No bugle calls are expected Thursday on the anniversary of the Battle of Chustenahlah, a tragic engagement of the U.S. Civil War that occurred near here — in what is now eastern Osage County — on Dec. 26, 1861.
From Honey Springs in Oklahoma to Gettysburg, Pa., there has been a renewal of re-enactment gunfire and resurrected speeches marking sesquicentennial observances at premier battle sites. Events will continue counting down toward April 9 of next year and the anniversary of the South’s surrender at Appomattox.
But despite the national interest, the Civil War engagements that took place in this area have been largely overlooked. Two years ago, on the 150th anniversary of Chustenahlah (plus two earlier, related engagements) there were no battle reenactments — nor hardly even a mention.
“I’m not too surprised,” said Steve Cottrell, an avid re-enactor who has authored several Civil War books — including ‘The Civil War in Indian Territory.’
Cottrell is a resident of Carthage, Mo., the scene of one of the earliest battles in the Civil War. He is a descendant of a member of the Sixth Kansas Cavalry, which saw action in Indian Territory during that war.
“The smaller battles, even the ones that were strictly military affairs, struggle for attention,” Cottrell said. “Given the complexity of that series of early battles, it’s just a very difficult thing for most people to grasp — even those with a general interest in Civil War history.”
Chusto-Talasah (also known as the Battle of the Caving Banks) took place Dec. 8 along a horseshoe bend on Bird Creek, between present-day Turley and Sperry. Seventeen days later and about as many miles away came the final engagement on the frozen prairie hillside a few miles northwest of modern-day Skiatook.
At Chustenahlah, a retreating pro-Union band of approximately 2,000 — led by aged Creek chief Opothleyahola — was routed by a pursuing force of 1,400 battle-hardened and freshly re-supplied Texas and Arkansas cavalrymen commanded by West Point graduate Col. James McQueen McIntosh.
The midday battle occurred in the last days of the all-American conflict’s first year. Many of the Confederate troops had participated four months earlier in southwestern Missouri’s Battle of Wilson’s Creek, a significant Southern victory which precipitated Opothleyahola’s decision to seek a safe haven in Kansas.
The Native American contingent included large numbers of women, children and slaves. According to later estimates, fewer than half the males in the loyalist group were of fighting-age. With a considerable amount livestock also in tow, the loyalist group had proceeded at a wagon train-like pace.
Opothleyahola did, however, have the services of a quasi-military force of armed Creeks and Seminoles that had successfully providing rear-guard defense actions during two previous encounters.
In November, at Round Mountain (located west of modern-day Tulsa), the pro-Union group set a prairie fire to slow the advancing Confederates. Opothleyahola’s combined losses in that initial battle were put at 110 killed and wounded, while the Confederates lost a captain and five troopers, with another handful reported wounded or missing.
Col. Douglas Cooper, the Confederate commander for Indian Territory, was in charge of the pro-secessionist forces at the first two engagements. His troops were hindered at Chusto-Talasah by the strong defensible position of the Creek leader’s camp, and because of late defections by some of the Cherokee forces under his command. The loyalist escape at Caving Banks also was helped by the fact that Southern troops were unable to pursue due to a shortage of ammunition.
Losses at Chusto-Talasah were estimated at over 400 for Opothleyahola’s group and 15 killed, 37 wounded for the Confederates.
The weather at the camp site turned bitterly cold by the day of the battle. Cooper’s plan was to surround the Indian encampment using his forces with those of McIntosh and Cherokee Col. Stand Watie. After Cooper was delayed, McIntosh located the Creeks on Christmas and he attacked the next day — despite being outnumbered and facing the severe weather conditions. A noontime cavalry charge was repelled by pro-Union defenders hidden by brush and rocks along the hill.
McIntosh then ordered a charge on foot directly up the bluff. As the Confederate attack progressed, the Native Americans began to slowly fall back. The retreat became a rout after the loyalists reached their camp and attempted to make a stand. By 4 p.m., all of the Creeks had abandoned the camp on a final forced flight toward Kansas.
Watie’s regiment arrived just as the battle was concluding. The following day, his 300-man forced continued pursuit of the fleeing Creeks and Seminoles. Fifteen loyalists were reported killed by the Cherokees and nearly 2,000 more would die of exposure and disease after reaching Kansas.
Confederates reported the capture of 160 women and children as well as 20 blacks. They confiscated 30 wagons and 70 yoke of oxen, around 500 Indian horses, several hundred head of cattle, 100 sheep, and large quantities of supplies. Casualties from the battle were estimated at 250 on the pro-Union side and nine killed, 40 wounded for the Confederates.
The retreat of Opothleyahola’s followers came to be called “The Trail of Blood on Ice.” After arriving in Kansas, the survivors were further ravaged by exposure and starvation.
Two years ago, just prior to the sesquicentennial anniversaries of Chusto-Talasah and Chustenalah, a representative for one area historical organization was asked if there were any plans for observances of the battles.
“Those engagements have been well-documented and there are historical markers near the sites,” he said. “There probably won’t be anything done in the way of a formal observance, though.”
“I really don’t it’s something that too many people will want to remember,” he added.