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Saving the Smaller Civil War Battle Sites: The Cabin Creek Battlefield in Oklahoma

by Steven L. Warren

September 2003

The smaller, less-known Civil War battlefields in the Trans-Mississippi region are finally receiving the attention of historians. Interested individuals in local communities are banding together to help save the remainder of these sites before the developer's bulldozer can destroy them.

One of these battle sites is located in northeastern Oklahoma. The Cabin Creek Battlefield Park lies a few miles north of the small hamlet of Pensacola, Oklahoma. The area encompassing the battlefield is one of the most historic sites in the state of Oklahoma. Here the Texas Road crosses Cabin Creek, which empties into the mighty Grand River, three miles distant.

During its colorful history, the road was used by Native Americans, white explorers, the United States Army and the pioneers. It was the highway to Texas. Joseph Martin, an early landowner, recalled 1,000 wagons passed by his house during one six-week period.

During the Civil War, the road became a highway used by both Union and Confederate forces to move troops and supplies. Seven documented Civil War battles were fought near the Cabin Creek ford. Historians have named the two major engagements fought near the small waterway as the first and second battles of Cabin Creek.

In the first battle on July 1-2, 1863, black soldiers of the First Kansas Colored Infantry fought alongside white soldiers for the first time in American history. Kansas forces led by Col. James M. Williams fought off an attempt by a small Confederate force to capture a wagon supply train.

In the second battle of Cabin Creek, fought Sept. 19, 1864, a ragtag Confederate force of 2,000 Texans and Indian troops led by Brigadier Generals Richard M. Gano and Stand Watie captured a Federal supply train of 300 wagons more than 100 miles behind enemy lines. After retreating to the safety of their lines, the Confederate leaders estimated the captured supplies to be worth more than $1.5 million.

Let's fast forward now to the year 1958. The Vinita Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy approached a local landowner about purchasing a 10-acre plot in what is now the core area of the battlefield. Local lore tells of the Confederates burying their dead after the 1864 battle within this 10-acre site.

A price of $300 is agreed upon between the landowner and the Vinita UDC. For the next three years, the group seeks donations, and sponsors bake and rummage sales to raise the necessary funds. The property is purchased by the group in 1961 at the start of the nation's Civil War Centennial celebration. Later the same year, the land is donated to the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS).

In 1964, the Vinita UDC dedicated a monument to the Confederate victory in 1864. The OHS added a circle drive loop within the 10-acre park as well as smaller monuments to denote the battle positions of Union and Confederate forces. Then over the years, the site is neglected. Piles of trash and beer bottles left by local teens greet the occasional visitor. Many of the monuments are vandalized.

In 1992, there was a resurgence of pride in local history within the local community. The Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce with the cooperation of the OHS held the first reenactment of the "Battles of Cabin Creek" north of the original battle site. Reenactors from across the country came to participate.

It was estimated that 15,000 people attended the very out-of-the-way historical event. Taking the initiative, the OHS scheduled the Cabin Creek event in a three-year cycle of Civil War reenactments, which also included the Honey Springs and the Middle Boggy events. In 1995, the Vinita Chamber of Commerce rose to the occasion and organized the next Cabin Creek reenactment.

From these dedicated people came the birth of the "The Friends of Cabin Creek Battlefield, Inc." non-profit organization. The first president of the organization was Leonard Logan, a local attorney. (Logan is currently in his second term as a member of the Oklahoma Historical Society's board of directors.)

The "Friends of Cabin Creek" immediately went to work to find ways to improve the battlefield park and make it a pleasant experience for visitors. Grants were secured to improve the road leading to the park as well as the circle drive loop. Monuments were cleaned and repaired. Piles of refuse were hauled away. Trash cans and park benches were added for visitors.

Trails leading to the creek were widened and improved. A heavy iron gate was installed to protect the park from vandals. Herman Stinnett, a local landowner, became the park's volunteer maintenance man. For the first time in the park's history, a "day use only" policy was implemented.

Stinnett still unlocks the park's gate every morning and locks the gate every evening as he does 365 days a year, even on holidays. In addition, Stinnett frequently monitors the activities of people in the park during the day, chat-ting with guests and visitors.

In 1995, the park is listed in the Civil War Preservation Trust's Civil War Sites Guide. The Friends of Cabin Creek is currently in the process of raising funds to build an interpretive kiosk to help visitors understand the history of the site. Other local organizations like the Civil War Round Table of Tulsa have helped in fund-raising efforts. The Tulsa CWRT hosted an event titled "An Evening with Ed Bearss," in which the former chief historian of the National Park Service presented a slide presentation on how he found the U.S.S. Cairo in the mud of the Yazoo River near Vicksburg, Miss.

The Friends also participates in the annual "Park Day" sponsored by the Civil War Preservation Trust.

But what does the future hold for the Cabin Creek battlefield? Much of the two-mile area encompassing the boundaries of the battlefield is in private hands and, for now, remains as pasture.

However, the core site of battlefield where the Federal stockade was attacked by Gano and Watie's forces on that fateful September night in 1864 is under threat of development. The site is located in a 40-acre field that lies less than 100 yards from the present battlefield park. The field is bordered by 100-foot bluffs overlooking Cabin Creek. It was from these very bluffs that victorious Confederate troops pushed damaged wagons into the creek below.

Now unkempt mobile homes and piles of trash mar the landscape. Where the soldiers of the blue and the gray once fought for their lives, electric poles now dot the landscape turning it into an eyesore.

In 2002, the Cabin Creek Battlefield site was nominated to the Civil War Preservation Trust's Most Endangered Battlefields list. However, the battlefield failed to make the list. What would we say to those dear sweet ladies of the Vinita Chapter of the UDC today? They worked so hard to see their dream of protecting at least part of the Cabin Creek battlefield become a reality.

Those of us who love Civil War history need to make a stand now to preserve smaller battlefield sites like Cabin Creek. There are success stories from which to learn. The preservation of the battlefield at Newtonia, Mo., is a good example. A group of interested people started a movement to save their local history. A group of dedicated individuals who dared to succeed . . . and they did.

For our children and our grandchildren, roll up your sleeves with me and let's dare to succeed in saving the smaller, lesser-known Civil War battle sites.

Steven L. Warren is a native Oklahoman who has spent more than 20 years in television broadcasting, national cable television and advertising. He wrote and produced the award-winning Civil War documentary "Last Raid at Cabin Creek."


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