Honey Springs, Part II
by R.M. Peck
National Tribune, 15 September 22, 1904
pg. 8, cols. 1-5
At the commencement of the battle General Blunt had taken possession of the farm house for a hospital. I don’t know what became of the family, but as very little ceremony was used in such matters in war times, I suppose they were given short notice to get out, and “got.”
we soon had the ambulances scampering over the field, picking up the wounded and bringing them in. The attendants were ordered to bring in the wounded only- leaving the dead to be gathered up and buried afterward- our own men first, and the rebel wounded afterward.
I took one ambulance myself and hurried to the ground that had been occupied by Hopkin’s battery, anxious to find what had been the fate of a gallant Sergeant whom I had seen fall while bravely holding the battery’s colors in a perfect shower of shot, as it had seemed to me. From my stand it appeared that one or two other color-bearers had been shot down while holding the flag, for the colors had gone down several times during that melee. I was glad to find the Sergeant still alive, but with a broken leg, and lifting him and several other wounded men into the ambulance, I hurried them off to the hospital, where we unloaded our freight of suffering men and started the ambulance off for more.
At the hospital I found the other ambulances had already delivered several loads of wounded- many of whom were negroes- who were laid in rows, some inside the house, and some outside- wherever shade could be found. In the operating room a long table was standing in the middle of the floor. Several Surgeons were busy cutting off legs and arms, which they unceremoniously tossed out in a heap in front of the door.
The most seriously wounded were picked out and attended to first. Where a limb was to be amputated, a wounded man would be brought in and laid on the table; the Chief Surgeon examined the wound and gave orders for the operation; one would hold a handkerchief saturated with chloroform to the victim’s nose with one hand, until insensibility was produced, while the other was feeling the pulse; two more would bare the limb, apply a ligature above the wound, to check the flow of blood, and while one held it the other would make the forked incisions down to the bone all around the member; an attendant with a sponge wrung out of water stood by to mop away the blood so that the operator could see what he was doing; then the one holding the limb would, with both hands, pull back and hold up the ends of severed flesh- or “flaps,” as the doctors called them- while the operator sawed the bone; the operating Surgeon then got out a fine steel hook, with which he picked up and drew out the ends of the arteries, which another tied with silk thread to stop the bleeding- all the while the man with the sponge was busy mopping away the blood, so that the operator could see to find the ends of the arteries, which he detects by the little stream of blood spurting from each. The “flaps” were then brought together over the end of the sawed-off bone and sewed to each other; the stump mopped off, bandaged up, the chloroform shut off, and the victim is carried away and laid in a row on the floor with others who had been operated upon.
I stood by and saw several of these amputations performed, and although it is many years since, those scenes were so vividly impressed on my memory that my recollection of them seems quite fresh.
There were quite a number of amputations performed, and I heard it said afterward that nearly every man who had a limb taken off died soon after, from the effects of the operation. This bad result was charitably attributed to the extremely hot weather at the time.
It is lamentable, but every one who witnessed the care- or want of it, rather- that was often bestowed on our wounded soldiers after a battle, must be satisfied that thousands of lives of brave men were wantonly and uselessly sacrificed for want of proper attention. I fully realize the uselessness of “crying over spilt milk;” but I am writing my experience and impressions of the war, and “these are of them.”
Some of the subjects of amputations did not seem to revive from the effects of the chloroform, and probably some never regained consciousness; as, in the rush of surgical work, doctors and assistants had but little time to devote to resuscitating the patients. They were simply carried away from the table after the chloroform was removed from the nose and laid in a row with others and left to revive or not, according to the vitality of the man.
Some, however, recovered their sensibilities almost as soon as the handkerchief was removed from their noses. This was especially the case with the battery Sergeant, whom I had been so much interested in. After his leg was taken off, the stump done up and the chloroform taken away, he soon opened his eyes and remarked to one of the Surgeons.
“See here, Doc., if you’re goin’ to take that leg off, you’d better be about it- I’m comin’ to.”
When told that his leg was already off and the stump “done up in a rag,” he raised himself up a little on his elbows to look and see if such was really the case, remarking.
“Is it so? I didn’t know a thing about it.” And then asked, “How goes the battle?”
On being told that the rebels’ battery and their flag had been captured, and that the enemy was whipped and retreating he shouted, “Glory to God!” and fell back and was carried away by the attendants.
