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Indian Territory in 1863, January to March

 Native American Nations | Participant in the Civil War                     


As with the war as a whole, so with that part of it waged on the Arkansas frontier, the year 1863 proved critical. Its midsummer season saw the turning-point in the respective fortunes of the North and the South, both in the east and in the west. The beginning of 1863 was a time for recording great depletion of resources in Indian Territory, as elsewhere, great disorganization within Southern Indian ranks, and much privation, suffering, and resultant dissatisfaction among the tribes generally. The moment called for more or less sweeping changes in western commands. Those most nearly affecting the Arkansas frontier were the establishment of Indian Territory as a separate military entity692 and the detachment of western Louisiana and Texas from the Trans-Mississippi Department.693 Both were accomplished in January and both were directly due to a somewhat tardy realization of the vast strategic importance of the Indian country. Unwieldy, geographically, the Trans-Mississippi Department had long since shown itself to be. Moreover, it was no longer even passably safe to leave the interests of Indian Territory subordinated to those of Arkansas.694

Monthly Inspection Report of the Second Creek Regiment of Mounted Volumteers

The man chosen, after others, his seniors in rank, had declined the dubious honor,695 for the command of Indian Territory was William Steele, brigadier-general, northern born, of southern sympathies. Thus was ignored whatever claim Douglas H. Cooper might have been thought to have by reason of his intimate and long acquaintance with Indian affairs and his influence, surpassingly great, with certain of the tribes. Cooper's unfortunate weakness, addiction to intemperance, had stood more or less in the way of his promotion right along just as it had decreased his military efficiency on at least one memorable occasion and had hindered the confirmation of his appointment as superintendent of Indian affairs in the Arkansas and Red River constituency. In this narrative, as events are divulged, it will be seen that the preference for Steele exasperated Cooper, who was not a big enough man to put love of country before the gratification of his own ambition, consequently friction developed between him and his rival highly detrimental to the service to which each owed his best thought, his best endeavor.696

Conditions in Indian Territory, at the time Steele took command, were conceivably the worst that could by any possibility be imagined. The land had been stripped of its supplies, the troops were scarcely worthy of the name.697 Around Fort Smith, in Arkansas, things were equally bad.698 People were clamoring for protection against marauders, some were wanting only the opportunity to move themselves and their effects far away out of the reach of danger, others were demanding that the unionists be cleaned out just as secessionists had, in some cases, been. Confusion worse confounded prevailed. Hindman had resorted to a system of almost wholesale furloughing to save expense.699 Most of the Indians had taken advantage of it and were off duty when Steele arrived. Many had preferred to subsist at government cost.700 There was so little in their own homes for them to get. Forage was practically non-existent and Steele soon had it impressed 701 upon him that troops in the Indian Territory ought, as Hindman had come to think months before,702 to be all unmounted.

Although fully realizing that it was incumbent upon him to hold Fort Smith as a sort of key to his entire command, Steele knew it would be impossible to maintain any considerable force there. He, therefore, resolved to take big chances and to attempt to hold it with as few men as his commissary justified, trusting that he would be shielded from attack "by the inclemency of the season and the waters of the Arkansas."703 The larger portion of his army704 was sent southward, in the direction of Red River.705 But lack of food and forage was, by no manner of means, the only difficulty that confronted Steele. He was short of guns, particularly of good guns,706 and distressingly short of money.707 The soldiers had not been paid for months.

The opening of 1863 saw changes, equally momentous, in Federal commands. Somewhat captiously, General Schofield discounted recent achievements of Blunt and advised that Blunt's District of Kansas should be completely disassociated from the Division of the Army of the Frontier,708 which he had, at Schofield's own earlier request, been commanding. It was another instance of personal jealousy, interstate rivalry, and local conflict of interests.709 So petty was Schofield and so much in a mood for disparagement that he went the length of condemning the work of Blunt and Herron710 in checking Hindman's advance as but a series of blunders and their success at Prairie Grove as but due to an accident.711 General Curtis, without, perhaps, having any particular regard for the aggrieved parties himself, resented Schofield's insinuations against their military capacity, all the more so, no doubt, because he was not above making the same kind of criticisms himself and was not impervious to them. In the sequel, Schofield reorganized the divisions of his command, relieved Blunt altogether, and personally resumed the direction of the Army of the Frontier.712 Blunt went back to his District of Kansas and made his headquarters at Fort Leavenworth.

