The American Civil War: Remembering the Civil War Ancestors of Indian Territory  And The Battle of Honey Springs

The American Civil War: Remembering the Civil War Ancestors of Indian Territory  And The Battle of Honey Springs

In July of 1863, the most noteworthy Civil War battle in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) occurred on the lands of the Honey Springs settlement, Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Today, the significance of the Civil War in Indian Territory, including the Battle of Honey Springs, remains lost to the historical narrative of America’s Civil War story. More concerning is the lack of acknowledgment by historians regarding the Civil War involvement of Indigenous and Black ancestors residing within nineteenth-century Indian Territory. Even as the lived experience of Indian Territory’s Civil War ancestors is a story few Americans know, its outcome devastated the lands and inhabitants of the Fives Tribes, consisting of the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Nations. For these ancestors, their Civil War story is one worth telling

In the summer of 1861, the reaches of the American Civil War found its way West of the Mississippi River and into Indian Territory. By this time, the federal government had been diverting men, supplies, and monies from Indian Territory to the Eastern states to end the war in the East quickly. With recent experiences of removal and trauma fresh on their minds, the ancestors of Indian Territory did not want to become involved in a “War Between the States.” Yet, America’s Civil War will quickly come to the front door steps of every family living within the boundaries of the Five Tribes.

With treaty promises forgotten at the onset of the war in the East by the federal government, such as protection of tribal lands and annuity payments, a door opened for the Confederate States of America to target and persuade alliances with the Five Tribes. These ancestors made complex and conflicting decisions about the war and its possible adverse impact on their lands, lives, and continued existence as sovereign nations. Longstanding factionalism within the Muscogee, Cherokee, and Seminole nations also flared and triggered tribal division as wealthy tribal members support the Southern cause, including the institution of slavery. Consequently, Muscogee Chief Opothleyahola, wishing to remain neutral and looking to the federal government to uphold its treaty obligations, led Muscogee and members from other tribal nations, as well as self-liberating enslaved individuals and freedmen, on a journey north to escape the impending conflict. The exodus of neutral ancestors would eventually result in three conflicts opening the war in Indian Territory, which Indigenous descendants will later remember as the “Trail of Blood on Ice.”

At Chustenalah, the final of the three conflicts of 1861, Confederate troops brutally attacked Opothleyhola’s followers. According to Christine Schultz White and Benton White, in Now the Wolf Has Come: The Creek Nation in the Civil War, “Mothers, babies, warriors, they were run down or shot to bits.”[1]  Those who survived the attack fled on foot in frigid weather to federal refugee camps in Kansas. Two-thousand civilians lost their lives attempting to find safety from the war.[2]  Many more died from hypothermia, starvation, and the unsanitary conditions of the camps, including Chief Opothleyahola. These same Indigenous and Black ancestors who survived such horrific events later filled the ranks of three Union Indian Home Guard Regiments. Eager to return to their lands and homes, they will fight at the Battle of Honey Springs, assisting U.S. forces in reclaiming Indian Territory from the CSA.[3]

The Battle of Honey Springs, also known as the Affair at Elk Creek, was fought on July 17, 1863, at a small Muscogee farming community in Indian Territory situated along the Texas Road about one hour south of current-day Tulsa, Oklahoma. Representing the U.S. Army of the Frontier, Major General James G. Blunt commanded the roughly 3,000 troops consisting of the Union Indian Home Guards, Third Wisconsin Cavalry Regiment, Second Colorado Infantry Regiment, Sixth Kansas Cavalry Regiment and twelve pieces of artillery commanded by Hopkins and Smith. Brigadier General Douglas H. Cooper commanded 6,000 Confederate troops representing the Indian Brigade, which included the First and Second Creek Volunteers, First and Second Cherokee Volunteers, the Choctaw and Chickasaw Cavalry Regiment, the Gillette/Scanland Cavalry Regiment, the 29th, 20th, and 5th Texas Cavalry Regiments, fighting dismounted at the battle and Lee’s battery of four artillery pieces. Following United States victories in the East at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, both armies felt pressure to control Indian Territory. Cooper fought to maintain control while Blunt sought to halt a potential Confederate attack on Union-occupied Fort Gibson. On Friday, July 17, 1863, at 10:00 a.m., the two armies fought for four hours in artillery, infantry, and hand-to-hand combat along the north and south banks of Elk Creek. The tide of battle turned as the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment forced a general Confederate retreat across Elk Creek Bridge, and secured both a Union victory and control of Indian Territory for the remainder of the war.[4]

10/6/22 1:06:13 PM — Honey Springs Battlefield near Rentiesville, Oklahoma. Shot for Oklahoma Historical Society.
Photo by Shane Bevel

