Confederate Colonel Douglas H. Cooper continued his pursuit of Chief Opothleyahola and his band of Unionist Creeks in the Indian Territory. Cooper led a force of about 1,100 Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and the 9th Texas Cavalry. After the skirmish at Round Mountain in November, the Creeks had withdrawn northeast into the Cherokee Nation to a place the Cherokee called Chusto-Talasah (Bird Creek or Caving Banks), near Tulsey Town (present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma). Surrounding timber and undergrowth provided strong natural defenses.
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 to broker 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 next day, Cooper decided to fall back closer to his supply train. The Unionist women and children went north as the warriors attacked the Confederate rear guard. Cooper ordered his men to turn about and form a line of battle, with the Choctaws and Chickasaws on the right, the Texans and remaining Cherokees 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.
Cooper went to Fort Gibson to meet with John Ross and gather supplies. Ross declared that Opothleyahola “had made himself the enemy of the Cherokees by invading their territory” and called on his fellow Cherokees to “act in harmony with the loyal Creeks, Choctaws, the Texans, and the Arkansans in making war on the common enemy of the Confederate states.” The lack of supplies and the fear of more Cherokee desertions prompted Cooper to seek help from Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, commanding Confederates in Arkansas.
McCulloch sent some 1,400 cavalry troopers under Colonel James McIntosh to join forces with Cooper at Fort Gibson. McIntosh and Cooper developed a plan in which McIntosh’s horsemen would ride north to confront Opothleyahola’s “Tory Indians” head-on while Cooper would swing around the enemy flank to prevent their escape into Kansas. McIntosh led his force out of Fort Gibson on the 22nd, but Cooper’s advance was delayed.
McIntosh learned on Christmas Day that Opothleyahola’s camp was along Shoal Creek, a tributary of the Verdigris River, near a village called Chustenahlah. Despite receiving word that Cooper was still delayed, McIntosh planned to attack the next day. He was outnumbered (there were about 1,700 Unionist warriors) and the weather was bitterly cold, but his men were better equipped and trained.
The Confederates launched their attack at noon on the 26th. The Unionists held a strong position atop a hill, indicating to one soldier that “they considered their position impregnable, and all they wanted was for us to come on.” But the Confederate troopers continued riding forward, and Lieutenant George Griscomb wrote that this charge “astounded and terrified” the Unionists to the point “that no effort is made to hold the works, and the victory is won ere the battle had fairly begun.”
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 and others plundered their camp. McIntosh reported that he lost just 40 men (eight killed and 32 wounded) while killing 200 Creeks. He added:
“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.”
The fight at Chustenahlah was a crippling setback to Unionist sentiment in the Indian Territory. Many of Opothleyahola’s Creeks had been reluctant to leave their homes, but now they raced for sanctuary in Kansas. They suffered extreme hardships in the process. McIntosh and his command returned to Arkansas, while Cooper resolved to continue the pursuit.
Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
Davis, William C. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.