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Chapter 11:

  • Fort Gibson the key to the Indian country
  • -- the enemy showing signs of activity -- the troops at Gibson commence to build bake ovens -- anxiety for the supply train -- Creek Indians coming in -- the enemy concentrating at Webber's Falls -- celebrating the event of hoisting the United States Flag at Fort Gibson -- a sad accident -- arrival of supply train from Fort Scott -- part of Neosho burned -- the enemy attack Fayetteville and are defeated -- a young man as a spy caught dressed in a woman's suit -- the troops commence to throw up fortifications at Fort Gibson -- strength of the Federal position -- engagement at Webber's Falls -- capture of the enemy's camp -- assassination of Dr. Gillpatrick -- they are on business in connection with exchanging of prisoners -- arrival of rebel officers under a Flag of truce -- reconnaissance of Colonel Schaurte to the Arkansas line -- Colonel Harrison abandons Fayetteville -- Colonel Phillips reviews his division.

The importance of this position is not likely at first glance to be fully appreciated. It is really the key to this entire Indian country, and great credit is due to Colonel Phillips for having seized it before the enemy received reinforcements. By throwing up breast works and constructing fortifications, we can hold the place against a force of the enemy twice as large as our own, unless he should be better supplied with long-range artillery than we are. I think that [214] we have also gained an advantage in regard to obtaining our supplies from Fort Scott. While we are further removed from our base of supplies, the distance to Fort Scott from this post by the old military road being about one hundred and sixty miles, our supply trains after they leave the southern line of Kansas will move all the way down on the west side of Grand river, and therefore doubtless be freer from attacks by the enemy than if they were obliged to come down the State lines of Missouri and Arkansas. From about this time in the spring until the summer is considerably advanced, it is frequently difficult for cavalry, artillery and infantry to cross Grand River, for a distance of seventy to eighty miles above here, without pontoon trains, which neither the enemy nor our army in the west possess. Such large trains as ours, are unquestionably coveted prizes, which the enemy will probably organize expeditions for the purpose of capturing or destroying. As our trains will require strong escorts, it is easy to see that our troops will have no time to spend in idleness. We can of course depend upon the country here for nothing except fresh beef, and in a few weeks, grass for our animals. Since the enemy can hold no position north of the Arkansas River, we have already seen indications that he is not going to remain inactive in this region during the spring and summer.

Our troops to-day (14th) commenced building bake ovens, which indicates clearly enough Colonel Phillips' intention of permanently holding this place. These [215] will be the first ovens we have put up in the field. They will not only economize the expenditure of fuel, but also enable the companies to save more from their flour ration than they could do by baking their bread by the old process; besides the bread is better and considered healthier. We have men With us who were engaged in the bakery business before enlistment. Hence we shall probably have as good bread as is usually made at city bakeries. But we shall miss the butter and eggs which we were able to get quite often while in Missouri and Arkansas. If, however, we manage to keep on hand full rations we shall have no cause to complain about our fare.

A detachment of ten men of the Battalion Sixth Kansas cavalry, and about fifty Indian soldiers, were sent out to-day (15th) in the direction of Maysville to meet our commissary train now due from Fort Scott. As it was expected to join us at Park Hill, and has not yet been heard from, some uneasiness is felt for its safety. We have been almost constantly on the move recently, and it is possible that the commanding officer of the escort has stopped it at some point this side of Fort Scott for a day or two, for more definite instructions as to where to join us. If instructions had been sent forward for it to join us here on the 13th, it would have come down on the west side of Grand River, instead of via Maysville on the State line road. We do not believe that there is a force of the enemy north of us of sufficient strength to venture to attack the train. A flag of truce came in to-day from the [216] Creek Indians concerning their coming in and joining our army. About fifty have already come in since we arrived here, and they express their willingness to do all in their power to establish law and order and complete obedience to the authority of the United States, in their country. Those just in think that many others will come when assured of protection. Though I have not heard what kind of speeches Colonel Phillips makes to them, yet I suppose that he informs them that he has come here to afford protection to all those who are disposed to be friendly and loyal to the Government, and to make war even to the knife and from the knife to the hilt against its enemies; that we are here not for the purpose of seeking vengeance and paying off old scores, but to establish justice and the harmonious relations of the people to the Government. They are no doubt informed that to offer further resistance to the Government is sure to bring further desolation to their country and additional miseries to their homes. In his speeches to the different Indian delegations that have waited upon him, he has endeavored to give them good advice, which they will find it to their interest to carefully consider.

