By Cal Kinzer
When the Civil War began in 1861, only five million people lived west of the Mississippi River, about 14% of the total population of the United States. No large armies would be raised and no great battles fought in the region. Yet, with its tremendous natural resources and plenty of room in which to grow, the Trans-Mississippi was still an enormous prize – too tempting to be spared the intrusions of war. In the end, smaller armies would fight there than those in the East. In many cases relatively few troops marched vast distances and conquered huge territories, thus making a difference in the war far out of proportion to their numbers.
Federal Infantry Regiments in Indian Territory
The eastern part of Indian Territory was on the far edge of settlement at the time of the Civil War. In fact, the frontier line – the dividing line between the settled and unsettled parts of the country – ran roughly along the Texas Road, which served as the main north-south highway through the area. This meant that few people lived beyond the area within fifty miles of the Arkansas border, and even there the vast majority were members of the Five Civilized Tribes.
The war in the “Indian Nations” was a series of fast-moving maneuvers involving mostly mounted troops. On both sides, the Indian troops were almost all mounted infantry that was most useful for scouting and screening operations. They used horses for mobility, but normally fought in skirmish formations with infantry rifles and muskets. These included the three Union regiments – the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Indian Home Guards, as well as the six Confederate Indian ones – the 1st and 2nd Cherokee, 1st and 2nd Creek, the Choctaw-Chickasaw Regiment, and the Seminole Battalion.
Because of the demand for manpower east of the Mississippi, infantry regiments from both sides were transferred there as soon as it was practical to do so. Most of the Union troops who fought at Pea Ridge, for example, were sent to Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio for the Perryville Campaign in Kentucky in the fall of 1862, or reassigned to the garrisons in southeast Missouri and eastern Arkansas. Many of those who fought at Prairie Grove in December 1862 later ended up being sent to reinforce Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee at Vicksburg during the summer of 1863.
Most of the white Federal regiments were cavalry, especially those that stayed in there for any length of time web based project management. Most conspicuous among these was the 6th Kansas, which was in the territory off and on throughout the war. Other Yankee mounted units included the 2nd Kansas (actually mounted infantry armed with Springfield rifles) and the 9th Kansas, 14th Kansas and 3rd Wisconsin regiments, which were standard cavalry outfits armed with pistols, sabers and carbines.
The Federal infantry regiment that spent the most time in the territory was the 1st Kansas Colored. Recruited at Fort Scott from among escaped slaves from Arkansas and Missouri, the First was in the territory in 1863, and again in 1864, for a total of about six months. It participated in both the first and second battles of Cabin Creek as well as the Battle of Honey Springs.
By contrast, the white Union “foot sloggers” who served in the Indian Territory did so only very briefly, and most engaged in little combat while they were there. In all, only seven white Federal infantry regiments ever set foot within its borders – the 1st Arkansas, 2nd Colorado, 18th Iowa, 10th Kansas, 11th Kansas, 13th Kansas and the 9th Wisconsin. Of these, the 11th Kansas was in the territory for only about 2-3 days in October 1862 as part of Major General James G. Blunt’s force pursuing Cooper’s Indian brigade after the 1st Battle of Newtonia, Missouri. In September 1863, the 18th Iowa briefly marched from Maysville, Arkansas towards Old Fort Wayne in pursuit of some Southern guerillas. It was in the territory for about a week before returning to Arkansas. Although the 9th Wisconsin was initially a part of the Indian Expedition, it was left in the northern part of the territory to guard the Texas Road and was only there from about June 28th until August 11th, 1862. The 1st Arkansas was in the “nations” for about a month in August, 1863 as it made a brief foray as far as Fort Gibson before returning to its home state.
The 10th Kansas was in the territory for about two months, from June 13th until August 15th, 1862, also as a part of the abortive Indian Expedition led by Colonel William Weer. During their march south from Baxter Springs, Kansas, two companies of the regiment were loaded into wagons and, along with one mounted company each from the 1st Indian Home Guard, and another from the 9th Kansas Cavalry, made a raid on the camp of a small battalion of Confederate Missouri cavalry under Col. John J. Clarkson near Locust Grove. The brief action there, along with some light skirmishing done when they helped capture Fort Gibson and Tahlequah, was the only fighting they did in the territory. The 13th Kansas was there for one month from August 3rd to September 3rd, 1863, as it marched as part of General Blunt’s campaign to capture Fort Smith, Arkansas. After that, it did brief stints of duty at Webber’s Falls (two weeks) and Scullyville (a few days).
