Particularly in the Trans-Mississippi West, Native American loyalty and animosity was quite a complex issue. Frustrations with white settlers had simmered for approximately two centuries by the time of the Civil War and Native Americans in the west were forced to align themselves with whomever could protect their people and interests. Though the traditional narratives of the Civil War tend to focus on the “Five Civilized Tribes’” allegiances to the Confederacy, it is important to study those members who actively supported the Union, particularly the Indian Home Guard Regiments.
When the war broke out in 1861, some members of these tribes (such as Chief John Ross of the Cherokee) wanted to remain neutral and out of war. Most, though, eventually developed alliances with either side to protect their tribal interests, especially with the Indian Territory geographically stuck between several warring states. Additionally, most Federal troops who were stationed at military bases in the Indian Territory were transferred east or had resigned. The Confederacy quickly moved in to fill the void and take advantage of their cultural ties with many of the territory’s people, particularly with the Chickasaw and Choctaw.
By the summer of 1862, Union loyalists under Creek Chief Opotheyehala had fled north to Kansas via a second trail of tears, named the ‘Trail of Blood on the Ice’. In Kansas, there were numbers of Native Americans eager to join the ranks of the Union Army at this point in the war. They wanted to take the war back home, where they could fight the pro-Confederates who forced them to flee. For the Union high command, Native American troops could serve a vital purpose in reclaiming the Indian Territory south of Kansas.
Beginning in May, the first two Indian Home Guard regiments were formed, consisting mainly of members of the “Five Civilized Tribes.” In July, a third regiment was established in the eastern portion of the Indian Territory. Though they were dedicated to the Union cause and courageous on the battlefield, the three regiments had limited discipline and low combat performance. Additionally, relationships between soldiers of different tribes soured, causing a breakdown in unity.
To fix these issues, experienced officers were placed in command, which helped transform them into combat troops who could fight veteran Confederates effectively. Significant Home Guard victories at Forts Wayne, Davis, and Gibson, as well as Cabin Creek, showed just how capable these troops could be on the battlefield when trained. Not only did they simply defeat Confederate troops at those sites, the Home Guards were able to drive their counterparts from the field, capture battle flags and forts, and save their supply trains from capture. These moments helped prepare them for what would become the largest battle in the Indian Territory.
On July 16, 1863, Major General James Blunt’s command of Indian Home Guard, the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, and several regiments of cavalry and artillery crossed the Arkansas River in response to a Confederate threat to Union troops at Fort Gibson. The next day near Honey Springs Depot, Blunt launched an attack against Brigadier General Douglas Cooper’s pro-Confederate Native American troops. After the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry’s attack was repulsed, members of the Indian Home Guards advanced between the two lines of battle, encouraging the Confederate troops to attack. Their attack failed and was repulsed.
Continuous issues with organization and low ammunition for Douglas’s troops allowed the Federals to press the attack. Ultimately, the Confederates were routed and driven from the field. A last defensive action by Douglas failed, as well.
In the largest battle fought in present-day Oklahoma and one of the only battles of the Civil War with white troops being the minority, the Battle of Honey Springs was a decisive Union victory. This “Gettysburg of the Indian Territory” was enough of a Confederate defeat that they could not regain the initiative. It can ultimately be said that the actions of pro-Union Native American units that re-entered the Indian Territory significantly contributed to the Union foothold there.