Two American Civil War military engagements were fought at the Cabin Creek Battlefield in the Cherokee Nation within Indian Territory. The location was where the Texas Road crossed Cabin Creek, near the present-day town of Big Cabin, Oklahoma. Both the First and Second Battles of Cabin Creek were launched by the Confederate Army to disrupt Union Army supply trains.
The first was a raid by a Confederate Army detachment on a Union Army supply train bound for Fort Gibson in July 1863. It failed to stop the Union detachment, which enabled the Union to succeed in winning the Battle of Honey Springs later that month. The second engagement, in September, 1864, again a Confederate raid on a Union supply train, resulted in the Confederates capturing over a million dollars worth of mules, wagons and supplies. However, this was too late to have an strategic impact on the outcome of the war. Confederate General Stand Watie led the attackers during both raids.
The Second Battle of Cabin Creek was part of a plan conceived by Confederate Brigadier General Stand Watie (who had been promoted from colonel after the First Battle of Cabin Creek). The plan was to have a Confederate force attack central Kansas from Indian Territory, raiding Union Army facilities and encouraging Indian tribes in Western Kansas to join in an attack on the eastern part of the state. Watie presented the plan to his superior, General S. B. Maxey on February 5, 1864. Maxey approved the plan on the condition that the attack would start by October 1, to coincide with an attack on Missouri already planned by General Sterling Price.
Brigadier General Richard Montgomery Gano and Watie met at Camp Pike in the Choctaw Nation on 13 September 1864, to make plans for the coming expedition. Gano, commanding several Texas Confederate units, had agreed to join Watie as co-leader of the campaign. Watie, however, knew that most of the Texans hated all the Indians, including their allies, and resented his promotion in the Confederate Army. According to one account,
“…Colonel Charles DeMorse of the 29th Texas Cavalry Regiment refused to serve under him.”
Watie, therefore, deferred to Gano as commander of the expedition. Both Gano and Maxey commended Waite for this act of solidarity. Moreover, Gano had more seniority as a Confederate general than did Watie. Watie would continue to command the Indian Brigade, composed of about 800 men. Gano’s brigade comprised Texas cavalry and artillery units containing about 1,200 men.
The raid had targeted a wagon train that left Fort Scott on 12 September. It carried supplies and provisions intended for Native Americans who had fled their homes and camped near Fort Gibson. It was led by Major Henry Hopkins. The train was escorted by 80 soldiers of the Second Kansas Cavalry, 50 men from the 6th Kansas Cavalry and 130 men of the Fourteenth Kansas Cavalry. A group of 100 pro-Union Cherokees joined the train at Baxter Springs, Kansas, but half were left at the Neosho River junction to guard the rear. The escort was to be increased by 170 Union Cherokees of the Second Indian Regiment, based at Cabin Creek, and 140 Cherokees of the Third Indian Regiment en route from Fort Gibson
Major Hopkins received a message to move the train to Cabin Creek as fast as possible and await further orders. The message also said that Major John A. Foreman, six companies of men and two howitzers were en route as a relief force. The train arrived at Cabin Creek station during the afternoon of September 18.
Flat Rock attack
On 16 September, as they were waiting for the supply train, the Confederates happened to encounter a detachment of black Union soldiers conducting hay-making operations at Flat Rock, near the confluence of Flat Rock Creek and the Grand River, about 5 miles (8.0 km) northeast of present-day Wagoner, Oklahoma and 15 miles (24 km) northwest of Fort Gibson. Captain E. A. Barker leading a small group of the 2nd Kansas Cavalry and a detachment from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, who were guarding the operation, were soon surrounded and attacked from all sides. In desperation, Barker ordered his men with horses to attempt a breakout. Only 15 of the 65 men who attempted to break out reached the fort. The Union troops lost all their hay-making equipment, several hundred tons of hay and over 100 casualties (including prisoners). There were unconfirmed reports that many of the black troops were killed by the Texans. These killings led to one historian’s calling the action one of Watie’s three most infamous actions of the war.
The Second Battle of Cabin Creek began at 1:00 A.M. on September 19. The Confederates advanced with the Texans covering the left flank and the Indian Brigade on the right flank. After the Union troops began to fire, the Confederate artillery answered. The barrage caused the mules to panic and run. Many dragged their wagons with them. Some were so terrified that they fell off the bluff and into Cabin Creek. The teamsters managed to cut many of the mules from their traces. The men jumped on the mules and rode across the ford to safer ground.
Sunrise revealed the Union positions. Gano moved part of his artillery to his right flank, so that the wagon train would be caught in crossfire. The two Cherokee regiments moved across the creek to capture the wagons that had escaped in the darkness. The Texans, led by Gano himself, attacked the Union flank, driving it back until the defenders were scattered in the wooded bottoms along the creek. By 9:00 A.M., the Union forces had been routed. Major Hopkins escaped to Fort Gibson, hoping to meet the Major Foreman’s relief force and recapture the train. Failing to find the relief force, he continued to Fort Gibson bearing the news of the disaster.
The Confederate force, led by Watie, and Brigadier General Richard Montgomery Gano, captured a Federal wagon train about $1 million worth of wagons, mules, commissary supplies, and other needed items. Specifically, the booty included 740 mules and 130 wagons. Although Watie and his troops were commended for their success by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress, this battle had no significant impact on the outcome of the Civil War in Indian Territory.
Preserving the battlefield
A young Cherokee named Joseph Martin acquired land on Cabin Creek in 1840. This would become his headquarters for a ranch named Pensacola that he developed over the next twenty years containing over 100,000 acres (400 km2). By 1860, he had also developed a station on his property along the Texas Road, where travelers to Texas could buy provisions and have their wagons repaired. A part of this land would become the Cabin Creek battleground.
There was little interest in preserving the site of these two battles until 1958. That was when the Vinita Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) decided to buy a 10 acres (4.0 ha) plot of ground that now considered the core of the battlefield. The group approached the landowner about the proposed purchase and agreed on a price of $300. The UDC chapter spent the next three years raising funds and finalized the purchase in 1961. They donated the land to the Oklahoma Historical Society later in the same year.
The same UDC chapter donated a monument to the Confederate victory of 1864 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the event. The OHS created a circle drive within the park and added some small monuments that commemorated the battle positions of the two forces. Interest in the park waned for a number of years and maintenance was neglected. Many monuments were vandalized.
In 1992, the OHS and the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce jointly sponsored a reenactment of the battles. It was considered a success, drawing about 15,000 visitors, with reenactors coming from many parts of the United States. Encouraged by the public response, the OHS proposed to repeat the event every three years. A non-profit organization named “The Friends of Cabin Creek Battlefield, Inc.” was formed to clean up the park, repair the damaged monuments, and add trash cans and park benches. A day-use only policy was put into effect, with the park gates unlocked in the morning and locked in the evenings 365 days a year.
The Civil War Trust bought an additional 90 acres (36 ha) in 2011, so that the park now covers most of the original battlefield of the First Battle of Cabin Creek. As of September 2013, the Trust had begun a fund raising campaign to repay its investment. A local newspaper reported that additional improvements were needed, such as interpretive trails and exhibits detailing the conflicts within the Native American tribes that exacerbated the effects of the war. The paper titled the article as “The Third Battle of Cabin Creek.”