Oklahoma Historical Society
It was about 10 a.m. on July 17, 1863, when Confederate Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Cooper ordered his forces to begin firing four cannons on the Federal artillery near Elk Creek in Indian Territory. Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt quickly responded with 12 Federal artillery pieces, and the Battle of Honey Springs was under way.
Blunt ordered Col. James M. Williams to lead the 1st Kansas (Colored) Volunteer Infantry Regiment, operating in the center of the Federal line, to capture the four-gun Confederate battery. Eventually the 1st Kansas defeated the 20th and 29th Texas Cavalry regiments, and the Confederate forces retreated.
That was the key for the Union force of 3,000 troops to defeat nearly 6,000 Confederates in the Battle of Honey Springs. The victory paved the way for the Union to capture Fort Smith and much of Arkansas. It also was the largest of 107 hostile encounters in Indian Territory during the Civil War.
The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Honey Springs, the most significant Civil War battle fought in what is now the state of Oklahoma, will be celebrated by the Oklahoma Historical Society this year at the battlefield near Checotah, now a National Historic Landmark. The sesquicentennial events will begin with an annual memorial service on July 13.
“Preserving the Honey Springs Battlefield is important for two reasons,” said Dr. Bob Blackburn, executive director of OHS. “Not only is it hallowed ground where men sacrificed their lives for causes they believed in, but it also is a turning point in history that can be linked directly to allotment of tribal lands, the first railroads through Indian Territory and the march to statehood.
“To understand Oklahoma history is to understand the importance of the Civil War in Indian Territory and the Reconstruction treaties of 1866.”
Phase one of a new $1 million, 6,000-square-foot visitors center and museum has been completed, said Christopher Price, director of the Honey Springs Battlefield for OHS. This includes construction of a drive and visitors center parking area.
Architectural Design Group of Oklahoma City contracted to design the center. OHS has planned for $300,000 in exhibit development, said Kathy Dickson, OHS director of museums and sites.
Other Indian Territory battlefields and forts involved in the Civil War included the Cabin Creek, Fort Gibson, Fort Towson and Fort Washita.
Five battles were fought at Cabin Creek, which was crossed by the Texas Military Road, a major supply line that connected Fort Scott, Kan., with Fort Gibson in Indian Territory near what is now Big Cabin, Okla. The 1st Kansas fought in the 1st Battle of Cabin Creek on July 2, 1863. They waded in water up to their armpits and fought the Confederates hand to hand with bayonets, forcing them to retreat.
That prepared the 1st Kansas for the Battle of Honey Springs on July 17.
Fort Gibson was established in 1824 as the first frontier army post in Indian Territory to keep peace between American Indians and others. Its strategic location during the Civil War helped the Union control the northern half of Indian Territory.
Fort Towson was started in late 1824 to protect the Indian Territory border at the Red River. Fort Washita was built in 1842 west of Fort Towson to protect Chickasaw settlers from Texas and Southern Plains Tribes intruders. Confederates controlled Fort Towson and Fort Washita as strongholds during the Civil War.
“The Honey Springs sesquicentennial will continue in October,” said Price. “The Friends of Honey Springs has contracted with Fritz Klein, a nationally acclaimed Abraham Lincoln interpreter, to visit the battlefield. He will share his program with the public schools as well as the community.”
The actual reenactment of the Battle of Honey Springs will be presented on Nov. 9 and 10, starting at 1 p.m. both days, said Price. Activities will include guided and self-guided tours through the Union, Confederate and civilian camps.
“Visitors will be able to witness various military drills, cooking demonstrations and living history programs,” Price added. “Also, Sutler’s Row will feature 19th century reproduction clothes, books and souvenirs for purchase.”
The designation of the Honey Springs Battlefield as a National Historic Landmark and the acceptance by the Network of Freedom will also distinguish the reenactment.
“National Historic Landmarks possess exceptional value in forming a common bond and illustrating the diverse heritage of the United States,” Price said. “The Network of Freedom is a National Park Service Underground Railroad program that attempts to tell the comprehensive story of the people and events associated with the struggle for freedom from enslavement.
“Honey Springs was accepted to the Network of Freedom because of the many men and women who resisted slavery in trans-Mississippi America during the Civil War. The accomplishment of the 1st Kansas regiment at Honey Springs played a major role in the Network of Freedom acceptance.”