Oklahoma's Civil War Naval Battle

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The Tulsa World had an item about what may be the only naval battle fought within the borders of Oklahoma, 150 years ago Sunday, on June 15, 1864. Confederate troops led by Col. Stand Watie (later promoted to Brigadier General) attacked a Union supply steamboat on the Arkansas River.

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Painting of the Confederate attack on the J. R. Williams by Durant artist Neal Taylor, on display in the Oklahoma History Center.

After the war the U. S. Congress authorized the publication of the official war records of both armies in the "War of the Rebellion." Official dispatches from Col. Watie and his commanding officer regarding the Battle of the J. R. Williams were published in 1891 (Series I, Volume XXXIV, Part I (Reports), Chapter 46, Operations in Louisiana and the Trans-Mississippi States and Territories, Part 1, January 1 - June 30, 1864, pp. 1011-1013).

After one of Watie's lieutenants arrived with news, Gen. D. H. Cooper sent the following dispatch to Fort Towson:


HEADQUARTERS INDIAN DIVISION,
Limestone Prairie, June 17, 1864.

CAPTAIN: I have the pleasure to announce the capture of a steam-boat, loaded with commissary stores principally, at Pheasant Bluff, on the 15th instant, by Col. Stand Watie. A few prisoners were taken, others escaping to the north side of the river. All transportation, except a bare sufficiency to move the troops, having been sent back to Boggy Depot for supplies, the creeks being up and the roads almost impassable, I am unable at present to send a train to the boat, but have sent the Chickasaw regiment, under Lieutenant-Colonel Reynolds, to re-enforce Colonel Watie. Have also ordered McCurtain to send a heavy scout toward Fort Smith to attract notice, and shall send Colonel Walker forward toward Scullyville to intercept any cavalry who may attempt to go up to the bluff by the south side of the river. I have also sent Captain Desmukes and John Melvin, both experienced Arkansas River steam-boat men, to run the boat up Canadian as far as the water will allow. It will be destroyed only upon urgent necessity arising.

Respectfully,

D. H. COOPER,
Brigadier-General.

Capt. T. M. SCOTT,
Asst. Adjt. Gen., Dist. of Ind. Ter., Fort Towson.

N. B. -- The boat was fired into by the light howitzer battery under Lieutenant Forrester, killing 2 men and wounding several. The shot passed through the chimney and upper works of the boat; did not injure the hull. She surrendered and came over to the south side.

Two days later Gen. Cooper forwarded the first dispatch from Col. Watie about the battle:

Pheasant Bluff, June 17, 1864.

I send by Lieutenant Forrester, of Lee's light battery, 6 men, prisoners. They were taken on board the steam-boat Williams, captured on the 15th, of which you was apprised by a dispatch sent by A. Worford. The boat, after she was fired on, run onto the other shore. The men escaped into the woods on the other side; 2 were killed on board and 2 after they had left the boat. With the boat was captured 150 barrels of flour, 16,000 pounds of bacon, and considerable quantity of store goods, which was very acceptable to the boys, but has turned out to be [a] disadvantage to the command, as greater portions of the Creeks and Seminoles immediately broke off to carry their booty home. I am left here with only a few men. The enemy is now on the opposite side of the river. Commenced firing on us about 12 yesterday. We have only a portion of flour and bacon brought up on the bluff. The river rose great deal last night and washed off several barrls of flour. If I can get wagons I would move the flour and bacon to Kribbs', otherwise I shall be compelled to leave it. The roads are in a wretched condition. The scout under Major Gillett has not yet returned. Colonel Adair is still on the other side of Canadian; not fordable. Lieutenant Forrester will give particulars. The negro woman I send is to be retained. I would like for her to be returned to me as a cook whenever I rejoin the train. She says her master's name is, I think, Thompson. If he is a Federal she will, of course, be confiscated. I will keep you apprised of all I shall be able to learn of the enemy.

Yours, truly,

STAND WATIE,
Colonel, Commanding Troops on Arkansas River.

P. S. With regard to the black woman I am informed by Mr. Akins that she belongs, or did three years ago, to James Latty. Was raised by old Mr. Latty, near Evansville.

WATIE.

In forwarding Watie's account, Cooper added this note:

HEADQUARTERS INDIAN DIVISION,
Limestone Prairie, June 19, 1864.

Respectfully forwarded for General Maxey's information.

Re-enforcements were sent to Colonel Watie day before yesterday. Shall send a heavy scout toward Scullyville to prevent Federal cavalry from getting in his rear.

Respectfully,

D. H. COOPER,
Brigadier-General.


Twelve days after the battle, after returning to camp on Limestone Prairie, Watie filed the following report:

HEADQUARTERS FIRST INDIAN BRIGADE,
Camp, Limestone Prairie, June 27, 1864.

GENERAL: I have the honor to make the following report of the movements of my command up to this date: On the 10th of May Col. W. P. Adair was ordered to the neighborhood of the Arkansas River, from which the movements of the enemy were watched on both sides by means of scouting parties. On the 5th of this month, hearing that the Arkansas was rising rapidly, I started with two pieces of cannon in that direction. Lieutenant Forrester, of the battery, followed with the third piece. The battery was consolidated on the Canadian, near Kribbs', and Lieutenant Forrester ordered to take position with it at Pheasant Bluff, which he did. On the 15th June a boat containing commissary supplies and quartermaster's stores, en route from Fort Smith to Fort Gibson, was captured at this point. A great many of the men left to secure the plunder captured, thus leaving me without a sufficient force to secure the battery from even a small party.

In this condition I learned that a detachment of Federals of superior strength was approaching up the Arkansas on the south side, and I was compelled to burn the commissary stores captured, as I could not defend them successfully with the force I had, and the Canadian River being so high re-enforcements from Colonel Adair was impossible. After retreating 12 miles I met the Chickasaws, who had been ordered to support me. I ordered a party of 150, under Major Campbell, to the iron bridge on San Bois, which they reached about daylight or a little after.

The Federals soon made their appearance and a skirmish ensued. The enemy brought up and commenced using his artillery, when the detachment fell back. The skirmish served to check the enemy, who precipitately retreated from this point toward Fort Smith, as was learned by a scout afterward.

In the mean time and before the capture of the boat, Major Gillett was ordered with a scouting party to the neighborhood of Fort Smith. I have not received any report from him. The Cherokee force is now collected here, having all been ordered in to facilitate the reorganization of the regiments and companies. The Creeks are at present doing scouting duty.

I have the honor to be, respectfully, your obedient servant,

STAND WATIE.
Colonel, Commanding First Indian Brigade.

Brig. Gen. D. H. COOPER.

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