We have information to-day (16th,) from a source deemed reliable, that the enemy are concentrating a force of four or five hundred men at Webber's Falls, about twenty-five miles below this post. As the point where they are gathering is on the south side of the Arkansas, and as it is not fordable below the mouth of Grand river, we may not be able to disturb them [217] for a few days. With a river as large as the Arkansas between them, two opposing forces may continue as neighbors for some time. But barring this obstacle there would certainly be either a “fight or a foot race” very soon with an enemy not superior in numbers to our command, encamped so near us as Webber's Falls.

Yesterday, the 17th, was given to festivities in celebrating the event of hoisting the Union Flag at the military post of Fort Gibson, that it may float from the flag staff where it was hauled down in foul dishonor soon after the breaking out of the war. This is the first time that the Stars and Stripes, the emblem of our nationality, have been hoisted on the post flag staff since the enemy took possession of the Government property here, and there were many whose affection for the Old Flag was so strong, that when its folds floated to the breeze they shed tears of joy. Tie Star Spangled Banner and other national airs were sung by half a dozen ladies and gentlemen-several of the ladies being wives of officers on a visit to their husbands. As an improvised choir they did well, and their voices sounded sweetly, the balmy air of spring being peculiarly favorable for music, instrumental or vocal, to produce a good effect. The solos, duets, and choruses were real treats, as we have had no music of any kind recently. Last autumn and winter when General Blunt's division was all together, we had two or three excellent bands and good music every day. The Ninth Wisconsin infantry, a German regiment, had perhaps [218] the best band in the division, and as they frequently encamped near the Sixth Kansas cavalry, I have often listened to it much delighted.

It becomes my painful duty now to mention a serious accident that occurred during our celebration yesterday. While Major Henry Hopkins' battery was firing a national salute of thirty-four guns, one of the pieces just after it had been swabbed and the blank cartridge rammed home, went off accidentally before the rammer was fully withdrawn, and while it was still in the hands of the gunner. One of his arms was blown off above the elbow, and the other hand was almost torn off, and is now in a dreadfully mutilated condition, and will probably have to be amputated in a few days. He was for an instant enveloped in a flame of fire and smoke, and is therefore badly burned about the body. The gun was pointed south, and I picked up, nearly two hundred yards from it, two fingers and several tendons. It is not likely that the poor fellow will recover from these injuries. An Indian was also fatally injured by a piece of the rammer.

From my own observations during the last two years I am under the impression that the number of accidental injuries in an army will foot up a larger percentage than is generally supposed. Few days pass that we do not hear of some soldier of this command receiving a serious accidental injury incident to the service. Human foresight can never completely guard against accidents, even of the simplest kind.

We hope that the National Flag that we reverence [219] and look upon with such devotion, will never again be hauled down from the flagstaff at this post, by the enemy. A general, whose soldiers had mutinied, is said to have expressed the belief that if he could only look the leaders in their eyes, he thought that they would return to their allegiance. So I believe that there are many rebels who, if they could but look upon our beautiful flag of the Union as its folds gently float to the breeze, would gladly return to their allegiance to the Government.

The Creek Indians still continue to come in, and are generally anxious to enlist into our army. While the estimated number that will probably come would not make a regiment, nor even a battalion; they might be enlisted into the service and assigned to the three Indian regiments of this command until they shall have been filled to their maximum strength. There is reason to believe such a course will be adopted by Colonel Phillips. As most of the men in the First and Second regiments are Creeks and Seminoles, it is likely that; all recruits belonging to either of these nations, would prefer to be assigned to one or the other of these regiments. Their preferences will no doubt be respected as far as possible.

