by R.M. Peck
18 Aug, 1904
Shortly after I had taken charge of Captain Thomas’ train all of the white troops had been withdrawn from Gibson and sent to Fort Smith, 60 miles down the Arkansas River, on the State line of Arkansas, which place the rebels had also been driven out of. This left only the Indian Brigade at Fort Gibson, which was organized as infantry, but as many of the Indians had picked up horses in the surrounding country and mounted themselves it was thought that these could do all the mounted service that was necessary for the command.
Colonel William A. Phillips, of the 3d Indian Regiment, was placed in command of the post and brigade. The rebels, who had evacuated Fort Gibson, were still camped in strong force just across the Arkansas, at Fort Davis, occupying a rather threatening position.
It was not considered safe for our trains to go out on the prairie to camp, where we could get good grass to picket the mules on at night; consequently we herded them out a mile or two during the day, but had to bring them in town and tie them up to the wagons at night. As the grass was by this time getting tall enough to mow I procured some scythes and had my skinners to cut and haul grass to feed at night, as we had no grain.
Besides my train (the Brigade Quartermaster’s) each regiment had a train. There was not much that we could do just with teams, except the work about the post, for the rebels had us so cooped up in Fort Gibson now that we dare not venture outside the garrison very far. Our supplies had to be sent to us from Fort Scott by large supply trains like the one I had come to Fort Gibson with. These outfits, together with a number of sutler’s teams that always accompanied them, frequently amounted to as many as 250 or 300 teams, and with their valuable cargoes of (to the rebels) much-needed war materials of all kinds it was a great temptation to our enemies across the Arkansas to try to intercept and take them in.
I was now getting my train fixed up in pretty good shape, and Captain Thomas was greatly pleased with my services. He proved to be a good boss to me- that is, he always let me do as I pleased; for, as he would say, “You know more about it than I do, so just go ahead and do as you think best, and I’ll be satisfied.”
He had formerly been quite a politician in Kansas, was an excellent man in some respects, but poorly fitted for military service, and especially for the position of Quartermaster.
I got along with those man-killing teamsters that had made life a burden to my predecessor, Lindley, without having to kill any of them, by making them believe that I was something of a killer myself, and would just as soon not have to do a little job of that kind if they gave me any provocation. I allowed them to get this impression from other sources, and not from any bluster or threatening from me- something I always refrain from. Like most men of their kind I found there was little actual nerve in any of them, but more of the blowhard and braggart, and by putting on a cool, quiet and determined demeanor in my intercourse with them, those who had been mutinous and insolent to their former boss now moved promptly when I gave them orders, and were respectful. My experience has always satisfied me that a man who can run a strong but quiet bluff on such fellows can control them in a great majority of cases without resorting to the gun. But he must make up his mind to use such force if put to the utmost test, for if he once backs down from a determined stand his prestige is gone.
Captain Thomas also assisted my reputation as a “bad man” by having it given out to the skinners that he had employed me on account of my record for handling unruly teamsters, and had guaranteed me the support of the military authorities of the post, if I would bring them to proper discipline- even if it necessitated killing off a few of the worst ones.
I had occasion several times to send one to the guardhouse for neglect of duty, where, by Captain Thomas’ orders, they were exhorted to better behavior by such persuasive arguments as bucking-and-gagging, tying up by the thumbs, bread-and-water diet, or walking No. 1 post with a rail on the shoulder. This usually reduced the delinquent skinner to a penitential mood, and when he promised prompt obedience and stricter attention to work in future, I restored him to duty. Those who rendered faithful service I encouraged by favoring them in every way I could, consequently.
As my crew was composed in about equal numbers of white men, half-breed Indians and negroes I had ample opportunity to test the relative merits of the three classes, and generally found the white man far preferable to either of the others as reliable teamsters. The Indian is indolent and improvident, and cannot be relied on for work, even with watching and driving. The Negro shows the traits begotten by slavery; he has always been accustomed to driving, and therefore expects and waits for it. The white man usually tries to uphold the dignity of his race by doing his work as well when the boss is absent as if he were standing by.
The various herds of mules and horses belonging to the command were grazed during the day in charge of herders, on the prairie just south and east of Fort Gibson; and as there were quite a number of animals the grass adjoining the post soon became eaten down, so that we had to go out farther, until we got to taking them from two to three miles from the garrison. Some picket guards of the Indians were, however, always stationed on all important roads just beyond the herds; and these picket posts were usually placed on some hill where they could have a good view of the surrounding country. They proved, however, to be of very little service as videttes, for instead of attending to the duty for which they were placed there they usually rigged up such sheds as they could with their blankets, to keep the hot sun off, and all hands went to sleep- even the sentry on post.