In some respects, the reorganization decided upon by Schofield proved a consummation devoutly to be wished; for, within the reconstituted First Division was placed an Indian Brigade, which was consigned to the charge of a man the best fitted of all around to have it, Colonel William A. Phillips.713 And that was not all; inasmuch as the Indian Brigade, consisting of the three regiments of Indian Home Guards, a battalion of the Sixth Kansas Cavalry, and a four-gun battery that had been captured at the Battle of Old Fort Wayne,714 was almost immediately detached from the rest of Schofield's First Division and assigned to discretionary "service in the Indian Nation and on the western border of Arkansas."715 It continued so detached even after Schofield's command had been deprived by Curtis of the two districts over which the brigade was to range, the eighth and the ninth.716 Thus, at the beginning of 1863, had the Indian Territory in a sense come into its own. Both the Confederates and the Federals had given it a certain measure of military autonomy or, at all events, a certain opportunity to be considered in and for itself.

Indian Territory as a separate military entity came altogether too late into the reckonings of the North and the South. It was now a devastated land, in large areas, desolate. General Curtis and many another like him might well express regret that the red man had to be offered up in the white man's slaughter.717 It was unavailing regret and would ever be. Just as with the aborigines who lay athwart the path of empire and had to yield or be crushed so with the civilized Indian of 1860. The contending forces of a fratricidal war had little mercy for each other and none at all for him. Words of sympathy were empty indeed. His fate was inevitable. He was between the upper and the nether mill-stones and, for him, there was no escape.

Indian Territory was really in a terrible condition. Late in 1862, it had been advertised even by southern men as lost to the Confederate cause and had been practically abandoned to the jayhawker. Scouting parties of both armies, as well as guerrillas, had preyed upon it like vultures. Indians, outside of the ranks, were tragic figures in their utter helplessness. They dared trust nobody. It was time the Home Guard was being made to justify its name. Indeed, as Ellithorpe reported, "to divert them to any other operations" than those within their own gates "will tend to demoralize them to dissolution."718

The winter of 1862-1863 was a severe one. Its coming had been long deferred; but, by the middle of January, the cold weather had set in in real earnest. Sleet and snow and a constantly descending thermometer made campaigning quite out of the question. Colonel Phillips, no more than did his adversary, General Steele, gave any thought to an immediate offensive. Like Steele his one idea was to replenish resources and to secure an outfit for his men. They had been provided with the half worn-out baggage train of Blunt's old division. It was their all and would be so until their commander could supplement it by contrivances and careful management. Incidentally, Phillips expected to hold the line of the Arkansas River; but not to attempt to cross it until spring should come. It behooved him to look out for Marmaduke whose expeditions into Missouri719 were cause for anxiety, especially as their range might at any moment be extended.

The Indian regiments of Phillips's brigade were soon reported720 upon by him and declared to be in a sad state. The first regiment was still, to all intents and purposes, a Creek force, notwithstanding that its fortunes had been varied, its desertions, incomparable.

The second regiment, after many vicissitudes, and after having gotten rid of its unmanageable elements, notably, the Osages and the Quapaw, had become a Cherokee and the third was largely so. That third regiment was Phillips's own and was the only one that could claim the distinction of being disciplined and even it was exposed occasionally to the chronic weakness of all Indian soldiers, absence without leave. The Indian, on his own business bent, was disposed to depart whenever he pleased, often, too, at times most inopportune, sometimes, when he had been given a special and particular task. He knew not the usages of army life and really meant no offence; but, all the same, his utter disregard of army discipline made for great disorder.

