By this month, Confederate prospects in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) were bleak. The Five Civilized Nations had once sided with the Confederacy and had driven Indians loyal to the U.S. out of the territory after the Battle of Chustenahlah. But then Brigadier-General James G. Blunt led about 3,000 Federals out of Kansas to take the territory back. In early July, they secured Fort Gibson as a base, drove Confederates off at an engagement near Cabin Creek, and took control of the upper Arkansas River. This prompted many of the Indians to switch their allegiance to the U.S.
Brigadier-General William Steele, commanding the Confederate District of the Indian Territory, had a makeshift force under Brigadier-General Douglas H. Cooper at Elk Creek, near the Confederate supply base at Honey Springs. Part of this force consisted of Creek Indians, who Steele did not consider “as being much interested in our cause.” He therefore had no choice but to stay put, “falling back when the enemy advances.” Meanwhile, another Confederate force was moving out from Fort Smith, Arkansas, 50 miles to the east, to join up with Steele’s men.
Blunt planned to destroy Cooper’s force before moving east to capture Fort Smith. But he could not get moving until the Arkansas River became fordable. That happened on July 15 and Blunt’s force, which consisted of a combination of black, white, and Indian units, crossed the Arkansas that night. Cooper knew that Blunt was on the move and held a defense line at Elk Creek, near Honey Springs, while awaiting the arrival of the Confederates from Fort Smith. Combined, this force would be numerically superior to Blunt’s.
The Federals completed their crossing on the 16th and continued marching through the night toward Honey Springs. They pushed through Confederate skirmishers, and moved up to confront the main enemy line north of Elk Creek on the morning of the 17th. The Federals were equipped with Springfield rifles and 12 heavy guns, while the Confederates had only muskets and flintlock shotguns. Even worse for them, much of their gunpowder was wet, causing their weapons to misfire.
General firing began around 10:30 a.m. The Confederates held their ground until rain began falling around noon that damaged their powder even more. Cooper observed the battle from high ground near Elk Creek and saw that Blunt was threatening his left flank. Two of Cooper’s Indian regiments misunderstood his orders and fell back, leaving the rest of his force vulnerable.
Cooper tried to get his men back to the supply depot to replenish their ammunition, but Federal pressure made it extremely difficult. Cooper then learned that the Confederates guarding the bridge over Elk Creek were about to give way, which led to a mass retreat. Cooper managed to get his men to withdraw in good order, but this was a decisive Confederate defeat nonetheless.
This was the largest battle ever fought in the Indian Territory, as some 8,000 men took part. This was also one of very few battles in the war in which the majority of participants were not white. The Federals sustained 60 casualties (13 killed and 47 wounded). Blunt cited the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment for bravery: “I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment… The question that negroes will fight is settled; besides they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command.”
Cooper reported losing 181 (134 killed or wounded, and 47 missing). He noted the enemy’s superior artillery as a key to his defeat; the Federal guns were “ten times superior to ours, weight of metal considered.” Cooper also reported that the defective gunpowder contributed to the loss: “Many guns (failed) to fire in consequence of the very inferior quality of the powder, the cartridges becoming worthless even upon exposure to damp atmosphere.”
The Confederates fell back and united with their comrades from Fort Smith. Blunt did not pursue, opting instead to rest his forces after the hard fight. This battle proved devastating to the Confederate cause in the Indian Territory. It left the Federals with an opportunity to capture Fort Smith and control the Arkansas River Valley all the way to the Mississippi. It also crippled the Confederates to the point that they would never be able to face the Federals in an open fight in the territory again.
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