base supply base known as Honey Springs. Brigadier General Douglas H. Cooper had about
6000 Confederates at Honey Springs in mid July, with an additional 3000 more under the command of Brigadier General William L Cabell on the way from Arkansas and due to arrive at Honey Springs on July 17th.
Aware of this situation, Blunt decided to attack Honey Springs before Cabell’s reinforcements could arrive. He began his movement towards Honey Springs on July 15th, and early on the morning of the 17th, the Federals encountered a Confederate outpost about five miles north of Elk Creek, a stream that ran roughly west to east just north of Honey Springs. The Confederates at the outpost were driven back to their main line in a wooded area along the north bank of Elk Creek. Blair rode forward and after reconnoitering the Rebel defensive position, planned his attack.
Blunt’s command included the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Indian Home Guards, the 3rd Wisconsin and 6th Kansas Cavalries, the 2nd and 3rd Kansas Light Artillery units, the 2nd Colorado Infantry, and the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry . The Indian Home Guards included members of the Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee Tribes. Creeks and Cherokees fought on both sides in the Civil War, and two Confederate regiments of each were in the Confederate lines. Blunt placed the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry on his right flank and the 6th Kansas Cavalry on his left flank. Each cavalry unit had two mountain howitzers. The 1st Indian Home Guard was on the right of the 6th Kansas, while the 2nd Indian was on the left of the 3rd Wisconsin. The infantry units formed the center of the line, with the 2nd Colorado on the right of the of the 1st Indian, and the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry on the left of the 2nd Indian. The artillery regiments’ eight guns were deployed with the infantry regiments. The 3rd Indian Home Guard was in reserve.
On the Confederate side, Cooper had the 1st and 2nd Creek Regiments on his left flank and the 1st and 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles on his right. The 5th Partisan Texas Rangers, and the 20th and 29th Texas Cavalries formed the center. Cooper had a single battery of four guns in the center of his line. The 1st Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles and two squadrons of Texas Cavalry were held in reserve. For much of the battle, the cavalrymen on both sides would fight dismounted. Despite having a numerical advantage, the many Confederates were poorly armed with obsolete weapons and poor quality gunpowder that absorbed moisture in wet, rainy weather, which were the conditions on the day of the battle.
As the Federals went into position, Colonel James M. Williams, an abolitionist, addressed his 1st Kansas Colored Infantry with an impassioned speech:
“We are going to engage the enemy in a few moments and I am going to lead you. We are engaged in a holy war; in the history of the world, soldiers never fought for a holier cause than the cause for which Union soldiers are fighting, the preservation of the Union and the equal rights and freedom of all men. You know what the soldiers of the Southern armies are fighting for; you know that they are fighting for the continued existence and extension of slavery on this continent, and if they are successful, to take you and your wives and children back into slavery. You know it is common report that the Confederate troops boast that they will not give quarters to colored troops and their officers, and you know they did not give any quarters to your comrades in the fight with the forage detachment near Sherwood last May. Show the enemy this day that you are not asking for quarter, and that you know how and are eager to fight for your freedom…The people of the whole country will read the reports of your conduct in this engagement ; let it be that of brave, disciplined men.”
At about 10 a.m., the Union forces advanced, artillery exchanges began, and the battle was on. The fighting was difficult as the two sides had to advance through brush and timber, leading to some confusion in the lines in the center. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry fought off an attack by the 20th and 29th Texas. At one point, the 2nd Indian Home Guard and 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry, supported by the cavalry’s mountain howitzers, advanced on the Confederate left, forcing it back on the center. Finally, Cooper ordered his Confederates back across Elk Creek. Rebel forces put up a stand to defend the fords and bridge crossing the creek, but were forced to retreat. The Confederates continued to make a fighting retreat, and were joined in that effort by the reserve 1st Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles and Texas cavalry squadrons. The delaying action enabled the Confederates to successfully withdraw their troops and baggage train from Honey Springs; they also set fire to the supply buildings, although one commissary building was saved by the Federals who feasted on the rescued food that evening.
Major General Blunt filed this after action report on the Battle of Honey Springs. Fort Gibson was renamed Fort Blunt for a short period of time; the C.N. stands for Creek Nation:
HEADQUARTERS DISTRICT OF THE FRONTIER,
In the Field, Fort Blunt, C. N., July 26, 1863.
GENERAL: I have the honor to report that, on my arrival here on the 11th instant, I found the Arkansas River swollen, and at once commenced the construction of boats to cross my troops.
The rebels, under General Cooper (6,000), were posted on Elk Creek, 25 miles south of the Arkansas, on the Texas road, with strong outposts guarding every crossing of the river from behind rifle-pits. General Cabell, with 3,000 men, was expected to join him on the 17th, when they proposed attacking this place. I could not muster 3,000 effective men for a fight, but determined, if I could effect a crossing, to give them battle on the other side of the river.
