The Battle of Chustenahlah

December 26, 1861 – Confederate Texans and Native Americans defeated Unionists a second time this month in the Indian Territory.

Colonel Douglas Cooper | Image Credit:
Colonel Douglas Cooper | Image Credit:

Since the skirmish at Round Mountain in November, Unionist Creeks led by Chief Opothleyahola had withdrawn northeast into the Cherokee Nation to Chusto-Talasah (Bird Creek or Caving Banks), near Tulsey Town (present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma). Following them was a pro-Confederate force of about 1,100 Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and the 9th Texas led by Colonel Douglas Cooper.

As Cooper prepared to confront the Unionists, Colonel John Drew, commander of the 1st Cherokee Mounted (Confederate) Rifles and a nephew of Cherokee Chief John Ross, met with Opothleyahola to try brokering a peace agreement. The Chief agreed to send a messenger to Cooper seeking peace coexistence. Cooper replied that “we did not desire the shedding of blood among the Indians,” and proposed a conference to work out peace terms. However, by that time many Unionist Creeks had resolved to stop fleeing and fight, and they prevented Cooper’s envoy from meeting with Opothleyahola.

Meanwhile, Drew reported to Cooper that 500 of his Cherokees had deserted the ranks due to a “misconception of the character of the conflict between the Creeks, and from an indisposition to engage in strife with their immediate neighbors.” Some Cherokees went home, while others joined the Unionists. Drew and his remaining 28 men stayed with Cooper, who prepared to defend against an attack he thought would take place on the night of December 8. The Unionists did not attack, so Cooper deployed skirmishers to find their positions the next morning.

The Unionists drove the skirmishers back and advanced at a place the Cherokees called Chusto-Talasah. Cooper formed a line of battle to meet them, with the Choctaws and Chickasaws on the right, the Cherokees and Texans in the center, and the Creeks on the left. The line advanced as one; the Creeks engaged in vicious combat with their fellow Creeks, driving back the Unionists on that flank while the Choctaws and Chickasaws pushed back the opposite flank.

Pinned down near a house at a bend in Bird Creek, the Unionists knocked the attackers back with deadly fire. This gave the Unionists the chance to escape annihilation. The Confederates tried pursuing, but their movements were limited due to supply shortages. Nightfall ended the four-hour contest, with Cooper estimating that he inflicted 500 casualties while losing just 52 (15 killed and 37 wounded). The Unionists continued their withdrawal toward Kansas.

Col James McIntosh | Image Credit:
Col James McIntosh | Image Credit:

The lack of supplies and the fear of more Cherokee desertions prompted Cooper to plead with Colonel James McIntosh for reinforcements. McIntosh responded by leading a separate force in search of Opothleyahola’s Creeks on their way to linking with Cooper. On Christmas Day, McIntosh learned that Opothleyahola’s camp was at Chustenahlah, near the Kansas border. He planned to attack the next day without informing Cooper, whose forces remained near Chusto-Talasah.

McIntosh’s Confederates, though outnumbered 1,700 to 1,300, were better equipped and trained. The Unionist Creeks were camped along Shoal Creek, a tributary of the Verdigris River, when the enemy forces came upon them around noon. The Confederates launched three assaults on the Creeks’ right, center, and left. The Unionists gradually fell back to their camp, then broke and fled in the face of repeated charges. Some Confederates pursued the Unionists while others plundered their camp. McIntosh reported:

“We captured 160 women and children, 20 negroes, 30 wagons, 70 yoke of oxen, about 500 Indian horses, several hundred head of cattle, 100 sheep, and a great quantity of property of much value to the enemy. The stronghold of Opoth-lay-oho-la was completely broken up and his force scattered in every direction destitute of the simplest elements of subsistence.”

McIntosh stated that he lost just 40 men (eight killed and 32 wounded). Opothleyahola’s Creeks, who had been reluctant to leave their homes in the Indian Territory, now raced for sanctuary in Kansas, suffering severe hardships in the process.


References (multiple dates); Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 60; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 89; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 89; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 147-48, 151-52; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 266

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