|View single post by David White|
|Posted: Tue Oct 28th, 2008 08:14 pm||
My day started out with a reminder of home as my terrific hosts at the Beland Manor prepared for my final breakfast there an eggs and salsa dish. After a high five from my new friend, the hosts’ 5 year old grandson (“We’ve known each other a long time,” he had told me the night before), I set out for my last stops and home. Unfortunately Ft. Gibson did not open until 10 a.m., so the day would involve some backtracking in order to maximize my time at sites and get me home at a reasonable hour.
I arrived at the Honey Springs Battlefield as it opened; you know you are close when the black top ends and the gravel road begins. As you drive to the visitor’s center, which is located just behind the Confederate battle line, you are driving past the last two stops on the tour. This battlefield and Ft. Gibson are both maintained by the Oklahoma Historical Society and as I would find out from the staff at both locations, this allows the state of Oklahoma to give the big budget to tourism and send a few pennies to the society to help preserve these historic sites. For operating on a shoestring budget of donations and some government funding, these places do a terrific job. This low budget, however makes the visitor’s center at Honey Springs just a little more permanent than a Mobilehoma (you know we Texans have to get our jabs in at the land thieves ).
The center has a very nice film that orients you to the strategic situation and the battle itself. A diorama created by a local high school does a nice job of portraying the climax of the battle as the Confederate forces retreat toward the one bridge across Elk Creek with the Federals in pursuit. There are a few pamphlets and items in the gift area but not much. The staff is very knowledgeable and helpful but there is no map or brochure of the battlefield which is unfortunate. Nonetheless, the battlefield is pretty simple and a map and brochure would just have been nice and not an absolute necessity. The battle is divided into six stops with interpretive trails of half a mile or less at each stop. There is an optional mile trail at the Confederate battle line that I highly encourage as mandatory to understand the tactical blunder the Confederate commander Douglas Cooper made at this battle.
Honey Springs is a beautiful area with an interesting history. The battle was fought exactly two weeks after Pickett’s Charge and is lost to history in many ways, due to the other momentous events that happened that month. The battle was brought on by the Union commander General James Blunt as a spoiling attack. Blunt had been alarmed by the events at the First Battle of Cabin Creek and the intelligence and panic of the commander at Ft Gibson (renamed Blunt during the war in the overall commander’s honor), Col. William Phillips. Phillips had sent panicked reports to Blunt saying Confederate forces were marshalling at Honey Springs for a planned offensive to retake Ft. Gibson and northeast Indian Territory. Blunt moved forward with some reinforcements form his headquarters at Ft. Scott, KS and quickly restored calm to the area. Although outnumbers 2-1, Blunt decided to attack before he was attacked. His intelligence informed him more troops were joining Cooper and would soon outnumber his force 3-1. At midnight on July 15, Blunt left Ft. Gibson with his 3,000 men. Despite rainy weather and Confederate skirmishers, Blunt’s force moved the 27 miles to the battlefield in nine hours.
The first stop on the tour takes you to the area where Blunt arrived at 8 a.m. on the 17th and his men bivouacked for two hours eating and sleeping before commencing the action. The interpretive trail takes you through the area. Several signs describe the history prior to the battle of all of Blunt’s regiments and batteries and about the archeology that was conducted to find the bivouac site. The content of these signs is outstanding throughout the park but I have two criticisms about the signs overall. First, the fiberglass signs are not holding up very well and are weathering in the sun and cracking, I’m sure that has a little to do with the budget the historic society has but higher quality signs like the National Park Service has at Pea Ridge would be better in the long run as they will hold up better. A second criticism is one the society has no excuse for, black letters on a brown background are nearly impossible to read (this was not the case for most of the signs but it is true for too many of them).
The second stop is the location of the initial Federal battle line. From this position for one hour and 15 minutes (10 a.m. to 11:15) the 6 Napoleons, 2 six pounders and four 12 pound mountain howitzers that composed Blunt’s artillery bombarded the Confederate initial battle line less than 500 yards away. There is a gentle slope from this position down to the Confederate position some 200 yards north of Elk Creek and its steep banks. Modern foliage obstructs the view that Blunt’s and Cooper’s men had of each other.
The third stop takes you to the stand of trees where the Confederate forces initially stood. As was done at the first stop, much of the signage describes the regiments and batteries in the Confederate forces. After reading about both little armies it could safely be argued that this was the battle of the two most diverse armies in the war. The Federals consisted of a colored Kansas regiment, Indian Home Guards and white Kansas troops. The Confederates of Texans and Indian troops from the Choctaw and Creek nations. Of particular interest here was the lone Confederate Texas artillery battery at the battle, commanded by Capt. Roswell Lee. It was a mountain battery, meaning there were no caissons and the pieces were disassembled and transported by mule. Like Blunt’s mountain battery, it had three 12 pound smoothbore Howitzers but it also had the only rifled piece on the battlefield. This piece was an extremely rare two and one quarter inch Confederate Mountain Rifle that had been manufactured at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. The Confederates successfully used this piece during the bombardment phase in a sniper mode to kill some of the officers of the opposing artillery batteries and staff officers scouting the Confederate positions. During the bombardment phase the Federals lost a Napoleon and the Confederates one of their Howitzers. At 11:15, Blunt’s forces attacked and with two assaults over the next two hours, the sides ended up grappling hand to hand in the trees here before the Confederates broke and retreated pell mell for the lone bridge across the steep banks of Elk Creek. Another interesting thing to see here is about an eighth of a mile of the original Texas Road, which Blunt had used to reach the battlefield from Ft. Gibson.
