By Grant Foreman1
During the days of strife and bloodshed in the Indian Territory through the civil war, no section of the State of Oklahoma heard more of the roar of cannon fire than the area that is now Muskogee County. At an early stage of the war the Confederacy sought to intrench itself south of the Arkansas River, whence raids were made into the Cherokee Nation north of that stream. From Webbers Falls up the Arkansas River, above the present Muskogee the southern army guarded all possible crossings of the river with troops. Cannon again were planted at every possible crossing to prevent federal troops from passing to the south side of the stream.
From the cannonading that carrried the news of the battle of Honey Springs from southern Muskogee County over a radius of twenty-five or thirty miles to the vicinity of the Muskogee Pump Station, the roar of hostile cannon became a familiar sound. At some periods, for days at a time Confederate cannon bombarded the picket posts of Fort Gibson, and the Union forces responded in equal measure. Sniping across the Arkansas River between the opposing forces concealed behind trees along the river became commonplace. At times, when the rifle fire stopped, the officers knew that the Indians were visiting on the sand bars, exchanging coffee for tobacco, swapping military secrets and other forms of indiscretion.
Two of the most important events connected with the federal activities in Indian Territory find their locale in Muskogee County. One is the construction and brief existence of Fort Davis; the other the battle of Honey Springs, fought south of Oktaha, in which 150 confederates were killed—the greatest loss sustained by the Confederacy in the Indian Territory during the war. Both these places are worthy of appropriate commemoration.
1Dr. Grant Foreman lives at Muskogee, Oklahoma. He is the author of Indian Removal, Indians and Pioneers, Advancing the Frontier, The Five Civilized Tribes and other well known historical works.
In November 1861, the Confederate government created the department of Indian Territory, and named Brigadier-general Albert Pike to the command of that department. After his appointment he selected a site directly across the Arkansas River from Fort Gibson, a mile or two south of the mouth of the Verdigris River. Here he constructed fortifications and erected a large number of buildings for barracks, commissary stores, stables and other purposes. The establishment was named Cantonment Davis, though it was commonly known as Fort Davis. This place Pike intended to make the military and civil headquarters of the Confederacy for the Indian Territory. Fort Gibson was at that time a badly run-down and decayed establishment, and the confederate authorities believed they could maintain more certainly a headquarters established south of the Arkansas River than on the north side.
Fort Davis was built around a prehistoric mound standing some 25 or 30 feet high above the surrounding terrain. It was on the crest of a gentle elevation that sloped both east and west. On the west slope it was possible to drill and assemble a large force of men, horses and mules, screened from observation from Fort Gibson. The east slope fell away gently toward the Arkansas River and Fort Gibson, leaving an unobstructed view across the river to the old fort and to the surrounding prairies. With this advantage the confederates could hide most of their men from the field glasses in the hands of union observers in Fort Gibson; while at the same time they had an excellent view of the surroundings of the latter fort, especially of the lands where their live stock was pastured. It was this advantage that resulted in a raid on the pasturing herds of the union forces on Menard Prairie, in which the confederates captured more than a thousand horses and mules, after killing twenty herdsmen.
Fort Davis was a stronghold of the confederate forces during 1860; but after the battle of Pea Ridge early in March 1862, Pike retired with the most of his forces south almost to Red River, with the conviction that it would be impossible to hold Fort Davis
longer. From this manoeuvre resulted the construction of Fort McCullough on Blue River.
After Pike was relieved from his command, his successor reoccupied Fort Davis, and it continued in the possession of the confederates until December 27 of that year, when General William A. Phillips with his command from Fort Gibson crossed the Arkansas River at Frozen Rock east of Muskogee, captured the fort and burned most of the buildings. Contemporary authorities say that the fort had been constructed at a cost of "upwards of a million dollars." From the meager information available, it seems that the buildings were constructed of logs; and while they were extensive and perhaps some of them two stories in height, it seems incredible that so much money could have been expended on these buildings in a year's time, especially when the logs were probably all cut within a mile or two of the fort by soldiers.
So far as known, there is just one man living who possesses authentic information about Fort Davis, and that is Mr. Cheasquah Harris who owns the site of the fort. In order to preserve and make a record of available facts concerning this fort, the writer and Mr. T. P. Clonts enlisted the aid of Mr. Harris, who very cheerfully gave his services. On Sunday January 8, 1939, Mr. Harris accompanied us for this purpose. His parents lived near by at the time Fort Davis was constructed, and when Pike retreated to Red River, they and their neighbors joined in the general exodus. Mr. Harris, our conductor, was born a short distance from the site of the old fort in 1873, and he has a distinct recollection of considerable ruins of the old buildings. While the logs have all disappeared, there are still heaps of stones and scattered debris over the six or eight acres occupied by the fort, that indicate the sites of chimneys and fireplaces. Mr. Harris has the benefit of his personal recollections of the ruins, and of the information given by his father as to the location, size and character of the buildings constituting the old fort.
Mr. Harris conducted us from one site to another over the area in question, and Mr. Clonts, a skilled engineer and surveyor, with his assistant and a surveyor's tapeline, measured off the spaces and located the sites of the buildings. This information
Mr. Clonts has compiled in a sketch, a copy of which is deposited with the Oklahoma Historical Society, for such use as may be made of it. In making this deposit, the writer hopes that steps will be taken to discover more of the history of this fort, the extent of the buildings and, if possible, a more extended account of their construction. He feels that this information must have been confided by General Pike to the confederate authorities at Richmond, or might be found among the Pike papers in Washington.