December 9, 1861 (Monday)
When we last left the Unionist Creeks in Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), they had just slipped through the warring fists of Col. Douglas Cooper and his band of Texans and pro-Confederate Indians. They last fought near Round Mountain on November 19th.
In the weeks that had passed, the Native Unionists, led by Opothleyahola, fled deeper into the Cherokee Nation, in the northwest portion of the Territory. The Cherokees were know to be Confederate sympathizers, though certainly not radicals.1
Col. Cooper’s force of 780 men, following in kind, decided to head towards Tulsey Town (modern day Tulsa). They were made up of Creeks, Chickasaws and Choctaws. The Texans had been sent north to join up with Col. John Drew’s 1st Cherokee Mountain Rifles.
In Tulsey Town, Cooper received word from an escaped prisoner that Opothleyahola’s band, along Bird’s Creek, north of the town, was about to attack with 2,000 warriors. Though this was hardly believable, Cooper thought it true and ordered both the Texans and Drew’s Cherokee Regiment, 500-strong, to meet up with him.
Instead, Col. Drew, nephew of the Cherokee Chief, John Ross, went directly to Opothleyahola’s camp to broker a peace treaty, arriving on the 7th, a full day’s march ahead of Cooper. There, he met with the Creek leader, who also desired peace and was willing to settle the fighting through diplomacy. Opothleyahola sent a messenger to Cooper, who received him the next day.
Cooper replied, telling the Unionist Creeks that “we did not desire the shedding of blood among the Indians,” and proposing a conference to be held the following day. With message in hand, Major Thomas Pegg of Drew’s Cherokees rode towards the Unionist camp, but was, for some reason, not allowed to enter.
Finally making it back to camp around 7pm, Pegg informed Cooper of the problem. Opothleyahola’s camp was surrounded by several thousand warriors, said Pegg, all painted for battle. They were to attack sometime during the night.
The news only got worse for Cooper. Col. Drew’s 500 lukewarm Confederate Cherokees had fled, not wanting to fight against the Creeks. They had left their tents standing and even (somehow) left their horses behind. Col. Drew, however, did not defect. He, along with the remaining twenty-eight members of his regiment, joined with Cooper in his camp.2
There, Drew explained why his men deserted. They left because of a “misconception of the character of the conflict between the Creeks, and from an indisposition to engage in strife with their immediate neighbors.”
Many of Drew’s Cherokees simply went home, while others actually joined the Unionists. The 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles had been formed to fight the invaders and enemies of the Territory. They had no designs on fighting the Creeks, many of whom had been their friends before the War.3
Cooper’s command now braced themselves for an attack that they were certain would come. Throughout the entire night, they guarded their camp and slept on their arms, ready to defend against the onslaught of Opothleyahola and his thousands of painted warriors. And though they waited, an attack never came.
By dawn on this date, Cooper was ready to act. He sent some troops to secure the supplies from the abandoned Cherokee camp, and two companies of troops to feel out the Unionists’ position. The two companies sent towards the Unionist Creeks were themselves made up of Creeks loyal to the Confederacy. Both factions of Creeks exchanged shots along Bird Creek. The Rebels took six prisoners, but had been overpowered and forced to retreat with the Unionist Creeks nipping at their heels.
Soon, at a place the Cherokees called Chusto-Talasah, Opothleyahola’s Unionist force appeared in the dense woods above the creek and swept into a ravine that spread out across the open prairie. This was a formidable defensive position, with water and thirty foot banks for protection. Seeing this, Cooper arrayed his Confederates for battle, placing the Choctaws and Chickasaws on the right, the Texans and Cherokees in the center, and the Creeks on the left. As one unit, they charged upon their enemies.
The Rebel Creeks were the first to make contact, clashing with the fellow members of their tribe in a brutal hand-to-hand melee, and driving back the Unionists from the thickets. Meanwhile, on the Confederate right flank, the Choctaws and Chickasaws had dismounted and were engaged in a full-pitched gun battle, but driving back the Unionists, who put up the bravest and most fierce of fights.
With their flanks shattered, the Unionist Creeks were soon to be surrounded and fell back to a house along a bend in Bird Creek. Here, they made their final stand, pouring a deathly fire into the charging Rebels. The lines ebbed and flowed like waves of an ocean crashing against one another.
Throughout the battle, the Unionist Creeks were able to pepper the flanks and rear of the Confederates, which served as more of an annoyance than a sound tactic. In one final menace, a Union detachment fired upon the horses of the dismounted Rebels, causing them to fall back to secure them. This moment of hesitation was all that the Unionists needed to effect their escape.
As the Unionist Creeks were retreating, the Confederate Creeks fell upon them, making sure this four hour battle would come to a close. With the sun setting and darkness settling in early, the guns fell silent.
Several times in his report, Col. Cooper stated that his enemy’s losses were heavy. According to a prisoner he interviewed, the Unionists lost 412, though how a prisoner could know such an exact number is perplexing. Others placed the losses around 500. The Confederate losses totaled fifteen killed, thirty-seven wounded.
Cooper believed that his 1,100 men had fought as many as 4,000 Unionists. He probably exaggerated his enemy’s strength as well as their losses.
Unable to pursue, Cooper became fearful of more Cherokee defections. He would soon request that more white soldiers enter the Territory to keep an eye not only on the Unionist Indians, but on the Secessionist Indians as well.4