October 22, 1862 (Tuesday)
James Blunt often lived up to his name. He was not a man with whom to trifle. Before the war broke out, he moved to Kansas to help the abolitionists fight to keep the state free, settling near Pottawatomie Creek to be in the thick of things. There, he organized and fought along side John Brown and Jim Lane. He would often hide escaped slaves and participated in drawing up a constitution for the state. Not only was he a warrior, but he was a warrior with a moral cause.
On the morning of October 22nd, James Blunt expected his Kansas Division to follow orders. Somehow or another, a breakdown occurred. He and his 3,000 men had encamped near Maysville, Arkansas, on the border with Indian Territory [mordern-day Oklahoma]. They were chasing after what they thought to be 5,000 or so Confederates under the command of Douglas Cooper, holed up at Old Fort Wayne, seven miles south.
If Blunt slept at all, he was up by 4am, personally rousing the 2nd Kansas Cavalry, and expecting word to file down to the rest of the men. Soon, the men were in the saddle and following Blunt towards the enemy at Old Fort Wayne.
To approach the town, Blunt and his men had to cross an open prairie. Easily spotted, he wanted to get his men across it without anyone taking much notice. To do this, he would have to avoid the Confederate pickets. Standing at the end of the prairie was a farmhouse and, Blunt hoped, the information he needed.
He rapped upon the door, and when the lady of the house answered, he told her that he was a Rebel in Cooper’s command who had escaped Yankee confinement. He wanted badly to get back to his camp, and asked her where the pickets would be. The lady, her husband one of Cooper’s men, told Blunt everything he needed to know – from where the pickets stood, to just how many men were in the camp (she claimed around 7,000), and its exact location.
They rode on, stopping just before the picket outpost. Blunt sent a couple of companies around the town to take the pickets from the rear. When they attempted it, however, the pickets were gone. Apparently, Blunt’s entire command had been spied from far off and the Confederates were expecting them.
With the element of surprise gone, at least Blunt could rely on numbers. Though he had, maybe, half of the force that he suspected Cooper of having, his men were veterans. He had full faith they could scatter the foe.
But numbers weren’t on his side, either. When he and the 2nd Kansas Cavalry left the camp, the rest of his command remained asleep. Somehow, Blunt failed to realize this until it was too late. It was the 2nd Kansas, and the 2nd Kansas only, that was making their way towards the enemy. He discovered this when he rode back a ways to see if the rest of his column had closed up. They had not. There was no rest of the column. They were still back at camp, seven miles away.
Blunt sent word back to the two wayward brigades to join him, and then decided not to wait. With him was a mere 550 men. And these brave Kansans would have to do. He drew his pistol and ordered an advance.
Confederate commander Douglas Cooper did not want to fight, but he also did not care enough to make up his mind. When he received word of Blunt’s advance, he let an hour slip by before ordering a retreat. What he wanted to protect most was the supply train laden with ammunition. This was top priority and was sent off first, with a rear guard to hold up the Federals until they made good their escape.
As Blunt’s small force attacked, the Confederate rear guard, under the command of Col. Michael Buster, formed a line of battle spanning the prairie between two creeks. The water guarded their flanks and forced the Union cavalry to charge them directly.
The rear guard was comprised mostly of Cherokee Indians, including Stand Watie’s troops who arrived as Confederate reinforcements.
Blunt knew he was outnumbered, but the rumored 7,000 seemed to be more like 1,500. If he could hold until the rest of his men arrived, he could whip them with little trouble. As it stood now, however, things were looking grim. Though his men had advanced within 100 yards of the Rebel line without taking any casualties, his own line wasn’t long enough to secure its flanks on the creeks. If the Confederates charged him, they could easily envelope his command.
The center of the Union line, held by about 250 men led by Captain Samuel J. Crawford (who would, in three more years, become the governor of Kansas), was situated upon a rise. From there, Crawford’s men exchanged shots with the Rebels below. The waiting must have been torturous for him. Without orders from Blunt, Crawford called for his men to stand and charge at the center of the Rebel line. With a terrifying yell, the whole lot of them ran down the hill to seize the Confederate artillery.
Blunt was shocked, even mortified, to see the charge. He hadn’t ordered it, nor had he expected it. But, before long, the Federals had surrounded the guns, and the crews were running for the rear. Almost instantaneously, the surrounding Confederate infantry broke and ran.
As most of the Rebel line was melting away, Blunt’s 3rd Indian Home Guard Regiment came in on his left flank. Stand Watie’s Confederate troops skirmished a few minutes with them, but soon took leave of the battlefield. The arrival of more Federals troops, including a full battery of artillery, added to the confusion in the Rebel ranks.
Blunt tried to follow and destroy Cooper’s command, sending the 3rd Kansas and 3rd Indian after the enemy, but Cooper and his ammunition train crossed Spavinaw Creek to safety.
At the abandoned Rebel camp, the hungry Federals feasted upon what remained of breakfast. They also treated themselves to camp gear, supplies, and all sort of accouterments left behind by the fleeing enemy.
Though Cooper saved his ammunition, he would not stop retreating until his command was over fifty miles away on the south side of the Arkansas River.
For Blunt, this was a major victory. Not only did it make a headway into Confederate Indian Territory, it convinced many secessionist Cherokees that they were on the wrong side. His Indian Home Guard units swelled with new recruits in the days and weeks after the battle.
All in all, it was a small skirmish. Federal forces lost five killed and a few more wounded, while Confederates lost considerably more – possibly as many as 100. Col. Michael Buster, commanding the Rebel rear guard, claimed that, aside from Stand Watie’s men, none of the Indians fired a shot. This may well explain that lopsided figures.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 13, p326-327; Fields of Blood by William L. Shea. [↩]