My Negro and Indian teamsters, when out on herd, would do the same thing, except that the Negro wouldn’t take the trouble to fix up a shade, but would often lie down with his face up in the full glare of the hottest Summer sunshine and sleep soundly. I frequently rode out to my herd to see what they were doing and found them thus spread out in the full blaze of the midday sun, enjoying a sound sleep, in heat that would have boiled the brains of a white man. For such neglect of duty I always sent them to the guardhouse to be punished as before stated.
One day a rebel officer bearing a flag of truce approached one of our picket posts near the “Rabbit Ford,” on the Arkansas River, and requested the Corporal in charge to conduct him to Colonel Phillips’ headquarters, as he claimed to be bearer of an official message from General Cooper, commanding rebel forces just across the river, regarding an exchange of prisoners or something of the kind.
The Corporal of the picket should have blindfolded the rebel before bringing him into our lines, to prevent his learning our strength and disposition of our forces, defenses, etc., but being green in such matters he did not think to do so- simply conducting the officer into town and to Phillips’ headquarters just as he came, giving him an opportunity for a good view of everything on that side of Fort Gibson, and in all probability the shrewd rebel made the most of his opportunity by pumping the green Corporal for all the information he could get.
On learning the circumstances Colonel Phillips saw that the rebel officer had gained a “scoop” on him by taking advantage of the ignorance of the Corporal, and had reason to suspect the message about exchange of prisoners was only a pretext to gain some knowledge of our situation. It would not do to let him return to the rebels with the information he had thus obtained, although the rebel officer claimed to be as verdant as the Corporal, and perfectly innocent of any intention of spying on us. As Phillips had no real evidence to the contrary the only remedy, he concluded, was to hold the fellow as a prisoner for a few days, until certain changes to our defenses and position could be effected, and then to have him conducted back outside our lines blindfolded, which was done.
During the time that this rebel officer was detained he was well treated by our officers, but not allowed to go outside the room he was confined in at Phillips’ headquarters. In the interval our officers plied him with liquor, in an endeavor to loosen his tongue and find out some of the rebel’s secrets, but he wasn’t such a fool as they took him for and they learned nothing valuable.
It was the custom of our commanding officer to send out mounted patrols or scouting parties daily on the principal roads, to watch for signs of the enemy. One morning (May 20, 1863), shortly after this flag of truce bearer had returned to his command, a mounted scouting party had just returned from a reconnaissance on the Fort Smith Road, and the officer in charge was making his report in the Adjutant’s office that there was no sign of rebels on that route, when just at that moment a breathless runner came rushing in to tell that the prairie out along the Fort Smith Road was swarming with rebels, who were killing all the pickets and herders and driving off the herds of mules and horses. At the same time a scattering rattle of firearms in that direction seemed to confirm the messenger’s statement, although the astonished officer of the patrol insisted that there were no signs of an enemy near the road as he came in.
In a moment all was excitement. Colonel Phillips was about the most excited person I saw. He was sure that Cooper’s whole rebel force was coming in to take the place. The Indian regiments were quickly formed and moved out in the direction of the firing, but when they reached the grazing grounds- our Indians being afoot and the rebel force well mounted- it was only in time to see the enemy retiring into the timber on the Fort Smith Road, as they had come, driving the herds of horses and mules before them.
Our men succeeded in getting near enough to the enemy as they crossed the bayou entering the timber, to exchange a few shots with their rear-guard, killing a few rebels there, but could not recover the stock, and as a further chase of mounted men by infantry would be hopeless, they stopped and turned back to take account of our losses.
As the rebel raiders were all Cherokees, commanded by old Stand Watie himself, all the time that the antagonistic forces were in hearing of each other both sides kept up an incessant gobbling like turkeys, which is their style of expressing defiance of their enemies.
I had mounted my mule and ridden out with our Indians, as we passed one of our picket stations we found every man killed- seemingly, from the signs, to have been asleep; some of them lying in their shirts and drawers under temporary blanket awnings, where they had probably been enjoying a comfortable sleep, from which they had waked up in the “happy hunting ground” of the Indian. As the weather was very warm our Indian pickets frequently stripped to the shirt and drawers while on duty and spent most of their time sleeping.
It was at first thought that the rebels had got away with all our herds, and when it became evident that our men could not recover any of the stock that the enemy was driving off, and we found that they had apparently killed all the herders as well as pickets, I struck out for the grazing ground where my herd had been, to see if I could find anything of my herders or mules.