Of all the white Federal infantry regiments, the one that spent the most time in the Indian Territory, and the only one that took part in any of its important engagements, was the 2nd Colorado. It was there only for about four months, but this was during the summer of 1863 – the most decisive period of the war in the territory. During that time – roughly May through September, 1863 – six companies of the regiment fought in the battles of 1st Cabin Creek and Honey Springs, and participated in smaller engagements at Perryville (I.T.) and Webber’s Falls.
The 2nd Colorado at Cabin Creek and Honey Springs
The two most decisive battles in the Indian Territory were undoubtedly 1st Cabin Creek, fought on July 1-2 and Honey Springs, fought two weeks later on July 17th, 1863. These engagements clinched Federal control of the northern half of the region. 1st Cabin Creek saved Fort Gibson by bringing in much-needed supplies and reinforcements and breaking the virtual state of siege that had existed there ever since it was occupied by Union troops earlier that spring. This in turn made it possible for General Blunt to assume the offensive against Douglas H. Cooper’s Confederate force at Honey Springs, defeat them and destroy their supply base before the arrival of William A. Cabell’s brigade arrived from Arkansas – reinforcements which would have given Cooper almost a 3:1 advantage in numbers and almost certainly allowed him to take Fort Gibson.
In many ways, the two battles were carbon copies, Cabin Creek being on a somewhat smaller scale. In both, the Confederates, mostly pro-Southern Indians, were in a defensive position along a creek – Cabin Creek in the earlier and Elk Creek in the later battle. In both cases, the fighting centered on the crossings of those two waterways by the Old Military and Texas roads. In both, the same two infantry regiments – the 1st Kansas Colored and the 2nd Colorado – anchored the center of the Union line; and, in each case, charges across the streams by these two regiments proved the turning points of the battles.
Certainly, the 1st Kansas Colored deserves the greater credit in both engagements. It was their charge across Cabin Creek that led the way to the Union victory there; and, it was their devastating volleys at Honey Springs which destroyed the 20th Texas Cavalry and began the “domino effect” that led to the collapse of the Confederate line in the battle north of Elk Creek. But, while credit is certainly due the brave African-Americans of the 1st Kansas, it’s also important not to forget the role played by the hardy “Pike’s Peakers” of the 2nd Colorado. Their right flank abutted the left of the 1st Kansas Colored, and their volleys and follow up attacks were keys to supporting the black troops and winning both battles. Wiley Britton, a veteran of the 6th Kansas Cavalry, drew the above map of the 1st Battle of Cabin Creek. Compare how similar it is to his rendering of the Battle of Honey Springs below. In these two engagements, the Confederate positions, and the Federal deployments to meet them, were almost identical. The 1st Kansas Colored and 2nd Colorado infantry regiments formed the core of the Union lines, while the flanks were screened by dismounted cavalry and Indian Home Guard units operating in looser formations, and covering considerably greater frontage than shown on these maps. At Cabin Creek, the Confederates were formed south of the creek, while at Honey Springs they were north of it. At both battles, the initial Federal breakthrough came in the center, with the 1st Kansas Colored leading the way, closely supported by the 2nd Colorado. In both cases, the two Union regiments went splashing across the creeks side-by-side.
It was no accident that these two units were placed in the center of the line at both battles. They were the only conventional Federal infantry regiments on the field, and most likely the only ones capable of using the double-rank shoulder-to-shoulder tactics designed to bring maximum firepower to bear against an enemy. The Indian Home Guards were, strictly speaking, irregular mounted infantrymen who were used to operating in looser formations – probably either an open order using single or double ranks, or a single rank spaced at standard skirmish intervals. If the former, the Indian troops would be spread out 3-5 times as far as the Kansas Colored and Colorado troops; or, if the latter, about 10 times as far.