The optional trail at stop three is one mile round trip, which all true Civil War aficionados must take. The trail takes you by the ruins of the birth home of a modern Native-American artist who frankly I have never heard of. It is half way to the end of this trail, which terminates on a bluff above the banks of Elk Creek. On this bluff was the right flank of the Confederate army. Cooper placed his Texans in the center and his two Indian regiments on the flanks because he did not trust their quality over the Texans. As the Texans began their panicked retreat for the bridge, the Indian forces moved in to cover the retreat briefly before they were taken up in the panic also. It is on this bluff that the visitor will learn unequivocally that Cooper was an idiot and only had his position because he was a friend of Jefferson Davis (Cooper had served as one of Davis’ company commanders in the Mexican War). From here, one is able to see the beautiful high ground on the south side of Elk Creek, from that position Cooper’s men could have played hell on Blunt’s inferior numbers if he had foolishly chosen to attack this position across the creek. The devastation Cooper’s men could have inflicted on Blunt’s men from this ridge as the Federals funneled into the lone bridge across the creek under fire would have made this an easy Confederate victory in a small Trans-Mississippi Fredericksburg-like event.
Stop 4 takes you to the actual location of the bridge and the campsites of the Confederates on the morning when the Union forces appeared. The bridge washed away soon after the war and the owner rebuilt another toll structure of wood, brick and concrete. The bank supports of the second bridge is all that remains of any bridge at this location. The signs here talk of archeology at the Confederate campsites and of the panic that occurred for the Confederates at this site and the struggle for the bridge.
Stop 5 is next to a modern cemetery and describes the final stand of the Confederate forces on the ridge seen form the optional trail. Here the Confederate Cavalry and Indian troops launched a counterattack to allow the artillery and some supplies time to escape. By 2 p.m. the battle was over. The signs here have some interesting first person accounts of the battle in letters home from both sides.
Stop 6 is the location of the Confederate supply depot and of several monuments placed on the battle. As Captain Crow and I noted, there is an official welcoming committee on site for this month, consisting of two black and one brown Labrador Retriever puppies. A portion of the original Texas Road is also visible at this site.
From there it was on to Ft. Gibson. Like Ft. Smith, Ft. Gibson was established as two different posts. The initial wood stockade in both cases was built close to the Arkansas River and than later the more permanent stone structures were built further up the hill. The Visitor’s Center is located in the old commissary building of the second fort. It has some very nice displays concentrating on the Trail of Tears, the conflict between the Cherokee and the Osage that led to the creation of the fort in 1824. The gift shop is a very small area but had some good books relative to the subject. There really is no full treatment history of the fort itself, so budding authors take note of the opportunity. A nice movie that looks like it was done by the same people who did the Honey Springs film, tells the story of the fort, its relationship to the Trail of Tears and other Indian history.
The second fort existed at the time of the Civil War and was abandoned by Federal forces early in the war. Confederate cavalry regiments from Texas under Sul Ross trained at the fort (including my great-great uncle’s) before moving on to the Battle of Pea Ridge. Soon after that the Federals reoccupied the fort, renamed it Ft. Blunt and it became the spring board for recapturing the northern half of the Indian Territory by General Blunt. Several of the old stone and wooden buildings still exist of the second fort, including the hospital, the barracks, the bake house and the magazine.
After the Federals reoccupied the fort, the Federal Indian Home Guard Brigade occupied the fort and they constructed breastworks around the perimeter of the second fort and those are still very visible today in the northwest and western boundary of the fort. This fort would remain active until it finally closed in 1890.
The original fort site is down what is called Garrison Hill from the second fort about 200 yards. It was here I met and had a long conversation with the park historian, David. On the site is a two-thirds size replica of the wood fort built as a WPA project in the 1930s. This replica is now older than the fort it depicts. In places it is very termite eaten but is still in pretty good shape considering. The reason it is 2/3 the original size is the public road and Katy Railroad now occupy the land closer to the river. David had some great insights on the fort (the army began the effort to relocate the fort almost as soon as it was built, due to the bad mosquito problem next to the river), Honey Springs (Phillips was too much of an alarmist at Ft. Gibson) and James Blunt (it wasn’t encephalitis that kept him on the sideline at Honey Springs). David was also a Mexican War reenact or and had appeared in the new Alamo film. He said I had just missed a Civil War reenactment at Honey Springs and a Mexican War reenactment at Ft. Gibson. David said there is still much archeology at Ft. Gibson and other forts in the vicinity during the summers. They are still trying to understand the history of the place. I asked him if they knew where the Confederates trained but he said they really weren’t sure but he guessed it was on the hill just to the north of the second fort, as that is where all the cavalry artifacts had been found and where the US Cavalry had been when the war broke out. Today this area is a housing subdivision. The main east-west artery through the subdivision is called Cavalry Street.
From here I headed home on a five hour drive. I stopped at the Happy Day’s Hotel in McAlister to eat an early supper at their 50s style diner, in order to avoid rush hour in Dallas. Traveling along Central Expressway through McKinney, Allen and Plano I did not recognize these areas I had lived in for a decade, 11 years ago; it had changed so much. Not until I got to Dallas did Central Expressway seem familiar, other than the crazy traffic that hasn’t changed at all. I got home at 10 p.m. and went right to bed; I had work the next day.
Last edited on Tue Oct 28th, 2008 08:14 pm by David White