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‘Glory’ in Indian Territory

Black Union soldiers fought for their freedom in the Civil War Battle of Honey Springs.

Rob Collins April 13th, 2011

In history, scholars look for a pivot point when everything changes. As national observations commence for the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, Oklahoma historians are commemorating a tectonic shift that began 150 years ago.

Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, said the Civil War events that occurred in Indian Territory were dramatic after the clock started ticking in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase.

“It all changes directions from 1861 to 1865 for the Indians, and for the African-Americans who had been victims of slavery. It changed the economy of the South; it changed the relationship of the Indian tribes and the federal government,” Blackburn said. “We’re still being affected by those changes today.”

Take Oklahoma State University, for example.

Cal Kinzer, history instructor in the Arts and Sciences Division at OSU Institute of Technology, noted that President Abraham Lincoln signed the 1862 Morrill Act, which led to land grant colleges and OSU.

“(The Civil War) allowed the railroads in, so economic history changes,” Blackburn said. “With allotment, Indians finally get mineral rights, so that opens up the possibility of oil and gas. The statehood process itself was set in motion after the Civil War. I can take any part of our history today — urban history, economic history, oil, land, gas — it goes on and on. I can show a direct line back to the consequences of the Civil War.”

Blackburn said Indian Territory’s most unique Civil War moment involved the First Kansas Colored Regiment at the Battle of Honey Springs. The engagement near Checotah is the largest military clash to occur within the state’s modern-day borders, with approximately 9,000 men involved, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Like the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment that stormed Fort Wagner, as depicted in the 1989 film “Glory,” the Honey Springs regiment was one of the first official black units in the U.S. during the Civil War. Both had their first major engagements in July of 1863.

“The Union won that day largely because of the bravery and discipline of the First Kansas Colored Regiment,” Blackburn said of Honey Springs. “And they were literally fighting for their freedom, not just for a cause, not for state’s rights. They weren’t fighting to protect the Union.”

Indian Territory saw more death and destruction during the Civil War, per capita, than the state of Virginia, Blackburn said. Fighting was vicious in the territorial crossroads between Confederate Texas and Arkansas and Union Kansas and Missouri, with the Texas Road trade route and navigable Arkansas River serving as virtual superhighways.

“You not only had the North fighting the South; you had tribal members fighting each other,” Blackburn said. “We were kind of the borderland. If anyone was going to fight in another region, they had to come across.”

Two weeks after Gettysburg and Vicksburg in summer of 1863, Union troops trudged through rainfall as control of land west of the Mississippi River was hanging in the balance. In the rolling prairie roughly 116 miles east of modernday Oklahoma City, Union soldiers halted behind a ridge as Confederate troops hid among Elk Creek.

“At the Battle of Honey Springs, Indian met Indian,” Charles R. Freeman wrote in “Chronicles of Oklahoma.” Civil War sympathies were divided in Indian Territory among the relocated tribes. More conservative tribal members viewed slaveholding as an accommodation to Euro-American culture and tended to support the Union, according to T.

Lindsay Baker and Julie P. Baker in “The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives.”

Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt guided Union soldiers from Kansas, Colorado and Wisconsin fighting alongside Indian Home Guard volunteer infantry regiments. Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Cooper commanded Confederate forces, which consisted of Texas soldiers along with Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw warriors.

The uniquely diverse Battle of Honey Springs marked one of the first times black, Native American and Caucasian troops fought together against Confederate forces, which also included indigenous troops, said Cody Jolliff, coordinator of the Oklahoma Civil War Sesquicentennial.

A Confederate commissary depot was located at Honey Springs, a well-known resting place along Texas Road. Prior to battle, Cooper established headquarters alongside the heavily timbered Elk Creek, according to Freeman. When Blunt learned that Brig. Gen. William L. Cabell and his men would be joining Cooper’s forces, Union forces pushed forward to attack before Cabell reached Honey Springs, Freeman wrote. Cabell and his soldiers arrived one day later.

Blunt forced engagement immediately on July 17, 1863.