It was not the chief cause of disorder, however, for that was the unreliability of the regimental officers. The custom, from the first, had been to have the field officers white men, a saving grace; but the company officers, with few exceptions, had been Indians and totally incompetent. Strange as it may seem, drilling was almost an unknown experience to the two regiments that had been mustered in for the First Indian Expedition. To obviate some of the difficulties already encountered, Phillips had seen to it that the third regiment had profited by the mistakes of its forerunners. It had, therefore, been supplied with white first lieutenants and white sergeants, secured from among the non-commissioned men of other commands. The result had fully justified the innovation. After long and careful observation, Phillips's conclusion was that it was likely to be productive of irretrievable disaster and consequently an unpardonable error of judgment "to put men of poor ability in an Indian regiment." Primitive man has an inordinate respect for a strong character. He appreciates integrity, though he may not have it among his own gifts of nature. "An Indian company improperly officered" will inevitably become, to somebody's discomfiture, "a frightful mess."

If any one there was so foolish as to surmise that the independent commands, northern and southern, would be given free scope to solve the problems of Indian Territory, unhampered by contingent circumstances, he was foreordained to grievous disappointment. Indian Territory had still to subserve the interests of localities, relatively more important. It would be so to the very end. In and for herself, she would never be allowed to do anything and her commanders, no matter how much they might wish it otherwise—and to their lasting honor, be it said, many of them did—would always have to subordinate her affairs to those of the sovereign states around her; for even northern states were sovereign in practice where Indians were concerned. General Steele was one of the men who endeavored nobly to take a large view of his responsibilities to Indian Territory. Colonel Phillips, his contemporary in the opposite camp, was another; but both met with insuperable obstacles. The attainment of their objects was impossible from the start. Both men were predestined to failure.

Foraging or an occasional scouting when the weather permitted was the only order of the winter days for Federals and Confederates. With the advent of spring, however, Phillips became impatient for more aggressive action. He had been given a large program, no insignificant part of which was, the restoration of refugees to their impoverished homes; but his first business would necessarily have to be, the occupancy of the country. Not far was he allowed to venture within it during the winter; because his superior officers wished him to protect, before anything else, western Arkansas. Schofield and, after Schofield's withdrawal from the command of southwestern Missouri, Curtis had insisted upon that, while Blunt, to whom Phillips, after a time, was made immediately accountable, was guardedly of another way of thinking and, although not very explicit, seemed to encourage Phillips in planning an advance.

Phillips's inability to progress far in the matter of occupancy of Indian Territory did not preclude his keeping a close tab on Indian affairs therein, such a tab, in fact, as amounted to fomenting an intrigue. It will be recalled that on the occasion of his making the excursion into the Cherokee Nation, which had resulted in his incendiary destruction of Fort Davis, he had gained intimations of a rather wide-spread Indian willingness to desert the Confederate service. He had sounded Creeks and Choctaws and had found them surprisingly responsive to his machinations. They were nothing loath to confess that they were thoroughly disgusted with the southern alliance. It had netted them nothing but unutterable woe. Among those that Phillips approached, although not personally, was Colonel McIntosh, who communicated with Phillips through two intimate friends. McIntosh was persuaded to attempt no immediate demonstration in favor of the North; for that would be premature, foolhardy; but to bide the time, which could not be far distant, when the Federal troops would be in a position to support him.721 The psychological moment was not yet. Blunt called Phillips back for operations outside of Indian Territory; but the seed of treason had been sown and sown in fertile soil, in the heart of a McIntosh.722

In January, 1863, Phillips took up again the self-imposed task of emissary.723 The unionist Cherokees, inclusive of those in the Indian Brigade, were contemplating holding a national council on Cowskin Prairie, which was virtually within the Federal lines. Secessionist Cherokees, headed by Stand Watie, were determined that such a council should not meet if they could possibly prevent it and prevent it they would if they could only get a footing north of the Arkansas River. Their suspicion was, that the council, if assembled, would declare the treaty with the Confederate States abrogated. To circumvent Stand Watie, to conciliate some of the Cherokees by making reparation for past outrages, and to sow discord among others, Phillips dispatched Lieutenant-colonel Lewis Downing on a scout southward. He was just in time; for the Confederates were on the brink of hazarding a crossing at two places, Webber's Falls and Fort Gibson.724 Upon the return of Downing, Phillips himself moved across the border with the avowed intention of rendering military support, if needed, to the Cherokee Council, which convened on the fourth of February.725 From Camp Ross, he continued to send out scouting parties, secret agents,726 and agents of distribution.