A party of about a dozen white men who claim to have recently deserted from General Marmaduke's command, came to our pickets this morning, and were brought into camp to day. They represent that the rebel leaders in Arkansas are displaying a good deal of activity in organizing their demoralized forces for [220] the spring and summer campaigns. They say that General Cooper will have command of the rebel forces in the Indian Territory, and that General Cabell will be assigned to the command of Western Arkansas, but that they will co-operate with each other as far as practicable. This all corresponds with the information which our spies have recently brought in.

Our commissary train of one hundred and twenty-five wagons arrived this morning (20th) from Fort Scott. The slight anxiety felt by some of our troops will now be at an end. It is estimated that the supplies received by this train will ration this command for upwards of a month. On account of some rumors that have been afloat for several days, a detachment of two hundred cavalry was sent out to escort it into camp. It will now be the business of the troops here to keep the country open between this post and the southern line of Kansas. And we feel satisfied that Colonel Phillips will not be unmindful of his duty in this respect. Colonel C. W. Blair, the commanding officer at Fort Scott, will probably furnish escorts strong enough to guard our trains to Baxter Springs or Neosho river. Should the enemy at any time throw a force between this post and either of those points, with the view of attacking a train, Colonel Phillips will reinforce the escort by troops from this division. But the main body of his troops will be required for active service in this vicinity in contending with the enemy in front and around us.

This last train came down via Neosho, Missouri, [221] but will return on the old Military road, which runs along on the west side of Grand River.

Those who came down with the train from Neosho, state that a large portion of the town was recently burned. It was not definitely known whether the fire was started accidentally, or by an incendiary. It was discovered after night, and had make such progress that it could not be checked with the means the people had at hand. Two companies of the Missouri State Militia have been stationed there since Colonel Phillips withdrew his Indian troops; but one cannot easily believe that there could be found among them an individual who would deliberately attempt to burn a town of his own State; a town, too, which he is paid to protect.

The report which reached here two days ago, that Fayetteville had been taken on the 18th instant by a rebel force of fifteen hundred men, under command of General Cabell, turns out to be untrue. Until more definite information reached here, some apprehensions were felt for the safety of that post. Dispatches have now been received, stating that our troops there under Colonel Harrison had a sharp engagement with the enemy under General Cabell, on the 18th instant, which lasted two hours. The enemy were unsuccessful in the attack and compelled to retreat, leaving most of their killed and wounded on the field. From such information as I have been able to obtain, our losses were about thirty men killed and wounded, while the losses of the enemy were probably very nearly fifty. [222] Our troops had some slight advantage, as they fought part of the time from behind fortifications, and were on the defensive. The loyal Arkansas soldiers are represented to have acted with distinguished bravery throughout the contest. Having defeated the enemy in this first important engagement, they will now feel confident of their strength, and in any future contest they may have, defend their position with greater stubbornness than if they had been unsuccessful.

A spy was caught to-day (23d) near camp, dressed in a woman's suit. He is a young fellow with light hair, fair complexion, of a rather prepossessing appearance, and I should think not over sixteen years of age. When I saw him in the Provost-marshal's tent he seemed to Abe badly frightened, in fact almost frightened out of his wits. Two or three officers were putting questions to him in regard to his visiting our camp in disguise, but his excitement had not sufficiently subsided to enable him to give rational answers. He seemed ready to confess anything asked of him. He showed that he --was unaccustomed to being goaded with questions of such a serious nature. From ancient times to the present day, it has been the practice of commanding generals of armies to hang spies immediately after being caught, so as to make it impossible for the enemy to gain any advantage from the information which they may have obtained. What disposition will be made of this young man, has not yet been determined. Colonel Phillips, as commanding officer of troops in the field, has authority to order him tried by a drum-head [223] court martial, and, if found guilty, hung within the next twenty-four hours. It is possible that his youthful age may save him from the death penalty at present, and that he will be turned over to the Department commander, for such punishment as he may deem proper. He claims to have been sent here by General Cooper, who is now encamped near Webber's Falls, for the purpose of getting information in regard to our strength and intentions in the near future.

