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Chapter 13:

  • The enemy occupying the heights south of the Arkansas River in sight of Fort Gibson
  • -- picket firing across the River all day long -- strength of General Cooper's force -- he is preparing to capture Colonel Phillips' supply train -- name of post of Fort Gibson changed to Fort Blunt -- Colonel Phillips contending single-handed with two Generals of the enemy -- hard service for the cavalry -- capture of horses and mules from the enemy -- activity in the enemy's camp -- the enemy kill the Federal pickets, and capture a good many animals -- the battle -- enemy driven from the field and pursued -- recapture of some animals -- large force of the enemy cross the Arkansas River, and march to meet the Federal supply train -- convalescent soldiers coming in from Tahlequah -- the troops move inside the fortifications at Fort Gibson -- the engagement at Rapid Ford, Sunday afternoon -- Colonel Phillips intended the movement only as a demonstration.

After returning to my post of duty at Gibson, I found that the enemy had become much bolder than when we left on the night of the first instant. They have moved all the forces from the neighborhoods of Webber's Falls, North Fork and other points in the Indian Territory to the heights on the south side of the Arkansas River, nearly opposite the post, and not more than five or six miles away. During the entire day, at intervals of a few minutes, we heard the firing between [252] their pickets and ours across the river. This skirmishing between .the picket lines of the two armies has been going on several days. Three or four of our soldiers have been killed and wounded, and it is believed fully as many of the enemy, as we have the best arms. The heavy timber oh both sides of the Arkansas affords both parties a convenient shelter from the effects of each other's arms. A man cannot show himself many seconds without being fired upon. His chances of being struck depends upon the distance which separates him and the foe, the marksmanship of the party firing, the gun and its range. Our carbines, by raising the sights to the outside limit, will carry a ball to the mark about a thousand yards. The Arkansas River is not quite that wide at any point within ten miles of here. The enemy, therefore, after they get the approximate range of our carbines, will not likely very often venture inside of this range. If they do they are sure to be brought down. General Cooper seems to have command of all the rebel troops operating against us, and they are reported to be composed mainly of Texans and Indians, estimated at from five to seven thousand men, with one or two batteries of artillery. Our scouts report that some two days ago they sent out two strong reconnoitering forces of cavalry; that one of these forces crossed the river below here for the purpose of going up on the east side of the Grand River, and that the other force crossed the Arkansas and Verdigris Rivers, some seven or eight miles above this post, for the purpose of going up on the west side [253] of Grand River, with the view of forming a junction near Cabin Creek, and attacking our supply train, which is expected down from Fort Scott in a few days. If the force really went up on the east side of Grand River, we must have passed very near it some time yesterday when on the way here with dispatches and mail from Cassville. Everything indicates that we shall have a lively time about here in a few days. Whether very large forces of the enemy have crossed the river yet or not, there are certainly strong reasons for believing that they are making preparations to attack our train at some point above here. The heavy firing along the river the past few days is doubtless intended as a feint, to occupy our attention, and to( prevent us from reinforcing the train's escort. But they will find that Colonel Phillips is not so easily too be thrown off his guard.

The name of this post has been changed from Fort. Gibson to Fort Blunt, in honor of Major General James G. Blunt, our division commander of last winter, but who is at present commanding the District of Kansas. If Fort Blunt is not to be abandoned almost as, soon as named, the General should use his influence in getting reinforcements sent down here at once, and in having Colonel Phillips made a Brigadier General. After the Colonel has, by continual skirmishing with the enemy, marched his forces down here and took possession of this country, and held it against such odds, and so much further in advance of all other Federal troops in the west. it would be manifestly unjust to send an, [254] officer down here who would rank him. Nor do we believe that if the War Department could see the present state of things in their true light, that it would permit him to be robbed of his hard-earned honors; but that it would send him reinforcements, and a. commission appropriate to his command. The command to which he has been assigned is really a recognition of his ability and merit. I have already mentioned that since he captured this isolated station in the enemy's country, he has had two of the enemy's generals to contend with, one of whom may be a Major General.