Growing tired of looking on at this butchery, I mounted my mule and rode over the field, first making for the ground fought over by the negroes and Texans. I saw several bodies of the blacks lying among the sumac bushes as I rode to the cornfield where the Texans had stood, but our wounded had about all been taken in from that part of the field, and as the bushes obscured the view, the dead could only be found by searching among the sumacs. Having finished gathering in our own wounded, the ambulances were now hauling in the wounded rebels.
When I think of them now, they were many unpleasant scenes on that little battlefield- some sad and pathetic, some horrible; but we got so used to such sights those days that we became callused and indifferent, often taking but slight notice of very serious affairs.
In the cornfield the men in gray lay pretty thick, although the fence must have been some protection to them. The corn was mostly cut down by the Texans. An ambulance was loading up some wounded rebels, the dead being left where they lay to be gathered together and buried afterward- the ambulance men merely examining them sufficiently to ascertain that they were past the Surgeon’s help.
For convenience in letter-writing soldiers in those times would frequently carry a small pocket memorandum, with a few envelopes and a pencil inserted. The leaves of the memorandum would just slip into the envelopes. In writing his letter on the pages of the little book, when finished the soldier tore the leaves out, slipped them into an envelope and addressed it with pencil. As it was often an impossibility for the soldier to get postage stamps, both our Government and the rebels passed laws authorizing the Adjutant’s of regiments (who performed the duties of postmasters) to forward all letters from soldiers free, in place of a stamp merely writing the words “Soldier’s Letter.”
A Pathetic Witness
In looking over the dead rebels as they lay in the corn rows, I noticed one of those little memorandum books, with a piece of lead pencil in it, sticking out of a pocket of one, and the manner in which it was placed, half-way in the dead man’s pocket, looked as though he had been writing up his diary, or a letter, and some interruption had caused him to close the book with a piece of pencil in the place where he had left off writing, to be resumed later on.
Withdrawing the little book from his pocket, I opened it at the pencil and found that the man had been writing a letter to his mother and sister, back in
which the beginning of the battle had interrupted, never to be finished.
Accustomed as I was to the rough scenes of war and their cruel results, the reading of that sad, unfinished last message of a son and brother to his loved mother and sister at home, brought tears into my eyes; and, ashamed to let the nearby soldiers, who were picking up the wounded, see my weakness, I put the book in my pocket, and mounting my mule rode off into the timber, where I could finish reading it unobserved.
I cannot remember the exact wording of this letter, but it was very sad, pathetic in the extreme, and foreboding. The writer seemed to have a presentiment that this would be his last fight. He was not afraid to die, as he said, in a good cause; his greatest anxiety being, “Who will care for mother and sister when I am gone;” and saying that in case of the unfortunate result to himself, which he anticipated, he would only commend his loved ones “to the care of that Greatest Friend of the widow and orphan, who never fails to heed their cry of distress.” As for himself, if he was taken away, he would meet his fate like a soldier, saying with becoming resignation, “Thy will be done.”
This was evidently, although wearing the uniform of a private soldier, a man of some intelligence, and far above the average intelligence of Southern soldiers in the ranks. He quoted Scripture to prove their cause was right, and must prevail; but those Southerners were always glib with Scriptural quotes to sustain them. Still, the fact of their always trying to justify themselves in making war against the North was strong evidence to me that they were not so dead sure that they were right after all.
The last paragraph of this man’s letter read about like this: “The Yankees have opened on us with their big guns. Their shot and shells are crashing through the tops of the trees, but doing us little or no harm, as they pass over our heads. We are ordered forward to see what they are doing, I suppose- and at the next halt I will try to finish this letter.” But he never finished it.
As there was no name in the book, I concluded to take it to the Texas prisoners and try if any of them could recognize the book and writing, or, by such description as I was able to give of him, could tell who he was, and would take charge of the message and try to send it to that mother and sister, who would be waiting and watching with aching hearts for a word that loved one who was never to come home to them, and the resting place of whose bones, even, they would never know.
Burning Up the Camp
Just then I noticed a dense smoke rising up on the higher ground where the rebel camp had been, and I galloped across the creek and up the hill to the fire. The rebels had set fire to some buildings containing stores that they had to abandon on retreating. Our soldiers had got there in time to save some of the stuff, but most of it burned. A lot of their tents were still standing, and clothing and other property scattered about showed that they had left us in quite a hurry. No pursuit was made beyond this point, and the enemy was undisturbed in their retreat to
Fork Town, on the Canadian River.