It so happened that I had gone out with the herd that morning and had helped my two herders, a white man and a Negro, to drive the mules farther north, near the foot of the timbered hills on the extreme farthest north edge of the prairie, north of the Tahlequah Road, which placed them farthest away of any of the herds from the point where the rebels first appeared. The rebels came out into the prairie near Dick Thompson’s house, at the crossing of the bayou, and deployed over the prairie, a small party to each herd. My herd must have been nearly three miles from Dick Thompson’s. I did not place my mules as a precaution against an anticipated rebel raid, for I had no suspicion of any such danger. I only moved the mules to get fresher grass.
This chance more probably saved my herd. The herd of the 2d Indian train (Richmond’s) was also near mine, and it, too, escaped. The rebels got everything else on the prairie, and among the lot all the horses of the brigade.
When I reached my grazing ground I found my mules all there, but no herders in sight. I wondered whether the men had been killed or carried off as prisoners, but concluded that the rebels would hardly take the men and leave the mules, and that the boys must have gone onto the fort, which proved to be the case. It was afterwards shown that at least two of the rebel raiders had reached as far north as my herd, but apparently seeing that the rest of their men were retreating they had become frightened, and abandoning my mules- and also Richmond’s, which they had begun rounding up- they hurried back and joined the retreating rebels, who having swept the prairie of all the other stock seemed to have decided it best to retire with what they had, rather than go farther after more and run the risk of being cut off by our Indians, who were coming out from the fort.
I gathered up my mules and drove them into Fort Gibson, and at my camp there found my two herders. The darky had got in mounted and badly scared, while the white man had come in afoot, dazed and undecided as to whether he had got scared or just run to be fashionable, and not yet realizing that he had been in any danger.
The darky, John Thornton, was sure that he was a scared nigger, anyway. He had been on the opposite side of the herd from Dick Griswold, the white man- the side next to town, and hearing some shooting had looked off down the prairie and saw some mounted men chasing and shooting at some herders; the herders fall off their mules, and the pursuing men then drove off that herd. He then heard some more shooting and saw some mounted men running towards town. He concluded from these sights and sounds that the rebels were sweeping the prairie, and he didn’t need any stronger hint to adjourn. He hadn’t time and was too far away from Dick, the white man, to communicate his suspicions, and just left him to shift for himself.
Not knowing that the two men had been in actual danger, and supposing that they had abandoned the herd out of pure cowardice on hearing a shot fired and seeing someone else running, I felt provoked at them for not making an effort to bring the mules in. My white man, Dick Griswold, had always been a good man and reliable hand, but I felt disgusted with him now, as he had offered no explanation of his conduct, and still seemed a little bewildered. When I asked him rather angrily, “Dick, what the devil made you run off and leave the mules out there? And what’s become of your riding mule?” he answered, “Well, sir, I guess I must have been scared; and my mule got sick and laid down and couldn’t get up, an’ I left her a-groanin’ with the belly-ache. I don’t know what I had to be scared at, either. I tell you how it was: I heard a shot or two but didn’t see any rebels. I saw John lightin’ out for camp an’ saw some other men ridin’ towards town purty fast. Still I didn’t see anything to git scared at, an’ was just settin’ there on my mule- couldn’t tell what it all meant. Wasn’t thinkin’ of any rebels bein’ out there. Just then two strange men- didn’t look like our men, but they didn’t act like enemies- rode along past me, a little way off, on a gallop, with guns across their saddles in front of ‘em. I heard a couple more shots about then but wasn’t lookin’ at the men, an’ didn’t think it could have been them that fired. But my mule give a jump when I heard them shots, an’ I just thought she was scared at the report. Them men rode on around to the fur side of the herd, without stoppin’ or sayin’ a word or makin’ a hostile motion. An’ then I didn’t notice where they went, for seein’ John and others runnin’ towards town put me in the notion of comin’ in to see what was the matter. I didn’t think it worth while to drive the mules in so early in the day, and just thought I’d come in and find out if there was anythin’ up, an’ then go back to the herd. I’d only rode a little ways when my ol’ mule laid down- she had a belly-ache. I got off an’ kicked her in the side an’ made her git up, an’ climbed on agin an’ rode a little piece further, an’ the ol’ thing a-groanin’ all the time, when down she dropped agin. That time I couldn’t git her up so I just took off the saddle and bridle an’ throwed ‘em in the brush, and left the ol’ mule a-groanin’ and footed it in to camp.”
Before he had got half through his story I saw clearly what he yet failed to realize, and said to him, when he had finished:
“Why, Dick, your mule’s been shot. Those two men were rebels. They’ve shot at you and hit your mule.”