Members of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment, formerly enslaved individuals who escaped bondage from their former enslavers from Missouri, Arkansas, and Indian Territory, were placed in the middle of the U.S. lines during the battle. Colonel James M. Williams, commanding the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment, provided a stirring speech to his troops before battle. In it, he stated, “You know what the soldiers of the Southern armies are fighting for, the continued existence of slavery on this continent, and if they are successful, to take you and your wives and children back into slavery. Show the enemy this day that you are not asking for a quarter, and that you know how and are eager to fight for your freedom.”[5]  U.S. Colonel Thomas Moonlight later wrote that “some 500 pairs of shackles” were captured at Honey Springs after the battle, which the CSA planned to use to re-enslave the African American soldiers upon their presumed victory.[6]

From a settler military viewpoint, the war in Indian Territory, including the Battle of Honey Springs, was about “control” of the lands and people. But from an Indigenous perspective, the war in Indian Territory was about much more. What would compel Native ancestors to take up arms against and with the federal government, fight one another, and risk life itself? Vital to the memory of Indigenous Civil War ancestors is regardless of which side of the battle line they were on, the fight always remained about protecting their lands, homes, and sovereignties.

In a speech given to his troops before the Honey Springs battle, Chilly McIntosh, Colonel of the Second Regiment of Creek Mounted Volunteers, expresses to his soldiers the gravity of the battle and what they are fighting to preserve. Chilly states, “Man must die sometime, and since he must die, he can find no nobler death than that which overtakes him while fighting for his homes, his fires, and his country.”[7] The fires mentioned are sacred fires Muscogee have been burning since time immemorial and continue to burn today at their ceremonial grounds. In Muscogee tradition, the fires represent life and must burn eternally, because without them, the Mvskoke will cease to exist.

The story of the Civil War in Indian Territory reveals a complex and critical piece of United States and Indigenous Civil War history. Essential to the memory of the American Civil War in Indian Territory are the historical intersections between Indigenous, Black, and American experiences. The Civil War brought into the lives of nineteenth-century Indian Territory ancestors another traumatic and life-changing event. And for the ancestors of Indian Territory impacted by the war and their descendants, these experiences linger as a time of profound loss and significant alteration to life and future existence. But the story doesn’t end here, as the people of the Five Tribes persevered and rebuilt their nations. Today at the Honey Springs Battlefield, on the sacred lands of the Honey Springs settlement, the Civil War in Indian Territory remains alive as a testament to the challenges faced by Indian Territory ancestors. Theirs is a Civil War story worth remembering.

[1] Christine Schultz White and Benton White, Now the Wolf Has Come: The Creek Nation in the Civil War (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1996), 123.

[2] Schultz-White and White, Now the Wolf Has Come: The Creek Nation in the Civil War, 150.

[3] Mary Jane Warde, When the Wolf Came, The Civil War and the Indian Territory (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2013), 167; M. Jane Johansson, Albert C. Ellithorpe: The First Indian Home Guards and the Civil War on the Trans-Mississippi Frontier(Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2016), 155.

[4] Ian Michael Spurgeon, Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The First Kansas Colored, The Civil War’s First African American Combat Unit (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), 171.

[5] Wiley Britton, The Union Indian Brigade in the Civil War (Kansas City, MO: Franklin Hudson, 1922), 276-277.

[6] Kip Lindberg, Matt Matthews, and Thomas Moonlight, “‘The Eagle of the 11th Kansas’: Wartime Reminiscences of Colonel Thomas Moonlight,” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 62, no. 1 (2003): 32, accessed April 20, 2023,

[7] Warde, When the Wolf Came, The Civil War and the Indian Territory, 166.


Midge Dellinger and Adam Lynn

Midge Dellinger is of Muscogee, Mexican, and European descent. She is the Oral Historian for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Historic and Cultural Preservation Department. In 2019, Midge received a Master of Arts in American Studies emphasizing Native American Studies at Northeastern State University, Tahlequah, Oklahoma. As a tribal historic preservationist, with public knowledge and memory of Indigenous ancestors at the foundation of her work, Midge also advocates for an authentic remembrance of Indigenous peoples and histories. Her research focuses on the Civil War in Indian Territory and Indigenous boarding school histories. Adam Lynn is Director of the Honey Springs Battlefield and Visitor Center, an Oklahoma Historical Society site located near Rentiesville, Oklahoma. He has served in this capacity for the last six years. During that time, Mr. Lynn has assisted in creating permanent exhibits detailing the battle and the overall history of the Civil War in Indian Territory, organizing regular on-site educational programing, and ongoing site preservation projects. Prior to this, he was Director of the Chisholm Trail Museum in Kingfisher, Oklahoma from 2011 until 2017.

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