The active service during the winter and spring, with inadequate forage, has put our cavalry horses in bad condition for the service now required of them. All the animals in camp we are obliged every day to send out on the prairie, in the vicinity of the Fort, under guard, to graze. They are generally sent out in several herds to different localities. The plain is now pretty.much denuded of grass for a mile or so of camp, so that the horses must be taken somewhat beyond this limit. They are taken out every morning at daybreak and driven in at night, Perhaps nearly half of our cavalry horses are kept out in this way, while the other half are used by our troops in watching the movements of the enemy, on reconnoissances, &c. While animals will fatten on grass when they get it in sufficient quantities and are not annoyed by flies, it alone does not afford such nutritive and strength-giving qualities as will enable our horses to do hard service, such as is required of them. [255]

A detachment of about four hundred of our cavalry which were sent on a reconnaissance on the 18th, in the direction of the Creek Agency, on south side of the Arkansas, captured about sixty head o/f horses and mules from General Cooper's command. This bold movement of our troops on the south side of the river,will probably prevent the enemy from sending as large a force as he had intended to attack our supply train. Should they leave their camp guarded by only a small force, Colonel Phillips might take it into his head to take a force of cavalry and cross the Arkansas at the Rapid Ford five miles below this post, and make a dash on it, with the view of capturing or destroying it. Though they probably keep a small force near the ford, we could probably shell them out, and cross without serious loss. But we cannot afford to make a movement that will endanger our train. From the roof of one of the buildings inside our fortification, with a field glass, we can see very near the enemy's camp. The clouds of dust that we saw this afternoon, at several points on the opposite heights, clearly indicates that he is making some important movement. A large cavalry force was in motion, but we could not determine the direction they were marching. The river is now quite low, and there are several points, both above and below us, where they can ford it. It is, I suppose, difficult for Colonel Phillips to determine the nature of their present activity; whether it means to attack us here, or to go up the country west of us, and attack our train due in a few days from Fort Scott. [256]

To-day, the 20th, I have been out nearly all day with our troops. This morning, just before nine o'clock, several of our men came in as fast as their horses could carry them, and reported that the enemy were firing upon our pickets, and had killed several of them, together with a number of herders, and were driving away one or two herds of horses and mules. The bugles were instantly sounded, and in a few moments Colonel Phillips had nearly all his force, consisting of cavalry, dismounted men, and two guns of Captain Hopkins' battery out on the plain, about a mile east of the fort. He immediately formed his line and sent out a detachment of cavalry to the northeast of his position as skirmishers, and soon discovered that the enemy, in considerable force, had formed under cover of a rather dense woods, about a half-mile almost directly east of us. The section of artillery brought out from the fort was directed to open fire upon the enemy. After a half dozen rounds of shells had been thrown into the woods where we first saw them, and our cavalry had opened on the left, I could see from our position, near the section of artillery, that, from the clouds of dust raised in the timber, that the enemy were in rapid movement. We moved forward with the two guns and dismounted men, and our cavalry pressed them on the left. In the meantime all the horses and mules not captured had been driven into camp, and our cavalry was being rapidly reinforced. When our cavalry was sufficiently strengthened by the arrival of troopers from the fort, mounted [257] on horses just brought in, the line on the left was formed, and the bugles sounded the charge. At the same time the artillery, which was supported by the dismounted men, had moved up nearer the timber, and opened with shell. The enemy had no sooner drawn our first volley at a short range than they fled in the direction they came from. We heard that a shell from one of our guns burst in the midst of a body of rebel Indians, killing and wounding quite a number, and throwing the others into a panic. It is often remarked that Indians have a greater dread of artillery than white troops. Our cavalry followed them beyond Greenleaf Prairie, ten miles southeast of the fort, and recaptured a good many of our horses and mules which they had captured in the morning. Their rear was exposed to the fire of our cavalry during the entire afternoon, and they must have suffered considerable loss in killed and wounded. They left on the field only eight men, but we have understood that they took a number along with them who were mortally wounded. We lost fourteen men killed, and had about as many wounded. The engagement lasted about an hour and a half, but some time was consumed on the skirmish line before we ascertained the exact position of the enemy in the woods. They had taken up a position near the road leading to Greenleaf Prairie, and probably intended to draw our troops into an ambuscade. But Colonel Phillips was not to be deceived, by rushing headlong after a pretended flying party of the enemy, to be fired upon by a massed force in the woods. It was entirely [258] due to his coolness and skill in handling his troops that enabled us so quickly to put the enemy to flight. It is a time now that our movements should be conducted with great caution, as the enemy have not only a larger force than ours, but it is composed mainly of white troops.