The Cherokee Council assembled without the preliminary formality of a new election. War conditions had made regular polling impossible. Consequently, the council that convened in February, 1863 was, to all intents and purposes, the selfsame body that, in October, 1861, had confirmed the alliance with the Confederate States. It was Phillips's intention to stand by, with military arm upraised, until the earlier action had been rescinded. While he waited, word came that the harvest of defection among the Creeks had begun; for "a long line of persons"727 was toiling through the snow, each wearing the white badge on his hat that Phillips and McIntosh had agreed should be their sign of fellowship. Then came an order for Phillips to draw back within supporting distance of Fayetteville, which, it was believed, the Confederates were again threatening.728 Phillips obeyed, as perforce, he had to; but he left a detachment behind to continue guarding the Cherokee Council.729

The legislative work of the Cherokee Council, partisan body that it was, with Lewis Downing as its presiding officer and Thomas Pegg as acting Principal Chief, was reactionary, yet epochal. It comprised several measures and three of transcendent importance, passed between the eighteenth and the twenty-first:

1. An act revoking the alliance with the Confederate States and re-asserting allegiance to the United States.

2. An act deposing all officers of any rank or character whatsoever, inclusive of legislative, executive, judicial, who were serving in capacities disloyal to the United States and to the Cherokee Nation.

3. An act emancipating slaves throughout the Cherokee country.730

His detention in Arkansas was not at all to Phillips's liking. It tried his patience sorely; for he felt the crying need of Indian Territory for just such services as his and, try as he would, he could not visualize that of Arkansas. Eagerly he watched for a chance to return to the Cherokee country. One offered for the fifth of March but had to be given up. Again and yet again in letters731 to Curtis and Blunt he expostulated against delay but delay could not well be avoided. The pressure from Arkansas for assistance was too great. Blunt sympathized with Phillips more than he dared openly admit and tacitly sanctioned his advance. Never at any time could there have been the slightest doubt as to the singleness of the virile Scotchman's purpose. In imagination he saw his adopted country repossessed of Indian Territory and of all the overland approaches to Texas and Mexico from whence, as he supposed, the Confederacy expected to draw her grain and other supplies. Some regard for the Indian himself he doubtless had; but he used it as a means to the greater end. His sense of justice was truly British in its keenness.

His Indian soldiers loved him. They believed in him. He was able to accomplish wonders in training them. He looked after their welfare and he did his best to make the government and its agents of the Indian Office keep faith with the refugees. Quite strenuously, too, he advocated further enlistments from among the Indians, especially from among those yet in Indian Territory. If the United States did not take care, the Confederates would successfully conscript where the Federals might easily recruit. In this matter as in many another, he had Blunt's unwavering support; for Blunt wanted the officers of the embryo fourth and fifth regiments to secure their commands. Blunt's military district was none too full of men.

692: The establishment of a separate command for Indian Territory was not accomplished all at once. In December, 1862, Steele had been ordered to report to Holmes for duty and, in the first week of January, he was given the Indian Territory post, subject to Hindman. On or about the eighth, he assumed command [Official Records, vol. xxii, part i, 28] at Fort Smith. In less than a week thereafter, his command was separated from that of Hindman [ibid., part ii, 771]. The following document shows exactly what had been the previous relation between the two:

Head Qrs. Dept. Indn. Terry.
Ft. Smith, Jan. 31st, 1863.

COLONEL: Your special No. 22, par. viii has been recd. I would respectfully suggest that when assigned to this command by Maj. Gen'l Hindman the command was styled in orders, "1st Div'n 1st Corps Trans. Miss. Army." The special order referred to, it is respectfully suggested, may be susceptible of misconstruction as there are under my command two separate Brigades, one under the command of Gen'l D.H. Cooper and one under command of Col. J.W. Speight.

I am, Col., Very Res'py W. STEELE, Brig. Gen'l.,
Col. S.S. Anderson, A.A.G.

