A letter came across my desk from Private Spencer, 28th Mass. Vol. Inf., about an article that had been printed in the Guardian on Tuesday October 6th, about a pioneer town in Oklahoma, called Rentiesville, that in the 1920's became a black utopia. In its heyday there was a local paper, a town square with more than 3000 black Americans passing through daily - Lawmen, Cowboys, Farmers, Merchants. It even had a black Marshal, Bass Reeves who became a legend by rounding up 3000 outlaws and delivering them to the celebrated hanging judge Isaac Parker. It also had a black cowboy called Bill Picket who founded the sport of Steer Wrestling. But, of more interest to us Civil War buffs, it was also close to a little known battlefield called Honey Springs. It was here for the first time black troops proved themselves as a fighting force in the Civil War. A pink granite memorial at the battlefield is engraved with the commendation of their commander, General James Blunt -
"They fought like veterans and preserved their line unbroken throughout their engagement. Their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed".
Ed, I decided to look further into this story and checked my database for any info. I came up with some most interesting facts as follow.
1863. Oklahoma was then Indian Territory. Honey Springs lies on the route to Fort Gibson. The white Union troops had been pulled back to defend Washington, leaving behind the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, 2nd Colorado, 1st 2nd & 3rd Indian Home Guards, 6th Kansas Cavalry, 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry, 2nd Kansas Battery and Hopkins Kansas Battery.
On the opposing side under Brigadier General Douglas H Cooper, CS Army were the Indian Troops 16th, 17th & 18th Ultimo, 1st Cherokee and Choctaw Regiments, Texas Cavalry, Lee's Light Battery, 20th Texas Dismounted Cavalry.
Report of Lieut. Col. John Bowles, 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, Judson's brigade. Engagement at Elk Creek near Honey Springs, Indian Territory.
COLONEL: I have the honor to submit the following report of the first Regiment Kansas colored volunteers at the battle of Honey Springs, July 17, 1863.
- Previous to forming a line of battle, Colonel (James M) Williams was informed that his regiment would occupy the right and support Captain Smith's battery. Colonel Williams then called "attention," and said to the men, "I want you all to keep cool, and not fire until you receive the command; in all cases aim deliberately and below the waist. I want every man to do his whole duty, and obey strictly the orders of his officers." We then moved in column, by company, to the position assigned us, and formed in line of battle, when the engagement was opened by the battery. After the lapse of tem minutes, during which time the fire from the battery was incessant, General Blunt came in person to Colonel Williams, and said, "I wish you to move your regiment to the front and support this battery (which was already in motion); I wish you to keep an eye to those guns of the enemy, and take them at the point of the bayonet, if an opportunity offers." Colonel Williams then made some remarks to the men, intimating that we had work to do, and ordered them to "fix bayonet." We then moved to the front and center, forming to the right of a section of Smith's battery, consisting of two 12 pounder field pieces, that had already taken position within 300 yards of the enemy's lines, which was only apparent by the smoke from the frequent firing of their battery, so completely were they concealed by the brush in their position. Quite a number of rounds of shell and canister had been fired from our guns, when our gallant colonel gave the command "forward," and every man stepped promptly and firmly in his place, advancing in good order until within 40 paces of the concealed foe, when we halted on the right of the Second Colorado. Colonel Williams then gave the command, "Ready, aim, fire," and immediately there went forth two long lines of smoke and flame, the one from the enemy putting forth at the same instant, as if mistaking the command as intended for themselves, or as a demonstration of their willingness to meet us promptly.
At this juncture Colonel Williams fell, he and his horse at the same instant; Colonel Williams badly wounded in the right breast, face, and hands. Being on the right, and partly shut out from view of the left by the thick brush, I was, therefore, ignorant of the fact that Colonel Williams had fallen, and could not inform myself until it was too late to give the command "charge bayonet," for which every man seemed so anxiously awaiting. In the mean time the firing was incessant along the line, except on the extreme right, where some of our Indians had ridden in the brush between us and the enemy. I immediately ordered them to fall back, and to the right. The enemy, which has since proven to have been the Twenty-ninth Texas Regiment, commanded by Colonel De Morse in person, who was badly wounded in the right arm, supposed from the command that we were giving way in front, and, like true soldiers, commenced to press, as they supposed, a retreating foe. They advanced to within 25 paces, when they were met by a volley of musketry that sent them back in great confusion and disorder. Their color-bearer fell, but the colors were immediately raised, and again promptly shot down. A second time they were raised, and again I caused a volley to be fired upon them, when they were left by the enemy as a trophy to our well-directed musketry.
As soon as I learned of Colonel Williams having been severely wounded and having left the field, I assumed command, our right pressing the enemy back to a corn-field, where he broke and fled in confusion. Further pursuit being impossible on account of the nature of the ground, I ordered the right back to our original line of battle. At this time Lieutenant-Colonel (F W) Schaurte, of the Second Indian, sent an orderly informing me of the near approach of his command, and that he wished to pass to the front, and I would please inform my command of the fact, to prevent accident. Some of his command passed to our front and carried off the colors we had three times shot down and driven the enemy from in defeat and loss. Some of my officers and men shouted out in remonstrance, and asked permission to break ranks and get them. I refused permission, and told them the matter could be righted hereafter.
Lieutenant-Colonel Moonlight, chief of staff, ordered us to the front. We advanced in line for a distance of 3 miles, skirmishing occasionally with the enemy from the high bluffs in front and to the left. The enemy being completely routed and defeated, we were ordered to fall back to the Springs, rest the men, and cook supper.
At 7pm we were ordered to take position on the battle-field, near the ford, on Elk Creek, and bivouac for the night.
Our total on entering the battle was 500 men, including the commissioned officers. Our total in killed and wounded was 2 killed and 30 wounded.
In conclusion, I feel it but justice and my duty to state that the officers and men throughout the entire regiment behaved nobly and with the coolness of veterans. Each seemed to vie with the other in the performance of his duty, and it was with the greatest gratification that I witnessed their gallant and determined resistance under the most galling fire.
Where all performed their duty so well it would be hard to particularize.
Lieut.Col., Comdg. First Regiment Kansas Colored Vols.
Ed, The interesting thing about this engagement was the use of Coloured and Indian regiments on both sides. I have copies of the reports of the other commanding officers of this engagement. If you would like any copies, please let me know. P.C.
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, December 1998