It was the Confederacy’s most successful operation in the Indian Territory (now present day Oklahoma); Texas and Native American cavalry captured a “mother lode” of Union supplies at the Second Battle of Cabin Creek. Valued at a whopping $1.5 million, the captured wagon train breathed new life into the Confederate cause in the Indian Territory, a critical link in the defense of North Texas during the Civil War. What is even more amazing is how two brigades of ragged, poorly armed, ill-tempered, and undisciplined troops pulled it off.
By the summer of 1864, the eastern half of the Indian Territory was divided by Union and Confederate forces along the Canadian River. The war had ravaged the northeast region, especially the Cherokee Nation. Attacks by Confederate cavalry, Union cavalry, and bandits kept the region virtually uninhabitable. Burned-out ruins that were once prosperous farms dotted an ashen, ghostly landscape. Confederate refugees fled south of the Canadian River to the Choctaw Nation and North Texas. Union-supporting Native Americans were forced to camp around Union forts for food and protection against Confederate guerillas. For Native American males on both sides, it was safer to be in the army than it was to stay at home.
For the Union Army to maintain a hold over the Indian Territory, it was vital to maintain a garrison at Fort Gibson, a key defensive position on the Arkansas River. Due to the lack of railroads, the shifting depth of the Arkansas River, and the destruction of local farms, wagon trains were the only available means to supply Fort Gibson. The problem was getting the wagons there unscathed.
In prior months, poorly equipped and unreliable Confederate forces had been unsuccessful in capturing Union wagon trains. In 1864, their luck changed as Union troops were spread thin due to the capture of Fort Smith, Arkansas and Union operations during the Red River Campaign. The Ft. Gibson garrison was forced to send out detachments to cut hay for the fort’s horses and protect its supply line. This made them easy targets for Cherokee General Stand Watie, whose brigade excelled in ambushing Union troops not ensconced in a fort.
Based solely on appearance, Stand Watie was not the most inspiring of Confederate generals. He was three quarters Cherokee, barely over 5 feet tall, had bowed legs from years in the saddle, and a reserved demeanor. Most of his followers were Half-Bloods (Cherokee and Anglo parents) who embraced the Southern Planter lifestyle. They attended colleges back East, attended church, wore the White Man’s clothing, established Masonic lodges, and owned slaves. Watie’s uncle, Major John Ridge, signed the 1835 Treaty of New Enchota which led to the removal of the Cherokee Tribe from their lands in the Southeast to the Indian Territory. Native Cherokees were outraged and assassinated Ridge and Watie’s brother Elias Boudinet over the removal. Watie himself was attacked with a bullwhip (not the best weapon for an assassination), but managed to shoot his assailant dead. When the Civil War began, years of inner-tribal hatreds boiled over. Most Native Cherokees opposed slavery and sided with the Union. The Half-Bloods formed their own Confederate regiment under Watie. The result was a tribal conflict fought against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Because of the murders of his uncle and brother, Watie had personal scores to settle. In time, he became a lethal guerilla fighter and a holy terror to Union-supporting Cherokees.
The commander of Confederate forces in the Indian Territory, General Samuel Bell Maxey, gave approval for a Watie plan to attack Union supply columns north of the Arkansas River. On September 14, 1864, a combined Native American and Texan force, under Stand Watie and Richard Gano, set out for the Northern Indian Territory. Gano was anxious for a fight to give his unruly command something to do. In a letter to Maxey, he wrote, “It’s true that many of my men are dismounted, barefoot, and unarmed, but they would be better satisfied if actively employed, than idling in camps. And there would be a pretty fair chance to capture arms, horses, and clothing. We ought to be up there now.” All combined, the Confederate force numbered two thousand. Despite their equal ranks, Watie deferred leadership of the expedition to Gano, a wise move considering the attitude Texans had toward their Native American comrades.
Gano’s Texans consisted of several North Texas regiments that signed up mainly to avoid the draft rather than support a heartfelt cause. Most of them worried about Comanche raids and the safety of their families back home. Desertions were common; they hated the Indian Territory, hated Native Americans, and hated Stand Watie’s newly awarded rank of brigadier general. Colonel Charles DeMorse of the 29th Texas Cavalry Regiment refused to serve under him.