At midnight of the 15th, I took 250 cavalry and four pieces of light artillery, and marched up the Arkansas 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, and, by 10 p.m. of the 16th, commenced moving south, with less than 3,000 men, mostly Indians and negroes, and twelve pieces of artillery. At daylight I came upon the enemy’s advance about 6 miles from Elk Creek, and with my cavalry drove them in rapidly upon their main force, which was formed on the south side of the timber of Elk Creek, their line extending 1½ miles, the main road running through their center.
While the column was closing up, I went forward with a small party to examine the enemy’s position, and discovered that they were concealed under cover of the brush awaiting my attack. I could not discover the location of their artillery, as it was masked in the brush. While engaged in this reconnaissance, one of my escort was shot.
As my men came up wearied and exhausted, I directed them to halt behind a little ridge, about one half mile from the enemy’s line, to rest and eat a lunch from their haversacks. 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. Without halting, I moved them forward in line of battle, throwing out skirmishers in advance, and soon drew their fire, which revealed the location of their artillery. The cavalry, which was on the two flanks, was dismounted, and fought on foot with their carbines. In a few moments the entire force was engaged. My men steadily advanced into the edge of the timber, and the fighting was unremitting and terrific for two hours, when the center of the rebel lines, where they had massed their heaviest force, became broken, and they commenced a retreat. In their rout I pushed them vigorously, they making several determined stands, especially at the bridge over Elk Creek, but were each time repulsed. In their retreat they set fire to their commissary buildings, which were 2 miles south of where the battle commenced, destroying all their supplies. I pursued them about 3 miles to the prairie south of Elk Creek, where my artillery horses could draw the guns no farther, and the cavalry horses and infantry were completely exhausted from fatigue. The enemy’s cavalry still hovered in my front, and about 4 p.m. General Cabell came in sight with 3,000 re-enforcements. My ammunition was nearly exhausted, yet I determined to bivouac on the field, and risk a battle in the morning if they desired it, but the morning revealed the fact that during the night they had retreated south of the Canadian River.
The enemy’s loss was as follows: Killed upon the field and buried by my men, 150; wounded, 400; and 77 prisoners taken, 1 piece of artillery, 1 stand of colors, 200 stand of arms, and 15 wagons, which I burned. My loss is 17 killed, 60 wounded, most of them slightly.
My forces engaged were the First, Second, and Third Indian, First Kansas (colored), detachments of the Second Colorado, Sixth Kansas, and Third Wisconsin Cavalry, Hopkins’ battery of four guns, two sections of Second Kansas Battery, under Capt. E. A. Smith, and four howitzers attached to the cavalry.
Much credit is due to all of them for their gallantry. The First Kansas (colored) particularly distinguished itself; they fought like veterans, and preserved their line unbroken throughout the engagement. Their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed; they were in the hottest of the fight, and opposed to Texas troops twice their number, whom they completely routed. One Texas regiment (the Twentieth Cavalry) that fought against them went into the fight with 300 men and came out with only 60. It would be invidious to make particular mention of any one where all did their duty so well.
I am indebted to Col. Thomas Moonlight, chief of staff; Capt. H. G. Loring, acting assistant adjutant-general, and Captains Cox and Kinter, of the Fourth and Fifth Indian Regiments, acting aides-de-camp, for valuable aid rendered during the engagement.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant.
JAS. G. BLUNT,
Maj. Gen. JOHN M. SCHOFIELD,
Commanding Department of the Missouri.
P. S.–I have designated this engagement as the “Battle of Honey Springs,” that being the headquarters of General Cooper, on Elk Creek, in the immediate vicinity of the battle-field.
Union casualty figures were later amended to 13 killed and 62 wounded. In his report, General Cooper said Union losses “exceeded 200”, while stating his Confederate losses as 134 killed and wounded and 47 taken prisoner.
Although the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry had seen some action in the war already, the Battle of Honey Springs was its largest battle up to that time. At this point in the war, more African American regiments were being sent to the front, but skeptics questioned if they would fight. The action of the 1st Kansas on July 17th, and the 54th Massachusetts a day later roughly 900 miles to the east at Fort Wagner in South Carolina showed that they would indeed fight. Colonel Williams was wounded in the fighting, and Lieutenant Colonel John Bowles filed the regiment’s after action report:
FORT BLUNT, C. N., July 20, 1863.