“The cannonading commenced and the battle on the north of the creek was furious for a few hours, finally driving Cooper’s men back across Elk Creek,” Freeman wrote.

The first test of black soldiers west of the Mississippi River, Honey Springs determined whether they would fight in direct combat, according to author Nancy C. Curtis in “Black Heritage Sites: An African-American Odyssey and Finder’s Guide.”

“The black men were assigned to fight off Texans who were protecting their borders from federal forces,” Curtis wrote. “The African-Americans were placed in front center of Union lines, Native Americans were placed on either side of the black men and white soldiers, in general, were at the rear. Native Americans also were fighting on the Confederate side.”

After the black troops halted the Confederate charge, they had to make a decision whether to engage or flee, Blackburn said.

“And they looked at each other on their ranks, and they said, ‘We’re gonna fight,’” he said. “And they stayed, they reloaded, they fired again and stopped the charge, and won the battle in that 20 seconds.”

The black soldiers were welltrained for European-style warfare, according to Curtis.

“They had an added incentive to win because they had been told they would be made slaves if they were captured,” she wrote. “The African- Americans fought superbly.”

The Native Americans, accustomed to guerilla-style warfare, relied on concealment and surprise, Curtis wrote.

“The odds were all against Cooper from the start and … the material equipment proved itself inadequate indeed,” according to “The American Indian as Participant in the Civil War” by Annie Heloise Abel. “Much of the ammunition was worthless. Nevertheless, Cooper stubbornly contested every inch of the ground and finally gave way only when large numbers of his Indians, knowing their guns to be absolutely useless to them, became disheartened and then demoralized.”

In a report filed July 26, 1863, Blunt wrote that the gallant black soldiers fought like veterans, preserving an unbroken line 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,” Blunt wrote. “One Texas regiment (the 20th Cavalry) that fought against them went into the fight with 300 men and came out with only 60.”

Efforts are under way to preserve Indian Territory’s battlefields from the war that affected everyone, Blackburn said. The OHS owns the following sites: Honey Springs Battlefield, Fort Gibson Historic Site, Fort Towson Historic Site, Fort Washita Historic Site and the George Murrell Home.

“We’ve tried to develop and sustain those over the years, and in current budget straits it’s difficult, but we’re doing our best,” he said.

Education is key to understanding the all-encompassing event. Blackburn said two broad African-American communities exist in Oklahoma because of the Civil War.

“You have descendants of former slaves among the Indian Territory,” he said. “And it was a different kind, a brand of slavery. It was still cruel and inhumane, but there was more intermarriage in the Indian culture. There is a distinct Indian stream within African-American culture of those former slaves and then their descendants.

“The other group of African- Americans in Oklahoma are those who came out of old South after 1898.”

Since the federal government forced Indian tribes to recognize the former slaves, they received land during the allotment, Blackburn said. The ongoing Cherokee freedmen dispute making headlines is one example.

“Blood quantum is one issue; the other is treaty stipulation,” he said. “And the federal government forced these treaties on the Indians, saying that you will recognize the former slaves that are descendants as members of the tribe in terms of land. The federal government thought Indian nations were going away.

“You can see why there’s a lot of confusion today over that issue.”

A Battle of Honey Springs re-enactment will be the keynote event in the Oklahoma Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission’s programming planned for the next four years.

Cody Jolliff, coordinator of the Oklahoma Civil War Sesquicentennial, said the battlefield is being cleared of overgrowth to prepare for the reenactment April 29 to May 1.

“Friday is an education day with stations being set up to explore different topics of the battle, such as Cavalry, artillery and infantry troops, Civil War field music, medicine, refugees, etc.,” Jolliff said.

Saturday and Sunday events will provide short lectures, and a battle re-enactment will take place for the visiting public, said John Davis, director of the Honey Springs Battlefield.

“The public will also have the opportunity to visit both Union and Confederate camps and period sutlers that will be on site for the event,” Davis said. “There will be several modern-food vendors and informational booths for the visiting public.” —Rob Collins

View a published report of the Battle of Honey Springs and a battle map.

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