It was by the merest accident that he was detected. When several of our Indian soldiers first saw him near the limits of our camp, they thought that he was a white woman, although there are now very few white women in this country. They also noticed that his movements were peculiar, and not like those of a woman, and when they came towards him, he started to run, but in the chase they soon convinced him that his only safety lay in his absolute submission. His garments were probably an impediment to his flight, but as our Indians are generally quite fleet of foot, they would have soon overtaken him anyway.

If I were going as a spy into the enemy's camp, to dress in a woman's suit would be about the last method I should think of adopting, even if I had as marked feminine features as some young men, which I have not. And as to the time for making such an adventure, I should prefer the night to broad daylight, particularly if there was any one in the enemy's camp likely to know me.

The engineers have surveyed and laid off the [224] ground for the new fortifications at this post. A line of breastworks is to be thrown up to encompass the stone buildings on the bluff, commencing on the north side and extending around to the south side. The west side is a steep bluff running down to the water's edge of the Grand River. The area to be inclosed on three sides will be about ten acres. Details of men have been made from all the troops here, and ordered to report to the officer in charge of the works in the morning, with picks, shovels, &c. When there does not appear to be any immediate danger from attack, soldiers do not usually like to work on fortifications. As the enemy are making no threatening demonstrations, an expression of dissatisfaction may now and then be heard from the men in regard to slinging the pick and shovel. The weather is beginning to get warm, and such arduous labor is not coveted.

The picks and shovels have now been flying for three days, and the line of breastworks are rapidly assuming their proper form. In examining the position to-day, I came to the conclusion that there is not an elevation so high as the one on which our works are being constructed, within a less distance than two, miles of us. To the east and southeast, we could easily sweep the plain with our artillery. To the north and northeast, the enemy's infantry, should he make: an assault, would have a better opportunity of approaching near our works through the dense woods and broken ravines. But as we shall have an abatis over a portion of this ground, we would be able to thin [225] the ranks of the enemy, should he make an attack from this quarter, before he got through it, by pouring into his advancing columns, a constant stream of grape and canister. The heights on the west side of Grand River are too distant for an enemy to shell us with much effect with ordinary field artillery. In a few weeks therefore our position can be made quite a strong one. But the presence of General Cabell in the vicinity of Cane Hill a few days ago, with upwards of a thousand cavalry; and the force under General Cooper near us on the opposite side of the Arkansas River, in the vicinity of Webber's Falls, looks as if Colonel Phillips will be required to display great firmness and activity, to enable us to maintain our position here. As the enemy have two generals operating to the south and east of us; and as we may suppose that each General commands at least two brigades, we have the prospect of being matched by superior numbers in a few weeks. According to a reasonable estimate we may conclude that they could, in case of emergency, concentrate a force not much short of seven thousand men. This is fully twice the strength of our troops at this point.

On the evening of the 24th, Colonel Phillips took a force of six hundred men, composed of details from the three Indian regiments, and the battalion of the sixth Kansas cavalry, and crossed the Arkansas River several miles below this post, and making a night's march, reached Webber's Falls early Saturday morning, and at once commenced a vigorous attack on the [226] enemy's camp. They were taken by surprise, and fired but few rounds when they fled in disorder towards Fort Smith and North Fork town, where General Cooper's main force is encamped and organizing. We did not pursue them a great distance, as our animals were much fatigued from the night's march. The action was sharp for a few minutes, when the enemy broke, leaving on the field fifteen killed and as many wounded. We had one Indian killed and ten men wounded. But our most serious loss was the killing, or rather assassination of Dr. Gilpatrick, a special agent of the Government, who accompanied us on this reconnoitering expedition. After the skirmish was over, he was called upon by a rebel woman to dress the wound of a rebel soldier, who had fallen a hundred yards or so from where we halted. While performing this duty of mercy for a fallen foe, he was shot by a rebel from a concealed position, and he died immediately afterwards. We all felt indignant that he should have been thus basely entrapped. We brought him back with us, and he is to be buried on Sunday with military honors.