“No, I don’t think so, Mr. Peck,” he replied. “If they’d been rebels they’d have come fer me instead of goin’ on by. An’ then I didn’t see any blood or wound on my mule.”
“Well, we’ll soon settle it,” I said. “Get on John’s mule, then, and come go with me and show me where you left your mule.”
When we reached his mule, near the crossing of a little branch, we found it dead, and the saddle and bridle where he had thrown them in the bushes. Still Dick couldn’t believe that the mule had been shot, as no wound was visible. I knew she would have lain down on the wounded side, and so said to him,
“Take hold of her feet and help me turn her over.”
That solved the mystery, for on turning the mule’s other side up there was the bullet hole, behind the shoulder.
“There, what did I tell you?” I remarked.
On looking at Dick now I was alarmed for him. He had turned deathly pale, and was trembling as if he’d taken a sudden chill. I began to fear that he, too, had been wounded, and concealed the fact.
“What’s the matter, Dick? Are you hurt?” I asked.
He managed to answer “No,” but offered no further explanation, and sat down to the ground as though too weak to stand. After resting awhile without speaking a word he got up, and, with my assistance, climbed back onto the mule and we started back towards camp.
He had just begun to realize the danger he had unconsciously been exposed to, and the thought of it frightened him nearly to death. I never saw a person so badly frightened after the danger was all past. It always had a different effect on me, and I could not understand for some time what was the matter with Griswold. After a danger is over most men, I believe, judging by myself, look upon it rather as a good joke than a cause for fear. We are apt to say or think, “Well, I’m glad I’m alive,” or “A miss is as good as a mile,” and give the matter no further serious thought.
Before going very far on the way back to camp with Dick I felt a desire, out of curiosity, to return to that part of the prairie where the herds had been driven off by the rebels, to see who and how many had been killed or wounded, and learn what I could about the raid. I proposed to Griswold to ride over in the direction of the Tahlequah Road for that purpose, but he begged to be excused, with a pale, sickly smile, but assured me that he was able to make his way back to our camp.
Leaving him to go it alone I turned off and rode towards where the lost herds had been grazing; and as I approached the Tahlequah Road I saw at a distance south of it some ambulances and men on foot going about over the field apparently looking for the dead and wounded who were very much scattered.
I knew that a picket guard had been stationed on the Tahlequah Road not far from that point, and as the relief parties had not yet reached that part of the ground yet I galloped towards the picket station- which I could see by some of their blanket awnings still standing- to see what I could find there. On reaching it I found the conditions were similar to those of the videttes we had found killed on the Fort Smith Road when we first came out. The men of this party also seemed to have been nearly all surprised while asleep under the blanket shades, and shot where they lay. One or two of them, however, had made some attempt to fight, or run, before the relentless rebel Indians had brought them down. I found one man still alive, but he had been shot in several places and was covered in blood and scarcely able to speak. As I turned him over to see how badly he was he uttered the single word, “Water,” the invariable paint of a wounded man.
I raised his bloody head and gave him a drink from my canteen, and then directed him how to assist me to get him onto my mule, which he seemed to understand; after quite an effort I got him onto his feet alongside my animal- which happened to be my gentle old “Kate,” and not “Jim Lane”- and tried to get him into the saddle. But he was too weak to assist himself, or even to stand on his feet, so I laid him down again, mounted my mule, and galloped to the nearest ambulance party, brought them to the place, and they took him up.
At a little distance off I came to the bodies of two dead Indians, lying not far apart- one a Union Indian, the other a rebel. The signs around these two were, to me, rather mysterious, as to the manner of their deaths, but was explained by one of the Cherokees of the ambulance party, who recognized the features of both dead men, and called their names, which I have forgotten. Both had been shot several times, and one- the rebel- had been partially burned- part of his clothing was still afire, his powder horn had exploded and blown a hole in his side. These dead men, of course, had all had horses, before the attack, which had been driven off by the rebels as they retreated. The Cherokee acquaintance of the two dead men gave this explanation of the affair:
“These two Cherokees were bitter enemies of old, the one a rebel, the other Corporal of our picket guard, and seem to have chanced to meet here. Judging by the signs, the Corporal has jumped on his horse and started to run when the pickets were attacked; the rebel, singling him out, rode after , overtook him, and while riding alongside they had shot each other till both fell off their horses about the same time; or else the “reb” fell first and our Corporal rode back- finding himself mortally wounded- to finish his enemy before he died. The Corporal has stripped his own shirt off, and wrapping it about the rebel’s powder horn against his side, set fire to it and then got away a little piece, where he lay watching his enemy blown to death; after which the Corporal has died where he lay, or been finished by some of the other rebels. But, no doubt, gobbling his defiance to them with his last breath. “Brave man, and died like a true Cherokee,” added the narrator.
