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Honey Springs Battlefield Historic Site

By Ralph Jones


June 2004

The Engagement at Honey Springs was the largest of more than 100 hostile encounters in the Indian Territory during the War Between the States (and is cited as "The Affair at Elk Creek" by Confederates). The conflict occurred July 17, 1863, between Federal units under the leadership of Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt and Southern troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Cooper.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the battlefield historic district contains 2,997 acres. Of these, 1,042 acres comprise Honey Springs Battlefield Historic Site, which is administered by the Oklahoma Historical Society.

The Honey Springs Battlefield Park movement was an outgrowth of the centenniary ceremonies in 1963 hosted by the Oklahoma Civil War Centennial Commission.

The Oklahoma Historical Society began acquiring land using legislative appropriations in the late 1960s, at which time the battlefield was mostly grazing land, spotted with a few historic farmsteads. In the 1970s and 1980s the state agency continued to acquire parcels of land, but other people also began buying up and dividing 40- and 80-acre parcels. This continued to the point that Manuel Lujan, Secretary of the Interior in the Bush-41 administration, added Honey Springs to the list of the "25 most endangered Civil War battlefields."

Today acquisition of land depends on donated funds. An ISTEA federal grant made major acquisition possible in 1998 with the purchase of 212 acres that joined the parcels at the north end of the battlefield with the holdings near Honey Springs (Confederate supply depot). An additional 78.75 acres was acquired through a fund-raising effort sponsored by the Friends of Honey Springs Battlefield and matched by the Civil War Preservation Trust.

The site contains six interpreted walking trails with wayside exhibits and a temporary interpretive center and gift shop. Funding for the permanent visitors center was part of a statewide bond issue declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, so we're awaiting a new bond issue from the legislature.

We're hoping to acquire an additional 65 acres which are essential for adequate protection of the core battlefield. Another 320 acres where the Federal left and Confederate right fought during the morning will probably never be available to the site.

The battle at Honey Springs came after a failed attempt to capture the Fort Scott-Fort Gibson supply train the night of July 1-2. Confederate commander Cooper gathered most of his Indian Territory troops at Honey Springs, a well-known place to rest and get fresh water along the Texas Road. There Cooper awaited another 3,000 troops under Brig. Gen. James Cabell from Fort Smith together with which they planned to attack and annihilate the Union Indian Brigade at Fort Gibson.

(Federal reports identify 2,800 Union troops and 6,000 Confederate troops present for battle. Recent research estimates the Southern force between 3,400 and 5,100, not all of whom were "effectives" "" physically capable men equipped with weapons. These consisted of the 20th and 29th Texas Cavalry, the 5th Texas Partisan Rangers, Gillette's and Scandland's Squadrons of Texas Cavalry, Lee's Light Battery of Texas Artillery, the 1st and 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles, the 1st and 2nd Creek Mounted Rifles, and the 1st Choctaw & Chickasaw Regiment.)

In the meantime, the garrison at Fort Gibson was reinforced by Blunt and a division of his Army of the Frontier. Blunt decided to attack Cooper's force before it could be aided and, after crossing the rain-swollen Arkansas River, began his march at 11 o'clock on the night of July 16. He marched his men all night, encountering sporadic resistance along the route.

Near Chimney Rock, a landmark west of modern-day Summit, they encountered a Confederate picket which was quickly routed. Later in the early morning hours, the Federal army was barely slowed by a Confederate reconnaissance party intended to block the Texas Road five miles north of Elk Creek. Finally, just before 8 o'clock of the morning of July 17, Blunt ordered his men to rest and eat lunch from their haversacks.

While they ate and re-filled their canteens with water from ruts in the Texas Road, Blunt rode to the top of a rise to scout the enemy line, which was hidden in trees north of Elk Creek. While there, one of his young officers was killed by a 2.25-inch shell fired from a rare, experimental rifled gun.

After resting his men for nearly two hours, Blunt formed his troops into two brigades, under Col. William A. Phillips on the left and under Col. William R. Judson on the right. Phillips' Brigade consisted of a battalion of the 6th Kansas Cavalry, the 1st and 3rd Regiments of Indian Home Guards, a battalion of the 2nd Colorado Infantry, and Hopkins' (four-gun) Battery of Kansas Artillery, plus two guns of Smith's Battery attached to the cavalry.

Judson's Brigade included a battalion of the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry, the 2nd Regiment of Indian Home Guards, and the 1st Kansas Infantry (colored), and the remainder of Smith's Battery of Kansas Artillery. In a Napoleonic block, they quick-marched a quarter-mile down the road, then spread in front of the Confederate center.

The attack began with an hour-and-a-quarter artillery duel. Each side in this phase of the engagement lost one gun, but as the Confederates started with only four, the advantage belonged decidedly to the Federals. Ordered to advance, the 1st Kansas Infantry marched to within 60 paces of the Confederate line, standing on open ground while the Southerners were hidden in the thick forest of trees, briars and brambles. When the regimental commander ordered "Ready! Aim! Fire!" both sides fired simultaneously.

After receiving galling fire for several minutes, the Confederates launched a counterattack in which their flag-bearer was shot. As they retreated they retrieved the fallen regimental flag, but later a second counterattack also failed, again with the flag-bearer killed and the fallen flag recovered. Then as the black-powder smoke filled the humid air, the 2nd Regiment of Indian Home Guards (U.S.) came into the 1st Kansas line-of-fire.

When their respective commanders yelled "Pull Back!" and "Cease Fire!" the senior colonel among the Confederates thought his enemy was in retreat. The Texas cavalrymen (fighting on foot) charged into the re-set Union line and were decimated by an enfilade (crossfire from the front and side); one Confederate, writing home two days later, said, "We entered the battle with 360 men and came out with 105," and in the confusion the flag of the 29th Texas Cavalry was lost forever.

General Cooper reported afterward that he sent a rider to order the two Creek regiments to come up and support the Texans' left, but the rider never got through "" and the McIntosh men remained in their original position guarding the upper fords on Elk Creek.

Reforming battle lines several times in their retreat to the south side of Elk Creek, the Confederates were able to stall the Federal advance through desperate hand-to-hand combat. A half-mile south of the creek, the 1st Choctaw-Chickasaw regiment stalled the Federal advance long enough for their wagon train to evacuate some of their much-needed supplies. They set fire to what remained.

The Confederates retreated to North Fork Town (now under the waters of Lake Eufaula). After a day's rest, the Federal troops returned to Fort Gibson. As a result of this battle, the Confederates no longer controlled the area north of the Arkansas River and a route to Fort Smith, Arkansas, was opened to the Federal army.

Honey Springs Battlefield Historic Site is open daily from 8 to 5 and Sundays 1 to 5, but is closed Mondays and state holidays. Special programs are offered throughout the year and a full-scale reenactment is offered every third year, with the next one this Sept. 24 and 25. For information write Honey Springs Battlefield, 1863 Honey Springs Battlefield Rd., Checotah, OK 74426-6301 or call (918) 473-5572 or e-mail honeysprings@okhistory.mus.ok.us.

Superintendent Ralph Jones is in his 36th year as a curator, museum director, project coordinator and historic site superintendent with the State of Oklahoma. Most of his service has been with the Oklahoma Historical Society. He also served for four years as director of the 45th Infantry Division Museum in Oklahoma City, where he was instrumental in saving the Jordan B. Reeves Gun Collection for the public and where he presided over two building expansions and development of a military vehicle park showcasing World War II and Korea-era military vehicles and aircraft.

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