Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Battle of Mistaken Identity

Kickapoo Wigwam

The signs were unmistakable.  An encampment of over one hundred wigwams and tents had been here.  Unlike the dreaded Comanches who traveled in small fleeting bands, the abandoned Indian camp had over five hundred inhabitants and left a trail one hundred yards wide.  Under the command of Captain N.W. Gillentine, twenty members of the Erath County Militia followed the trail until they discovered a freshly covered grave.  Curious about its contents, they unearthed the body of a young Indian girl dressed in full Native American costume and surrounded with various trinkets.  Some of Gillentine’s men jokingly referred to the corpse as “bad medicine” and they would all be cursed for disturbing the grave. Cursed or not they helped themselves to the trinkets and portions of the dead girl’s clothing.  The joking, however, would prove fortuitous.  Galletine and most of his men would be dead within a month.
What was thought to have been marauding Comanches were actually friendly Kickapoos out of the Kansas Pottawatomie Agency.   The Kickapoos were an Algonkian people that once inhabited present day Wisconsin.  A semi-nomadic tribe, they raised crops and hunted game from large established villages.  As white settlers moved closer to their land, the Kickapoos migrated to Kansas, Texas and the Indian Territory (now present day Oklahoma).  After the Texas Revolution, the new republic adopted a “zero tolerance” policy toward all Native Americans.  Most of them were forced on to reservations in the Indian Territory.  The Kickapoos headed south across the Rio Grande to Northern Mexico where their descendants remain to this day.
After the Civil War broke out, the Kansas Kickapoos were pressured to support the Union cause.  They were armed with Enfield rifles and participated in Union campaigns against their Confederate brethren in the Indian Territory.  In December 1864, the Kickapoos decided they had had enough of the white man’s war and would join their fellow Kickapoos in Mexico.  Nine hundred Kickapoos journeyed out into the vast West Texas frontier.  Their great numbers soon caught the attention of Confederate frontier units.  
Based on Captain Gillentine’s scouting report, Captain Henry Fossett and 161 members of the Confederate Frontier Militia set out from Ft. Chadbourne in pursuit of an unknown band of Native Americans.  Captain S.S. Totten followed 15 miles behind with 325 members of various county militias.  The Kickapoos were found encamped 20 miles southwest of San Angelo along the banks of Dove Creek.  No one bothered to communicate with them and find out their intentions.
The Kickapoo camp was heavily surrounded by a dense thicket which offered a ready-made defensive position.  They were armed with their Civil War Enfields which were superior to the Texans diverse collection of short ranged shotguns and pistols. In addition, the Texans would have to attack from the open prairie, thus giving the Kickapoos an unobstructed field of fire while safely concealed in the thicket.
Fossett and Totten fashioned a battle plan to bag the whole lot of them.  After his men waded the waist high, frigid Dove Creek, Totten would attack from the north.  While the Kickapoos were occupied with Totten, Fossett would attack from the south, capture the tribe’s 1,000 horses, and cut off any escape routes.  The attack would commence on the morning of January 3, 1865.
Totten’s command ran into immediate trouble when the Kickapoos began picking them apart with their long range Enfields, something the Texans hadn’t expected.  Totten fought bravely but had trouble targeting the Kickapoos within the heavily wooded thicket.  Captain Gillentine was fatally wounded.  After handing over his rifle to his companion, John Anderson, he proclaimed with a straight face, “John, I’m a dead man.” He died later that evening.  As Totten was forced to fall back, the Kickapoos worked their way toward Totten’s vulnerable flanks, pouring in a deadly enfilading fire.

Meanwhile, Fossett captured most of the Kickapoo horses and fought his way into the Kickapoos' camp.   For five hours, he held of Indian attacks but lost most of the horses.  Two hours after sunset, the battle ended after the Indians withdrew into the depths of the thicket.  Leaving their dead behind, the Kickapoos broke camp and continued their journey the next day.
The Texans fell back a few miles east to Spring Creek. Both sides suffered close to 50 dead and wounded.   At 10:00 PM that evening it began to snow, adding to the misery of the wounded.  Short of food, the Texans shot a few of the Indian ponies for meat.  The next morning, Totten returned to the battlefield and buried his dead.  The bodies were not scalped but stripped of their clothing by the Kickapoos. 
The Kickapoos reached their new home in Mexico but harbored intense bitterness after Dove Creek.  In addition to the persistent threat of Comanche raids, Texas now faced raids from vengeful Kickapoos.  A short sighted assumption that all Native Americans were enemies led to unnecessary deaths, grieving families, and more adversaries during a long civil war.