After leaving the scene I rode on out further to where I knew there had been a small herd grazing, which belonged to Mr. Putnam, a sutler; and on riding over the ground I came upon the body of Jonas Conroy, a teamster, who had formerly driven team in my train at Leavenworth and Scott, but who had lately been working for Putnam, and was herding “Put’s” mules when killed. He was lying full length, flat on his back, with arms spread out, and had but a single bullet hole in his left breast- shot through the heart. He had probably surrendered to the rebels and then been murdered by them, after giving up his arms while pleading for them to spare his life.
I felt very sad as I looked down on the face of my old teamster, and realized he had been wantonly murdered by some of the blood-thirsty rebel Indians after surrendering and trusting to their honor to treat him as a prisoner of war. Jonas was well known and quite a favorite among the old Wagon Masters and teamsters from up the country, and was one of those jolly, good, honest fellows who would never have wronged even a rebel; and how such wretches- and they seem to be in the majority among our enemies here- can bring themselves to murder such an unarmed, inoffensive, helpless prisoner, who had surrendered to them relying on the honor of manhood, is something hard to realize; but it was a common practice of the rebels in this part of the country, both Indian and white. Our Indians were inclined to retaliate in like manner when opportunities offered, but were restrained by their white officers where such officers were present. Their brutal desire to commit murder, even when there is no provocation, is so strong that it is often hard to hold them back. Such is war! Often an unbridled license, to the brutal and vicious, to commit all manner of crimes in the name of patriotism!
I guided an ambulance to the spot where the body of my old teamster lay and had it hauled to town, where the balance of our dead were being collected for burial. Shortly afterward, on hearing that Jonas’ body was about to be buried with the dead Indians in one huge grave that had been dug to receive all, I and several of his former friends notified his employer, Mr. Putnam, and he readily agreed, with our assistance to have the body given a separate and respectable burial, which was done.
Jonas Conroy was a Down East Yankee (from Connecticut, I think) and some of his teamster friends undertook to hunt up his relatives and inform them of his death, but I never heard whether they succeeded.
In this raid the rebels seemed to have killed all of our own men whom they had caught- many of them after they had surrendered as prisoners. There were several dead rebels found on the field, showing that some of our men had fired a shot of two in self-defense. The number of our dead was about 25 or 30, and were all pickets or teamsters on herd. I know of but one man on our side, a teamster, who escaped after being taken. He got away from them while they were hurrying through the timber on their retreat after leaving the prairie.
It was learned afterward this raid was a party consisting of about 200 mounted rebel Indians (by the term “Indians” I mean also the whites and mixed-bloods who were citizens of the Nation), from Cooper’s command on the other side of the Arkansas. The raiders were under command of old Stand Watie, and had forded the river and were approaching the Fort Smith Road through the timber when they espied our mounted patrol, before spoken of, as they were returning to Gibson. As the “rebs” had not been seen by our men they halted while yet some distance from the road and allowed our scouting party to pass quietly on into the post to report “All serene on the Fort Smith Road;” and had then dropped into the road behind them and followed our men into the prairie, but far enough in rear to be out of sight, and were getting in their work killing our pickets and herders before the patrol had reached Phillips’ headquarters.
They succeeded in recrossing the Arkansas and getting away safely with all the mules and horses of the Indian Brigade except the mules of the 2d Indian train and mine.
My teamster, Dick Griswold, never did me another day’s service. He got actually sick from the scare he had taken after the danger was all over, and I had to send him to the hospital. Here he remained some days, and as he seemed to be pinning away- the doctor said there was nothing the matter with him but sheer fright- by the Surgeon’s advice I discharged him and sent him back to Kansas, where safe from the dread of rebel raiders, he probably recovered.
This was the only case that came under my observation during the war, I believe, where a man was driven into a serious spell of sickness by the terror of contemplating a past danger.
On the principle of “locking the stable after the horse is stolen,” which generally prevails in such cases, all manner- and a great many that were entirely useless- of extra precautions were taken to prevent a reoccurrence of this raid. For some days afterward we were forbidden to send our mules out on herd at all, and had to keep them tied up to the wagons, sending some men out with a team each day to cut and haul grass to them. But in this way we could not procure half enough feed for the hungry animals, and they began to fall off and grow thin.