P.S. Please find enclosed printed Gen. Order, no. 4, which I have assumed the responsibility of issuing on receipt of Lt. Gen'l Holmes' order declaring my command in the Ind'n country independent.

(Sd) W. STEELE, Brig. Gen'l.

[A.G.O., Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 270, p. 65].

693: Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 771-772.
694: Ibid., 771.
695: Ibid., 843; Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 270, pp. 25-27.
696: It might as well be said, at the outset, that Cooper was not the ranking officer of Steele. He claimed that he was [Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 1037-1038]; but the government disallowed the contention [ibid., 1038].
697: Ibid., part i, 28; part ii, 862, 883, 909.
698: Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 270, pp. 29-30.
699: Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 895, 909.
700: Ibid., part i, 30.
701: Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 270, p. 31.
702: Official Records, vol. xiii, 51.
703: Official Records, vol. xxii, part i, 30.
704: Perhaps the word, army, is inapplicable here. Steele himself was in doubt as to whether he was in command of an army or of a department [Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 270, p. 54].
705: Confederate Records, chap. 2, no. 270, p. 36. See also, Steele to Anderson, January 22, 1863 [ibid., 50-51], which besides detailing the movements of Steele's men furnishes, on the authority of "Mr. Thomas J. Parks of the Cherokee Nation," evidence of brutal murders and atrocities committed by Blunt's army "whilst on their march through the northwestern portion of this State in the direction of Kansas."
706: Crosby's telegram, February first, to the Chief of Ordnance is sufficient attestation,
"Many of Cooper's men have inferior guns and many none at all. Can you supply?" [Ibid., 65-66].
707: The detention and the misapplication of funds by William Quesenbury seem to have been largely responsible for Steele's monetary embarrassment [ibid., 28, 63-64, 75, 76, 77, 79-81, 101, 147]. Cotton speculation in Texas was alluring men with ready money southward [ibid., 94, 104].
708: Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 6.
709: It seems unnecessary and inappropriate to drag into the present narrative the political squabbles that disgraced Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Colorado during the war. Lane was against Schofield, Gamble against Curtis.
710: Yet both Blunt and Herron were, at this very time, in line for promotion, as was Schofield, to the rank of major-general [Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, II, 95.]
711: Ibid., 6, 12, 95; Confederate Military History, vol. x, 195.
712: Ibid., 22.
713: Britton, Civil War on the Border vol. ii, 18-19.
714: It is not very clear whether or not the constituents of the Indian Brigade were all at once decided upon. They are listed as they appear in Britton, Civil War on the Border, vol. ii, 3. Schofield seems to have hesitated in the matter [Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 26].
715: Ibid., 33.
716: On the subject of the reduction of Schofield's command, see ibid., 40.
717: Curtis to Phillips, February 17, 1863, ibid., 113-114.
718: Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 49.
719: Confederate Military History, vol. x, 161, 162.
720: Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 56-58.
721: Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 61-62.
722: This remark would be especially applicable if the Colonel McIntosh, mentioned by Phillips, was Chilly, the son of William McIntosh of Indian Springs Treaty notoriety.
723: Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 100.
724: Ibid., 85.
725: Ibid., 96-97.
726: Ibid., 100, 108.
727: Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 101.
728: Ibid., 111-112.
729: Ibid., 115.
730: Ross to Dole, April 2, 1863 [Indian Office General Files, Cherokee, 1859-1865, R 87]; Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Report, 1863, p. 23; Britton, Civil War on the Border, vol. ii, 24-25; Moore, Rebellion Record, vol. vi, 50; Eaton, John Ross and the Cherokee Indians, 196.
731: Britton [Civil War on the Border, vol. ii, 27 conveys the idea that, while Phillips, truly enough, wished to enter the Indian country at the earliest day practicable, he did not care to go there before the Indian ponies could "live on the range." He knew that the refugees at Neosho would insist upon following in his wake. It would be heartless to expose them to starvation and to the ravages of diseases like the small-pox. Nevertheless, the correspondence of Phillips, scattered through the Official Records, vol. xxii, part ii, 121-367, shows conclusively that the weeks of waiting were weary ones.

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The American Indian as Participant in the Civil War, 1919

Participant in the Civil War


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