Not only did the Indian regiments lack the training and discipline to operate as standard infantry, but their weaponry also tended to preclude it. In January 1863, Colonel William A. Phillips, commanding the Indian Brigade, reported that the 1st Indian Home Guard, composed mostly of Creeks and Delawares, was armed with “hunting rifles” for which they had to “mold their own bullets.” The 2nd Indian Home Guard, which included Osages, Quapaws and Cherokees, had “Prussian rifles and muskets,” weapons which were considered “3rd rate” under the official Army grading system of the time. The 3rd Indian Home Guard, mostly made up of Cherokees who had deserted from the Confederate army, were armed with Mississippi and Prussian rifles, many of which, especially in the case of the Mississippis, they had no doubt brought with them when they switched sides. The 1841 Mississippi was a shorter-barreled, two-banded rifle that had somewhat less range, was a little slower to load, used a smaller .54 caliber bullet, and was not considered as good as the .577 caliber 1853 Enfield or .58 caliber 1861 Springfield. It was categorized as a “2nd rate” weapon.
The Union cavalry that fought at Cabin Creek (one company each from the 9th Kansas, 14th Kansas and 3rd Wisconsin regiments), and at Honey Springs (3-4 company battalions, one each from the 6th Kansas and 3rd Wisconsin), were all armed as standard cavalry including the single-shot breech-loaded Sharps carbine. This weapon had considerable firepower, being able to get off about twice as many rounds per minute as muzzle-loaded rifles and muskets, but had only about two-thirds the effective range. Troops armed with them had to be careful to conserve their ammunition lest they use it too quickly and run short. In addition, the cavalry troopers normally fought in either a somewhat looser single-rank formation or a skirmish line. This means that, even discounting the need to limit ammunition depletion, their firepower per given amount of frontage would have been somewhat less than that of double-ranked infantry in close order (i.e. shoulder-to-shoulder).
In addition to the advantages given them by their tactical formations, the men of both the 1st Kansas Colored and the 2nd Colorado were armed with the finest “1st rate” weapons then available – the 1853 Enfield and the 1861 Springfield. These would have given them a considerably greater firepower than that of their Indian and cavalry comrades, not to mention that of their foes in the dismounted Texas cavalry and pro-Confederate Indian mounted infantry regiments, most of whom were armed with “2nd” or “3rd” rate rifles and muskets, and often issued powder and ammunition of a very poor quality to go with them.
In both battles, these two regiments did the hardest fighting and suffered the heaviest casualties of any of the Federal units involved. Although unit-specific casualty counts were not recorded at Cabin Creek, it’s likely that the majority of the 1 killed and 20 wounded on the Union side came from these two regiments. At Honey Springs, the 1st Kansas Colored lost 2 killed and 30 wounded, while the 2nd Colorado lost 5 killed and 14 wounded. At first glance, these figures tend to support the notion that the Kansas regiment did heavier fighting than the Colorado one. However, the 2nd Colorado had only a battalion of six companies rather than a full regiment of ten as was the case with the 1st Kansas. Whereas the black regiment numbered between 500-550 men, the Colorado one probably had no more than about 300-350. Thus, when the casualties are compared as a percentage of the numbers engaged, they are almost identical – about 6% for the 1st Kansas Colored and 5.8% for the 2nd Colorado. The total casualties for Blunt’s whole force, which included seven infantry and cavalry regiments and three batteries of artillery, were 13 killed and 62 wounded, for a total of 75. The combined casualties of the 1st Kansas Colored and the 2nd Colorado, 32 and 19 respectively for a total of 51, represents 68% of those suffered by the entire Federal army in the battle!
Thus, it can be said that the majority of the hard fighting in the center of the line, especially the repulse of the Rebel counter-attack north of the bridge and the fight over Lee’s Texas Battery as it attempted to retreat across Elk Creek, was done by these two regiments; and further that, at the very least, the “Pike’s Peakers” of the 2nd Colorado did their share to help win the battle known as “the Gettysburg of Indian Territory.