DeMorse was a powerful newspaper publisher in his hometown of Clarksville, Texas. His newspaper, “The Northern Standard,” was the largest in North Texas. Before the war, DeMorse helped organize the Democratic Party in Texas and was known as the “Father of the Texas Democratic Press.” With such stature back home, it’s not surprising he wasn’t happy about being a mere colonel; he wanted Gano’s job. Gano, on the other hand, wanted a transfer out of the Indian Territory.
Richard Montgomery Gano, a native Kentuckian, had served under Colonel John Morgan during his successful forays into Tennessee and Kentucky. Because of a lingering heart ailment, he returned home to Grapevine, Texas for several months of recuperation. Upon his return to duty, he was sent to the Indian Territory. Serving with Morgan’s Raiders aptly prepared him for the hit and run warfare in the Indian Territory. It didn’t prepare him for the incessant supply and manpower problems.
Most his new command had no shoes and a laughable array of firearms, usually antiquated hunting rifles and shotguns brought from home. Some had no arms at all. New uniforms were often obtained by simply exchanging clothes with Union prisoners. What uniforms they did receive wouldn’t clear the waist of a New York fashion model. General Maxey remarked, “The lady or man that cut these clothes never saw a naked man. I got a pair of pants long enough, and there is a great deal of longitude about me, and they were not large enough around the waist for a ten year old boy.” It was so bad that Maxey placed ads in the “Dallas Herald” for clothing. There were no tents, which led to Watie’s men departing ranks during the winter months for the warmth of their homes, a real problem if there was sudden Union attack. As if things weren’t bad enough, there were starving refugees to feed and shelter. Massive supplies of arms, food, and clothing were needed and needed fast, but where to get them ?
On September 12, a Union train of 300 wagons, under the command of Major Henry Hopkins, departed Fort Scott in Southeast Kansas. A Kansas cavalry detachment of 260 guarded the train. Upon its approach to Cabin Creek in the Indian Territory, several companies of Union Cherokees numbering 310 reinforced the guard. It wouldn’t be enough.
During the raid, Gano’s men pounced on a detachment of Ft. Gibson troops cutting hay near Prairie Springs; thirty four were killed. Most of the killed were African American. At the Battle of Honey Springs, these same Texans were defeated by African American troops; something that didn’t sit well with their pride and reputations. From the Union prisoners they took alive, Gano learned about an approaching wagon train. Watie’s men smeared war paint on their faces in anticipation of an attack.
At Cabin Creek, Hopkins’ wagons were driven into a stockade for overnight protection. Because of the dense woods and evening darkness, his troopers didn’t have a clear view of the approaching Confederates. Gano brought up his artillery (something Hopkins didn’t have) and began shelling the post and wagons. Pandemonium set in. A number of the teamsters panicked, cut the mules from their wagon traces, and galloped off. Gano’s troopers closed in on the post’s perimeter. Outnumbered and surrounded, Hopkins was forced to surrender.
It was a spectacular success. 130 wagons and 740 mules were captured for the Confederacy. The rest had been destroyed during the battle. Enough food, clothing and arms were obtained to keep the Indian Territory's Confederate forces in the field for several months. So long in the field in fact, that Stand Watie would be the last Confederate general to surrender after the war. General Maxey issued congratulatory orders and the Confederate Congress sent a note of thanks.
After the war, Gano became a Disciples of Christ minister (his great grandfather was a chaplain for George Washington during the Revolutionary War) and got rich in the real estate and banking business in Dallas. His homestead was on the present day site of the DFW Airport. He died on March, 27, 1913 and is buried at Oaklawn Cemetery.
Gano’s “dog-trot” house can now be viewed at Dallas’ Heritage Village at Old City Park. It’s part of a garden-studded, frontier learning exhibit called simply “The Farmstead.” I’m all for learning, but because of Richard Gano’s significance in Texas History, I believe it deserves a more honorable exhibit as opposed to being a set piece for “Little House on the Prairie.”