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Oklahoma Civil War Sites: The First Battle of Cabin Creek

Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.

Battle of Cabin Creek

Battle of Cabin Creek

Battle of Cabin Creek

The First Battle at Cabin Creek was nothing more than a small skirmish in the grand scheme of the American Civil War, but even this short battle led the way for Union control over Arkansas and Indian Territory.

The Union traveled down the old Texas Road in an orderly line. The light infantry lead the march down the muddy trail, closely followed by the infantry of the line. Bringing up the rear were the 218 mule-wagons and 40 ox-wagons laden with provisions and military goods that were an absolute necessity for the Union campaign. A light cavalry flanked the supply train as it made its way across Indian Territory towards Ft. Smith Arkansas. In all, just over 1,000 soldiers were providing escort to protect those much-needed supplies.

Both the Indian Territory commanders—General Douglas H. Cooper (Confederate) and Major General James G. Blunt (Union)— fully understood the importance of the federal supply train from Kansas.

In the first half of 1863, the Confederates held a strong position in the war. They had driven the Union forces far back into their own territory, and Lee was threatening Washington from the rear. Along the Mississippi, the Union advance had been beaten back at Helena, Arkansas, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. In Tennessee, the Confederates had successfully blockaded the Union path to the sea. Little progress had been made in the effort to take Arkansas and Indian Territory.

But the Civil War saw a major shift in July 1863. The Union forces had won several major victories. General Robert E. Lee had been defeated at Gettysburg. Grant completed the capture of Vicksburg, which opened the Mississippi River to the Union forces, thus cutting the Confederacy in two. Helena, Arkansas, fell, opening the way to the capture of Little Rock and the rest of the state. On the 17th of the same month, the decisive battle of Cabin Creek was fought.

Oklahoma Civil War: The Battle at Cabin Creek Reenactment

Oklahoma Civil War: The Battle at Cabin Creek Reenactment

Visiting Cabin Creek Today

You can still visit the sites where the Battle of Cabin Creek took place. The Oklahoma Historical Society currently maintains the nearly 100-acre site that began being preserved back in 1961.

The site also holds Battle of Cabin Creek re-enactments that are historically accurate and allow visitors to personally experience events as they happened during the Civil War.

I would suggest calling or emailing for dates and times of the next triennial re-enactment. The phone number is (918) 256-7133, and the email is cabincreek@okhistory.org.

Until then, you can visit the battle site on your own. According to the organization's website, it is open daily from dawn to dusk.

If you are driving, follow these instructions. Take I-44 (Will Rogers Turnpike) to the Vinita, Oklahoma exit. Turn right after paying toll and go to the downtown area to first stop light (next to McDonalds). Continue on U.S. Highway 60 to the edge of town and look for 4400 road—turn left. Take road 4400 to road 350—turn left again. Battlefield Re-Enactment & Memorial sites will be on the left side of the road.

The site offers free admission for all who visit.

Oklahoma Civil War - Pivotal People: Cherokee Chief Stand Watie

Oklahoma Civil War - Pivotal People: Cherokee Chief Stand Watie

More History on the Battle

Everything was going as planned. The sun felt like a furnace, but the cool breeze and shade from overhanging trees kept the Union forces cool. Before the wagon train moved south from Baxter Springs, Kansas, Major John A. Foreman was sent out from Fort Gibson with 600 mounted men and one howitzer to serve as reinforcements for the escort.

Just a few miles down the old Texas road, Stand Watie, the boldest and most resourceful of the Confederate Indian leaders, took position at the Cabin Creek crossing on the military road. With 1,400 men and reinforcements due to arrive from Fort Smith, Watie was positive he could take the Union supply train. Watie concealed his forces just south of Cabin Creek in a dense thicket and waited.

The Confederate reinforcements traveling from Fort Smith never arrived. General William C. Cabell was due to meet Watie with 1,500 men, infantry, and cavalry, but the extreme forces of nature seemed to hold the men hostage. The Grand River, swollen by heavy rains, proved too much for the Confederates. Unable to cross, Cabell’s men had no other option but to wait. Still, as the Union forces drew near to Watie’s position, he remained confident.

Oklahoma Civil War Sites: Map showing the Confederate and Union positions during the Battle of Cabin Creek.

Oklahoma Civil War Sites: Map showing the Confederate and Union positions during the Battle of Cabin Creek.

Watie's first contact with Union forces came on the first of July. As they rounded a bend in the road, he immediately ordered his men to open fire. At first, the Union forces seemed to be in disarray, but they soon deployed forces to the left and right of the ford.

The fighting that followed was fierce but short-lived. After taking a heavy pounding, Watie ordered his men back to relative safety. The firefight only lasted for half an hour, but it was enough to sap his confidence. He watched as the Union forces tried to ford the stream, but felt little comfort as the overflowing waters made them fall back.

Colonel J. M. Williams, in charge of the Union supplies, was compelled by high water to camp for one night before attempting the Cabin Creek ford. On the morning of July 2nd, after taking soundings in the ford, Williams opened fire with three artillery units and shelled the Confederate position for forty minutes. Foreman then advanced with the Third Indian Regiment to cross the creek. When this party had almost reached the south bank, a line of Confederate Indians suddenly opened fire from a trench concealed under low-hanging willow boughs. Foreman was wounded and his men were thrown into confusion.

The second Union line, composed of Kansas black infantry, moved forward rapidly and broke through the Confederate battle line. Watie's troops rallied and formed a second line, but Williams came up with his reserve units, and Lieutenant R. C. Philbrick charged the new Confederate position. Watie's army scattered in all directions to minimize capture, and Watie himself rode south with two companions to report the failure to General Douglas Cooper at Honey Springs.

The campaign that included the battle at Honey Springs on July 17, 1863, gave the Union forces strategic command of the Indian Territory and led directly to the capture of Fort Smith on the border of Arkansas. The clash at Cabin Creek was primarily for possession of General Blunt's supply train, but had a strategic impact in the fight to secure Arkansas as a Union state.

Stand Watie would not let such a failure deter him. During the course of the Civil War, he became one of the most well respected men in the Confederate. He was the last general in the field to surrender.

© 2010 Eric Standridge