That he should have succeeded in coming so near us unexpectedly is due to the fact that they killed most ,of our pickets along the road they came in on. They killed, captured, or cut off all our men on the two outside picket stations, but when they came to the third not more than three miles from camp, our picket guard hurried to the fort and reported the approach of the enemy. It is supposed that they crossed the river near Webber's Falls and made a night's march. With General Cabell's division operating along the Arkansas line, and General Cooper's force directly in our front within four or five miles of us, it is impossible for Colonel Phillips, with the force at his disposal, to guard all the approaches to this post, except within a radius of a few miles. This raid of the enemy has cost us heavily in animals. Our loss will not fall much short of three hundred horses and mules, and perhaps even more, including the losses of the Indian soldiers. The four companies of the battalion of the Sixth Kansas cavalry lost probably nearly half of their horses. As the men of these companies owned their horses as private property, and have been paid for their risk and use by the Government, the loss to each individual owner will be quite a hardship. Though they [259] may soon be in funds, as the paymaster is expected to come down with the supply train to pay off the troops of this division, it will be difficult for them to find in this section suitable animals for remounts. Indian ponies could perhaps be had, but in my opinion they are only suitable for Indians, and would answer only as temporary remounts for the white soldiers.

One of our Indians, a herder or picket, who was killed by the enemy, had his clothing set on fire and his body burned to a crisp. He was brought in this afternoon with the other killed and wounded, and he presented a ghastly sight. It was a barbarous act on the part of the enemy, and we had supposed that the rebel troops operating against us were commanded by officers who had too high a sense of honor to permit such an outrage. I am unable to see what object they had in view in perpetrating such fiendish treatment on the dead. If they think that such acts will make our men regard them with greater terror, they are mistaken. It was probably done by the rebel Indians. Our pickets at the Rapid Ford five miles below the fort, reported to-day (22d) that the enemy fired wooden balls at them from the opposite side of the river nearly all day. This would indicate that they want to keep up a noise to occupy our attention, and that they have more powder than lead to waste. We can see very clearly that they desire to draw our attention to points on the river below here as much as possible, while their most important movements, are directed to another quarter, to the west side of Grand river, for the purpose of capturing our commissary train [260]

On the 22d our scouts brought in information. that a large force of the enemy crossed the Arkansas above the mouths of the Grand and the Verdigris rivers, and are believed to be moving northward. Whether it is their intention to continue their march northward until they meet our supply train, or whether they intend to take up a strong position above here and await its arrival, to make the attack, is not definitely known. Colonel Phillips is watching their movements closely and will use his force here to the best possible advantage to prevent the capture of our train. He has to-night sent out nearly all of his available cavalry to meet the train which is due here Sunday night, the 24th. The enemy seem to be almost as well-informed of its movements as we are, from the preparations they are making to effect its capture. The clouds of dust we saw again to-day west of their camp shows that they are displaying great activity. There is not now a reasonable doubt but that we shall have to fight to get our train in. But as our troops have not yet been defeated, we will not give it up without a hard contest.

A number of our sick and convalescent Indian soldiers who have been at Tahlequah for some time, came in to-day, fearing an attack from the enemy at that place, since it is known that rebel scouts were recently seen in that vicinity. It is provoking that we have not a larger cavalry force in this section. The enemy, however, would not likely attack a hospital, but they might go there and take away with them the [261] convalescent patients, unless those in charge of the hospital should spread the report that a number of smallpox patients are still there, which I am under the impression is a fact. I don't know that we have had any troops stationed there since we came here; and there must be some good reason why the enemy has not shown himself in sight of that place, as it is about twenty-five miles from this post. But he would just about as likely wish to capture a herd of horses with glanders as a hospital filled with small-pox patients.

Sunday, May 24th, was a day of considerable excitement and activity with us. We knew that the threatening movements of the enemy during the last four or five days, meant something; and that the time had come when we must act or suffer inglorious defeat. Colonel Phillips is not an officer who can remain inactive while the enemy are displaying activity about him.

