Updated: Jul 18, 2022
July 17th, 1863 was one of a number of turning points in the American Civil War. While the pivotal battle of Gettysburg, and the strategic Union victory at Vicksburg both played out in the first few days of the month, a much lesser known, yet crucial for the Federal cause, west of the Mississippi River battle unfolded in Indian Territory, just north of the Canadian River. The battle signaled a change in direction for the war in the West. A few weeks after Honey Springs, Union forces would reoccupy Fort Smith and most major cities in Arkansas. Indian Territory would be somewhat under Federal control as well. While the war was far from over, looking back, historians see July of 1863 as when the tide turned.
Honey Springs is an important part of that interpretation. This past weekend marked the159th Anniversary of the the battle and included an interpretive talk, musket and cannon salutes, presentation of the colors, and the playing of taps, all aimed at honoring the soldiers who fought and died on both sides. The event was humbling, stirring, and quite reflective considering the issues that divided the nation in the 1860s and those that divide us today.
What made Saturday's event special, in addition to the historic heat of July, was no talk of the politics, no discussion of constitutional issues, and no critique or support for Supreme Court decisions. Those things have a place, an important place but thankfully they were not on the agenda this weekend. For a few hours, through a number of activities, we were able to set aside all that, and honor the people who fought and died.
Honey Springs, who few have likely heard of until today, is a case study for the Civil War. In addition to the midwestern farm boys in blue, their ranks were bolstered with former slaves who were fighting for their own freedom. Additionally, the Indian Home Guard was present, adding tribal members from the Five Tribes and other sovereign nations. The Confederate ranks included large numbers of Native Americans as well, who felt their chances were better with the Confederate government than one who had removed them across the country. Some Confederate Texas units in the battle even had a number of recent immigrants from Mexico on their rosters. This paints a very different picture than that which is usually presented in the history books. The Battle of Honey Springs was hardly the typical, white soldiers from the North and South doing the fighting.
While at the day's event, I met Jeffrey Kennedy, an architect from Oklahoma City. I learned that he had an ancestor who fought at Honey Springs, Quash McClish, who served in the Indian Home Guard for the Union. We found that we were both members of the Sons of Union Veterans, an organization founded after the veterans of the Union armies had passed. It is a legacy to the Grand Army of the Republic, which conducted reunions and honored the deceased with monuments and memorials. In fact, Memorial Day was first established and observed in 1868 by members of the GAR. While my own Union ancestor was not at Honey Springs, he was at the Battle of Helena Arkansas instead, Jeffrey and I forged a bond, and a new friendship based on our ancestors and their part in the nation's tragic past. What an honor to be on that ground this weekend, and share in the important call of "lest we forget..."
Our whole group, Herb and Chris, John, Cody, Gary, Bob, and DJ, all have veterans in our ancestry, most with them on both sides. Working with excellent Public Historians like David Fowler and Adam Lynn from Oklahoma Historical Society is just another added benefit. And, just so you know, I have ancestors on the other side as well, but that's a post for another day.
Jeffrey Kennedy and myself at Honey Springs Battlefield.
Members of the Jeremiah Smith Camp #1, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Department of Oklahoma, along with myself from the John Talkington Camp #3, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Department of Missouri.