COLONEL: I have the honor to submit the following report of the First Regiment Kansas Colored Volunteers at the battle of Honey Springs, July 17, 1863:
Previous to forming a line of battle, Colonel [James M.] Williams was informed that his regiment would occupy the right and support Captain Smith’s battery. Colonel Williams then called “attention,” and said to the men, “I want you all to keep cool, and not fire until you receive the command; in all cases aim deliberately and below the waist. I want every man to do his whole duty, and obey strictly the orders of his officers.” We then moved in column, by company, to the position assigned us, and formed in line of battle, when the engagement was opened by the battery. After the lapse of ten minutes, during which time the fire from the battery was incessant, General Blunt came in person to Colonel Williams, and said, “I wish you to move your regiment to the front and support this battery (which was already in motion); I wish you to keep an eye to those guns of the enemy, and take them at the point of the bayonet, if an opportunity offers.” Colonel Williams then made some remarks to the men, intimating that we had work to do, and ordered them to “fix bayonet.” We then moved to the front and center, forming to the right of a section of Smith’s battery, consisting of two 12-pounder field pieces, that had already taken position within 300 yards of the enemy’s lines, which was only apparent by the smoke from the frequent firing of their battery, so completely were they concealed by the brush in their position. Quite a number of rounds of shell and canister had been fired from our guns, when our gallant colonel gave the command “forward,” and every man stepped promptly and firmly in his place, advancing in good order until within 40 paces of the concealed foe, when we halted on the right of the Second Colorado. Colonel Williams then gave the command, ” Ready, aim, fire,” and immediately there went forth two long lines of smoke and flame, the one from the enemy putting forth at the same instant, as if mistaking the command as intended for themselves, or as a demonstration of their willingness to meet us promptly.
At this juncture Colonel Williams fell, he and his horse at the same instant; Colonel Williams badly wounded in the right breast, face, and hands. Being on the right, and partly shut out from view of the left by the thick brush, I was, therefore, ignorant of the fact that Colonel Williams had fallen, and could not until it was too late to give the command “charge bayonet,” for which every man seemed so anxiously awaiting. In the mean time the firing was incessant along the line, except on the extreme right, where some of our Indians had ridden in the brush between us and the enemy. I immediately ordered them to fall back, and to the right. The enemy, which has since proven to have been the Twenty-ninth Texas Regiment, commanded by Colonel De Morse in person, who was badly wounded in the right arm, supposed from the command that we were giving way in front, and, like true soldiers, commenced to press, as they supposed, a retreating foe. They advanced to within 25 paces, when they were met by a volley of musketry that sent them back in great confusion and disorder. Their color-bearer fell, but the colors were immediately raised, and again promptly shot down. A second time they were raised, and again I caused a volley to be fired upon them, when they were left by the enemy as a trophy to our well-directed musketry.
As soon as I learned of Colonel Williams having been severely wounded and having left the field, I assumed command, our right pressing the enemy back to a corn-field, where he broke and fled in confusion. Further pursuit being impossible on account of the nature of the ground, I ordered the right back to our original line of battle. At this time Lieutenant-Colonel [F. W.] Schaurte, of the Second Indian, sent an orderly informing me of the near approach of his command, and that he wished to pass to the front, and I would please inform my command of the fact, to prevent accident. Some of his command passed to our front and carried off the colors we had three times shot down and driven the enemy from in defeat and loss. Some of my officers and men shouted out in remonstrance, and asked permission to break ranks and get them. I refused permission, and told them the matter could be righted hereafter.
Lieutenant-Colonel Moonlight, chief of staff, ordered us to the front. We advanced in line for a distance of 3 miles, skirmishing occasionally with the enemy from the high bluffs in front and to the left. The enemy being completely routed and defeated, we were ordered to fall back to the Springs, rest the men, and cook supper.
At 7 p.m. we were ordered to take position on the battle-field, near the ford, on Elk Creek, and bivouac for the night.
Our total on entering the battle was 500 men, including the commissioned officers. Our total in killed and wounded was 2 killed and 30 wounded.
* * * * * * * * * *
In conclusion, I feel it but justice and my duty to state that the officers and men throughout the entire regiment behaved nobly and with the coolness of veterans. Each seemed to vie with the other in the performance of his duty, and it was with the greatest gratification that I witnessed their gallant and determined resistance under the most galling fire. Where all performed their duty so well it would be hard to particularize.
Lieut. Col., Comdg. First Regiment Kansas Colored Vols.
Col. WILLIAM R. JUDSON,
Commanding First Brigade, Army of the Frontier.
Although fighting continued in the Indian Territory for the rest of the war, Fort Gibson remained in Union hands.
American Indians and the Civil War National Park Service Handbook edited by Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar.
The American Indian in the Civil War, 1862-1865 (Bison Book) by Annie Heloise Abel.
The Battle of Honey Springs by LeRoy H. Fischer. Oklahoma Today, Winter 1970-71.
The Civil War on the Border, Volume II by Wiley Britton.
Official Military History of Kansas Regiments During the War for the Suppression of the Great Rebellion compiled by Josiah B. McAfee.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXII, Part 1.
The Union Indian Brigade in the Civil War by Wiley Britton.