On Saturday (23rd) our pickets along the banks of the river, having first ascertain the range of our carbines and carefully estimated the distance across the river, fired upon and killed three of the enemy's patrol guards on the opposite bank. Our soldiers managed to fix up some cartridges which contained a little more than the usual quantity of powder. At any rate the charges were sufficient to send the balls flying over the river and right into objects at which the carbines were aimed. There is not a better cavalry arm in the service than Sharp's carbine. We have some adventurous spirits in the battalion of the Sixth Kansas cavalry, and I believe that if it were possible they would [262] contrive some means to send a ball two miles, if nothing but a river separated us from the enemy.

There was an alarm in camp Saturday night, caused by a detachment of the enemy making an attempt to capture our pickets at one of the outside stations. In view of the situation and to guard against a possible surprise, Colonel Phillips ordered all the troops encamped on the southern and eastern slopes of the hill, inside of the fortifications. We took our tents down and packed everything up, and in less than two hours were inside the fortifications. Some few of the soldiers thought it useless, while most of them were perfectly satisfied to trust to the judgment of our commanding officer, as he was in a position to know very nearly the exact situation. The thought of being somewhat crowded, it is true, was not a pleasant feature; but nearly every one was willing to forego a little freedom of movement for the sake of greater safety. So this morning when the sun had climbed the mountains, which, from our more elevated position, looked lovely fringed with green, the parapets were bristling with the guns of Captain Hopkins' battery. Various rumors were afloat all the morning concerning the movements of the enemy, but nothing was definitely known. As he is known to have received considerable reinforcements recently, some thought that he might feel strong enough to divide his force into two divisions, one to attack our train, and the other our troops here in the fort. Colonel Phillips, who no doubt comprehends the situation, at three o'clock this afternoon [263] took about five hundred men, infantry, cavalry and one section of Hopkins' battery, and marched down to the Rapid Ford, five miles below here, with the view of making a demonstration against the enemy's camp. I desired to witness the action, and also went along. We marched leisurely, and reached the ford about four o'clock. There had been no firing between the pickets during the day, though it is not likely that they had kept quiet on account of religious scruples. We saw the enemy on the opposite bank in considerable force. They did not seem alarmed at our presence, and were quite willing to show themselves some distance back in an open space. As the river bank on the north side, as well as on the south side, was thickly clothed with brush and woods, they did not see the section of the battery when we commenced forming in line. While they were surveying the situation, Captain Hopkins estimated the range, and in a moment more, bang went a shell from one gun, and then from the other, right into a small group of the enemy. The place became too hot for them. We could plainly see the shells burst near the party, and their instant scattering; but we could not see whether any of them were struck or not by pieces of bursting shells. A number of men were seen near a small house, on the road, several hundred yards beyond the opposite ford. Two or three shells were thrown near them, and they immediately disappeared. Presently, for a hundred yards or so above and below the ford, they opened fire from behind fallen trees and the thick woods, but the [264] balls from their small arms fell spent near us or dropped into the river. We returned several volleys, aiming at the places where we saw the smoke rising from their discharged muskets. I fired a dozen rounds from my Sharp's carbine, waiting every time for the smoke to rise, from some point on the opposite bank. Captain Hopkins now commenced shelling the woods along the opposite bank, and the enemy's firing ceased. They sheltered themselves from our shells by getting behind the trunks of fallen trees. Colonel Phillips, now at the head of his cavalry, followed by the infantry, filed along down into the river, with the apparent intention of marching right across. The river bed on the north side was perfectly dry, the channel running near the opposite bank. We continued to move forward until we reached the middle of the stream, when the enemy opened a volley upon us, wounding two or three men. We returned the fire, but with not much advantage, as we had to guide our horses in the strong current which was now flowing up to their flanks. The heavy volleys of musketry made a good many horses unmanageable. The infantry, however, who were still on the sand bar, returned the fire vigorously, and with better effect, so that the enemy kept back a few yards from shore. Colonel Phillips presently turned back, and we occupied for some time the dry river bed on the north side, and kept up a steady firing for half an hour. In the meantime our twelve pounders had been steadily throwing shot and shell into the woods.

After this demonstration, which lasted nearly three [265] hours, the whole force, except a guard left at the ford, returned to the fort. We shall probably know in a few days what effect the demonstration has had with the rebel forces. Colonel Phillips displayed great courage and coolness in his exposed position. The enemy's bullets flew around him as thick as hail.

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