1860s: The Civil War in Indian Territory, Part Two

Like anything in history, the depths into one might plunge when discussing such a monumental event are limitless. We’ll limit ourselves to four key events related to the Civil War in I.T.

1. Opothleyahola

Opothleyahola (or “Opie” as we’ll call him if we ever wish to get past struggling to pronounce his name) was a Creek leader who’d been fighting the federal government and white encroachment as far back as the War of 1812. He was a wealthy landowner, a Baptist, and a Freemason (all the cool kids were back then).

OpothleyaholaBy the time the Civil War came to I.T., Opie was so over white guys and their penchant for disrupting and diminishing the Tribes. He was unwilling to join the Confederacy, but no fan of the Union. Others of similar mind found their way to his plantation in fits and starts, and he soon found himself the default leader of several thousand Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole – even some runaway slaves and other miscellany. The unifying characteristic was their desire to stay out of this war.

Opie received permission from President Lincoln to lead this amalgam to Kansas. There were fewer than 2,000 warriors, but they hoped to avoid conflict with either side. The majority of their band were women, children, old men, and livestock – little threat to anyone.

It didn’t work out that way. Troops were sent by the Confederacy to persuade them to change their mind. The first “Red on Red violence” of the war took place against a group trying to do what they’d all wanted to do initially – stay out of it.

Opothleyahola began his trek with something like 9,000 wanderers, and arrived in Kansas with less than 2,000. War, winter, hunger, and disease did their damage just as they had a generation before. The Union encampment there was completely unprepared for even these diminished numbers, and were of little help. After doing what he could to secure assistance for his people, Opie led those still able to fight back into I.T. to war against the Confederacy. He eventually dies in a Kansas refugee camps before the war was over.

2. The Battle of Pea Ridge (March 1862)

Early 1962 was not going well for the Confederacy in the Western Theater. Ulysses S. Grant made a name for himself capturing Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson along the Mississippi River, nearly cutting the South in two and enabling the Union to squeeze the secesh into submission. The Confederacy saw St. Louis – where the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers converge – as the key to reversing this trend.

General Albert Pike was called to I.T. to take command of Amerindian troops there, primarily Cherokee. They were poorly supplied and barely organized, and many weren’t enthused about supporting the Confederacy. Nevertheless, Pike led them into Arkansas (despite initial guarantees they would fight only to defend I.T.) where they joined in the Battle of Pea Ridge in March of 1862.

The Battle of Pea Ridge could fill an entire History Channel special. For our purposes, there are three things worth remembering.

First, this was the first time Cherokee troops fought on this scale in a white man’s battle. The Amerindian ways of fighting were dramatically different than white guys’ methods – the goals, the strategies, and especially the command structure. The U.S. and Confederate militaries were organized along a strict hierarchy. While not as loosely organized as the Plains Tribes, the Cherokee simply didn’t work that way – not socially, not politically, and certainly not militarily. By white military standards, they were a mess.

Second, most of Pike’s Amerindian troops fought with bows and arrows, or with tomahawks. That’s what they had, and what they knew how to use proficiently. Unfortunately, against somewhat-trained soldiers with guns, they were of limited impact.

Battle of Pea RidgeThird, and most importantly, the Cherokee were accused of scalping some of their Union victims. While this apparently did actually happen, the details are a bit vague. What is certain is that knowledge of this spread widely and quickly, growing and distorting in ways you wouldn’t think possible before Facebook. White soldiers on both sides were horrified – that is NOT how civilized men behaved! Kill and maim one another PROPERLY!

Pike was outraged at the treatment of the Amerindian troops in his command and excoriated in press and popular opinion for “allowing” scalping and general savagery to take place. He was the only white commander on either side to so vigorously advocate for them, albeit unsuccessfully, and he paid the social and political price for doing so. His Cherokee withdrew to I.T. where they were left unsupported and unprotected.

Oh, and by the way – the Union won.

3. The Weer Expedition

The Union had two goals for I.T. in 1862 – push back against Confederate advances in the region, and restore the pro-Union Amerindian refugees to their homes. Seemed simple enough, and the goals certainly complimented one another.

Colonel William Weer was appointed to command several white and two “Indian Regiments” along with supporting artillery. Pike, still bitter, refused to lead the Confederate opposition, leaving an opening Stand Watie was happy to fill. Watie’s Cherokee cavalry did their best to harass Weer as often as possible as he made his way through the Territory.

Weer’s expedition got as far as Locust Grove, about halfway between modern Tulsa and the Arkansas border. There they defeated some Missouri rebels and captured their supplies, but decided to wait for their own supply train to catch up as well. (It’s not like an army can forage its way through Oklahoma – if the land were that rich, they’d never have sent the Indians there.)

During the wait, Union forces fell apart all on their own, without the secesh having to do much to help. It was July by then, and hot. Really hot. Too hot. Supplies were running low again, and soldiers with nothing to do and no real fortifications had plenty of time to worry about Confederate counterstrikes. To top it all off, Weer was apparently quite a drinker. Like, crazy-useless drunk pretty much full-time. Underlings swore he’d genuinely lost his mind as a result and was no longer fit to lead even when he was sober.

Which wasn’t often.

His second-in-command arrested him and took over, ordering a withdrawal of the white troops but leaving the Amerindians behind without orders. Had the Confederates been in a position to take advantage of this, it could have shifted the balance of power in I.T. back in their favor. But they weren’t. Those locals who’d been “resettled” were nevertheless nervous about the withdrawal and complete lack of a Union strategy, and most began heading to Kansas yet again, where they spent another winter in refugee camps, suffering from cold, hunger, and disease.

