November 19, 1861 (Tuesday)
Though it seemed that the Five Civilized Tribes were united in support of the Confederacy, one Unionist holdout remained. The treaties with the South stated that they would only have to fight if their Indian Territory [modern-day Oklahoma] was invaded by Union troops. There was, however, a faction in the Creek Nation, under Opothleyahola, who refused to support the Rebels.
Opothleyahola and John Ross, both tribal leaders, had been friends and close allies since the 1830s. He believed that Ross would ultimately side with the North. When Ross signed the treaty with the Confederacy, and urged the loyal Unionist Creeks under Opothleyahola to do the same, they were stunned. It was quickly becoming clear that just as the white man was having a Civil War, the Cherokee Nation was soon to follow suit.
The Confederate command in Indian Territory fell under Col. Douglas Cooper, an Indian Agent to the Choctaw tribe and adopted by the Chickasaws prior to the war. Cooper had raised Rebel regiments of Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles and Creek. They, along with 500 men from the 9th Texas Cavalry, made up his brigade of 1,400.
The loyal, pro-Union Creeks under Opothleyahola, fearing trouble, began to move north towards Kansas and the Union lines. Cooper, who referred to the Unionists as “hostiles,” claimed that he had tried to solve their problems peaceably, though it seems it was more of a “join us or die” scenario. Having discovered that some of the Unionist Creeks were in communication with Federal authorities, Cooper assumed they were officially allied with the Union. They were not.
Opothleyahola’s followers were mostly families. They were all civilians, as well as a couple hundred freed slaves, fleeing from the Creek and Seminole Tribes. Their disloyalty to the South, and thus to Cooper, had sent them running without supplies or support of any government or military unit. As they retreated north, Cooper followed.
Some of the loyal Creeks were armed and kept a watch out for the Confederates, while hurrying on the women and children.1
On the 15th of November, Col. Cooper discovered the location of Opothleyahola’s camp. He immediately rounded up his forces and moved up the Deep Fork of the Canadian River in the Creek Nation in central Indian Territory. They discovered the abandoned camp, but also discovered the loyal Creeks’ trail and followed it.
They arrested a few stragglers on this date who informed Cooper that the Unionist Creeks were establishing a fort on the Red Fork of the Arkansas River, near Round Mountain. Cooper knew that this was a fallback plan in case the Unionist Creeks were refused help from the Union troops in Kansas. Still, he pressed forward.
Around 4pm, Cooper’s men crossed the Red Fork and discovered outposts of loyal Creeks and the smoke from a main camp in the distance. He ordered the Texas Cavalry to charge the camp, but when they did, they found it recently abandoned. The Unionist Creek outposts fell back and skirmished as a delaying, rear guard in order for the women and children to make it to relative safety.
After killing one Rebel, the Unionists under arms gathered to make a more formidable stand. Cooper called for a general advance and quickly pushed them back under a heavy fire, supposedly killing many of the loyalists.
Darkness was quickly overtaking the field, but a sporadic fire was kept up between the two camps throughout the night. Finally, the Unionist Creek fighters slipped back to their camp. The fighting would be resumed the following day.2
Federals are Outlaws and Enemies of Mankind
Confederate President Jefferson Davis addressed Congress in Richmond as they began their session. After recalling the events leading up to the war and the war itself, he addressed the Trent Affair. Davis was talking tough. Since the Union soldiers seemingly held no respect for the rules of civilized warfare, these “enemies of mankind” could expect to be treated as outlaws and, if captured, treated not as prisoners of war, “but must expect to be dealt with as on offender against all law, human and divine.”
Davis argued that the Federals were “not content with violating our rights under the law of nations at home,” and therefore “have extended these injuries to us within other jurisdictions.” He was referring to the arrest of James Mason and John Slidell, envoys to Europe, from the British vessel, Trent.
“The United States have thus claimed a general jurisdiction over the high seas,” reasoned Davis, “and, entering a British ship, sailing under its country’s flag, violated the rights of embassy, for the most part held sacred even amongst barbarians, by seizing our Ministers whilst under the protection and within the dominions of a neutral nation.”
All this was, more or less true. Like the Richmond Daily Dispatch printed the previous day, Davis argued that Mason and Slidell “were as much under the jurisdiction of the British Government upon that ship, and beneath its flag, as if they had been upon its soil.”
In Davis’ mind, and, he hoped, in the mind of the Crown, there was no difference between British soil and the deck of a British ship. It was no different from the United States seizing them on the streets of London.3
Meanwhile, the representative to the Crown, Lord Richard Lyons, the British minister to the United States, wrote to Earl John Russell in England. In his letter, he included Northern newspaper clippings to show not only the details of the seizure, but also the public reaction to it. Unsure whether to demand their release or remain quiet, Lyons decided to wait and see what Russell’s thoughts were on the matter.
Lyon was certain of one thing, however. “The American people would more easily tolerate a spontaneous offer of reparation made by its Government from a sense of justice than a compliance with a demand for satisfaction from a foreign minister.”4
- The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War by Clarissa W. Confer, University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p5-6. [↩]
- Message of Jefferson Davis to the Confederate Congress, November 19, 1861 as printed in The Rebellion Record, Vol. 3, 1862. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 2, p1094-1095. [↩]