We captured a large quantity of camp and garrison equipage, flour, bacon, &c., and completely destroyed their camp. As it was not quite day-break when we charged into them, a good many fled in their night clothes. They perhaps thought that we would not venture to cross the Arkansas, as it has not been fordable for many days, and even to-day cane well up to the sides of our horses. It was a bold dash, and Colonel [227] Phillips deserves great credit for planning and successfully executing the movement. This expedition will have a demoralizing effect upon the enemy, and perhaps retard his organizing to take the field against us. To that extent it is important.

While we were absent on the reconnaissance to Webber's Falls, two rebel officers came into our camp here, under a flag of truce from General Cooper, in regard to exchanging prisoners. They were detained until our return.. We perhaps hold a few more rebel prisoners than they hold of Federal prisoners. They are authorized to offer for exchange a certain number of our officers and enlisted men, for an equal number of their officers and enlisted men. These officers have been kept in close quarters since their arrival, and will be blindfolded when they are conducted beyond our lines. This precaution is deemed necessary to prevent them from gaining any information in regard to the strength and disposition of our troops at this post.

The same day we left for Webber's Falls, Colonel Phillips sent out Lieutenant-Colonel F. W. Schaurte, second Indian regiment, with about five hundred men, in the direction of Ivansville, a little town on the Arkansas line. Major Foreman, with four companies of the Third Indian regiment, a detachment from the battalion Sixth Kansas Cavalry, and a section of Hopkins' battery, joined Colonel Schaurte beyond Park Hill. Colonel Harrison, commanding at Fayetteville, was also expected to join Colonel Schaurte near the State line. These troops were to attack the enemy [228] near Cane Hill, if he seemed disposed to give battle. But after nearly a week of hard marching, the expedition under Colonel Schaurte returned to this post, having had only a slight skirmish with the enemy. The troops were much fatigued and hungry when they came in. The last three days they were on less than half rations. The enemy under General Cabell, when they heard of the approach of our troops, immediately packed up their baggage and camp equipage, and retreated towards Van Buren. They will, however, doubtless return again shortly, as our troops have now been all withdrawn from that section. They will not only return, but they will probably return and carry their arms still further north and west until they meet with resistance from our forces.

Colonel Harrison, instead of joining Colonel Schaurte at the State line, abandoned Fayetteville, and retreated to Cassville, Missouri, a small town on the main road leading to Springfield. It is much regretted that Colonel Harrison did not display a little more nerve, and that he has felt the necessity of abandoning his post, for it leaves the Union people of northwestern Arkansas without any protection whatever. If his supplies were running too short to enable him to stand a seige of a week or so, and if he could get no assurance of reinforcements in the event of a seige, then there may be some justification for his action. The enemy have been reinforced since the engagement at Fayetteville on the 18th instant, and he may have felt that there was danger of being cut off from our troops [229] in Missouri. We hope that his withdrawal will be only temporary, and that he will shortly return, and wipe out this apparent blot upon his military record. A good many Union people in the vicinity of Fayetteville had commenced to cultivate such tracts of land as their means permit, and without the protection of the Federal troops, they will hardly for the rest.of the season be able to give proper attention to their crops.

On the 30th, information reached this post, that the enemy, considerably reinforced, returned to Webber's Falls, two or three days after we left, and are now driving out all the Indian families in that vicinity suspected of being in any manner friendly to the Union cause. A number of families have just come into our lines for protection, and they state that the rebels have burned their houses to prevent their returning to them. We might in the eyes of many justly retaliate by burning the property of rebels in the territory occupied by our troops, but this is not our purpose, to unnecessarily increase the hardships of women and children, nor to destroy private property, except in cases of absolute necessity. Such cases have been extremely few as far as this command is concerned.

We feel here that the Department Commander should not have permitted our troops to leave Fayetteville, while there were several brigades in southern Missouri not very actively employed.

On May 1st, Colonel Phillips reviewed his troops, on the open grounds near the Fort. He had in line [230] upwards of two thousand men. The Indians, having recently been furnished with new uniforms, made a creditable appearance. But with their long, black hair, there is a marked contrast between them and our white soldiers, who generally have their hair cut rather short, besides it is several shades lighter than the Indian's hair. The Indian soldiers are in good condition, and though their arms are not the best, yet if handled to the best advantage, may be made quite effective, turned against the enemy.

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