Overall, the expedition was not considered a huge success.

4. The Battle of Honey Springs

July of 1863 was arguably THE turning point of the entire Civil War. In the Eastern Theater, Lee’s second and final effort to bring the war to the North was thwarted at the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. In the Western Theater, the nearly two-month-long Siege of Vicksburg perpetrated by U.S. Grant finally ended, securing control of the Mississippi River for the Union. The ‘Anaconda Plan’ was complete (although Winfield Scott had since passed away and thus missed his opportunity to gloat).

In the same month, the Massachusetts 54th Infantry – the first substantial use of Black troops in the war – made their dramatic but costly charge on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. While a strategic defeat, the performance of the 54th settled for the remainder of the war the question of whether or not Black troops should be allowed to fight as relative equals. Finally, in Indian Territory, the Battle of Honey Springs – the “Gettysburg of the West” – secured Union control of I.T. for the remainder of the war.

OK, no one outside of Oklahoma teaches Honey Springs as the “Gettysburg of the West.” Most people inside of Oklahoma don’t either. But when you’re Oklahoma, you grab on to whatever validation you can get, kids.
Did you know Carrie Underwood is from here? And several astronauts? We matter! Shut up!

A year after the Weer debacle, Union forces had successfully occupied Fort Gibson and were maintaining a limited military presence in I.T. once again. Being how it was a war and all, the Confederacy hoped to drive them out, and assembled about twenty miles away at Honey Springs Depot. From there they sent out cavalry to harass and attack Union supply lines and take advantage of whatever other opportunities presented themselves without fully engaging.

Honey Springs had already become an important location to the Confederacy in Indian Territory. Troops came there for medical attention, to get whatever limited supplies were available, etc. It was essentially “home base” for the South. General Douglas Cooper, a veteran of the Mexican-American War and former Indian Agent to the Choctaw and Chickasaw, was in command.

It was hard to keep secrets in wartime, and Colonel Phillips, in command of Union forces at Fort Gibson, was well-aware an attack was imminent. Rather than wait for the Confederates to receive reinforcements, Phillips decided to take the war to them. He was joined by Major General James Blunt from Kansas, who brought additional troops and artillery, and who would thenceforth be in charge.

Battle of Honey SpringsAs mentioned previously, war aficionados can stay all tingly for days over the details of this or that battle, strategy, or new bridle design. For the rest of us, there are three elements to remember about Honey Springs – other than that “Gettysburg of the West” thing, I mean.

First, it was arguably the most racially diverse battle of the Civil War. Blunts troops were a mixture of white, Black, and Amerindian forces, while Cooper’s troops were mostly Amerindian with a few white regiments. Whites were in the minority on both sides.

Second, it rained. In addition to the general unpleasantness of marching and fighting over wet ground, the Confederates discovered their cheap gunpowder had absorbed too much moisture and wouldn’t fire. At the risk of getting all technical, it turns out it’s hard to win battles when you can’t shoot the other guy.

Third, the battle’s outcome turned on an error – a beneficial blunder, as it were. After several hours of intense fighting, including serious cannon action, Blunt (Union) orders the First Kansas Colored Voluntary Infantry Regiment to capture some Confederate artillery which had been giving them trouble. Confederate forces had a decisive advantage in terms of manpower, but the Union had more toys – and they didn’t appreciate the South challenging them when it came to things that go “boom.”

As the First Kansas Colored pressed towards their goal, a regiment of Union Amerindian troops unintentionally moved between them and Confederate forces. As they realized their error and withdrew, Confederate leaders assumed the Union was falling back in general, and enthusiastically ordered pursuit. They ran right into the First Kansas and their fancy Springfield rifles, and bad things ensued. A mix of Black, White, and Red troops drove the Southerners back, but in all the chaos failed to capture those cannons. The Confederates tried to torch Honey Springs in order to keep the goodies there from falling into Union hands, but Northern soldiers managed to extinguish most of the fires and everyone had extra bacon and sorghum biscuits for a few days.

The First Kansas Colored Volunteers earned high praise for their bravery and composure throughout the battle, news of which made it into the papers right as the Massachusetts 54th was proving a similar point much further east.

Most of the fighting in I.T. after Honey Springs was hit-and-run, guerilla warfare. Stand Watie and other Amerindian leaders couldn’t turn the tide of the war on their own, but they did make things mighty inconvenient for the Union for its duration. Watie was the last Confederate General to surrender when the war eventually ended.


The damage to I.T. as a result of the Civil War is difficult to overstate. Like much of the south, the loss of property and destruction of land was dwarfed only by the loss of life.

As people began to return to their homes rebuild their lives, a Radical Republican Congress was trying to build on this victory to make some major changes across the country. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were soon passed, ending slavery, giving Freedmen the right to vote, and declaring for the first time ever that a citizen is a citizen is a citizen, and that neither state nor nation can presume otherwise – at least according to written law. 

The South would resist these changes for another century, but there was one group already so beaten and misused by the U.S. that they were in no position to make a similar stand – and they’d officially chosen the wrong side in the recent war.

The U.S. Congress was about to impose their will yet again on the citizens of Indian Territory, in ways they were unable to do anywhere else. Reconstruction is coming. Hard.

Add new comment