Why was it that military leaders, on both sides during the war so seldom availed themselves of an opportunity to improve a victory by following up the defeated and disheartened foe in retreat, and inflicting further punishment on him? I know that it is generally said in such cases that the victors were not able to follow and fight, being too badly punished themselves. But it does not seem possible that a victorious army is always so badly used up as not to be able to muster still a sufficient force of men who are able to follow and pound the demoralized foe, harassing their rear at least and capturing more prisoners and property, if a strenuous effort was made to do so. I think this could easily have been done at Honey Springs.
In returning to our camp near the hospital I rode through the timber off toward what had been the right of our line. Here, also, were plenty of the familiar signs of the battle- dead men, dead mules, dead horses; scattered clothing, arms and equipments; in several places I saw piles of rolled blankets (the way that soldiers roll and tie them to carry slung around the body on the march), also haversacks, knapsacks, canteens and clothing, where some of the rebel regiments had lightened themselves to go into action, piling their surplus stuff on the ground, and had then probably been moved off to another part of the field, from which they had begun their retreat without having an opportunity to return and recover their luggage. Some of our soldiers were ransacking their baggage and appropriating such as they desired.
On returning to my camp I went again to the hospital, near where the rebel prisoners were being guarded, to inquire among them concerning the identity of the writer of the letter I had found; and was gratified to find some men who said they recognized the little book and writing, and that they knew the man’s mother and sister and would send the message to them together with an account of his death.
I here witnessed some more tearful and heart-wringing scenes among the wounded and dying Texans, who were laid out under the shade of some large trees, where some of their sound comrades were doing what they could to console them and relieve their sufferings.
Some of our soldiers- even the “D----d niggers”- forgetting the fierce hatred with which they had met and fought these men a short time ago, were now cheerfully assisting in alleviating the suffering of the wounded Texans so far as it was in their power to do so. It is a redeeming feature of the war to see the magnanimity with which the true American soldier treats his fallen foe. (I don’t include the Indians and rebel bushwhackers in this statement.) As long as the enemy is up in arms each one “does his level best” to kill the other; but when one has fallen and cries “enough,” then the sympathy of the true soldier asserts itself, and the victor, laying aside his recent animosity, extends a helping hand to his prostrate foe, and is ready to divide his hardtack and blankets with him.
But the spirit of generosity seems utterly wanting among the Indians (either rebel or
Union), or the
rebel bushwhackers. The Indians and Missouri
bushwhacker is about on a par in fiendish brutality to helpless prisoners. My
personal experience among both classes confirms in me this opinion. Only for
the restraint of their white officers, our Indians would have spared none that
fell into their hands, and often, like the rebel bushwhackers, did kill the
prisoners they took, when their white officers were not present to prevent it.
They were almost as cruel and relentless as the wild Indians on the frontier.
Among the severely wounded rebels I noticed a pale-faced boy of about 20, who was evidently nearing the end. An elderly man knelt by him whom the young man called “Uncle,” and between gasps he was giving to the uncle some verbal messages to deliver to the home folks, whom he would never see again in life.
As he seemed to realize that his remaining moments were few, he asked his uncle to pray for him; and as the old man poured forth a homely but fervent appeal for mercy and forgiveness for the soul that was about to ascend to its Maker, the lips of he young man moved as if repeating the words of the uncle; but before the end of the prayer the expression of suffering on the boy’s face relaxed into a peaceful calmness- the spirit had passed out.
As the old uncle pronounced his “Amen” one of our soldiers who was standing by uttered solemnly the words “Mustered out- mustered in!” And then added with what seemed an assumed air of levity as he turned away, “I’ll bet four dollars and a half that rebel slipped into Heaven!” as though he was surprised to think that one of them might possibly get there; but there was a sympathetic tear in his eye that gave the lie to his doubting expression.
Among the other rebel wounded some were praying, some were dictating last messages to loved ones at home, while others who were too far gone to more than groan were being prayed for by comrades who knelt beside them.
As I walked away from this sad scene to hide the tears I could not keep back, the words of a song that was often sung by the soldiers, called “The Soldier of the Legion,” came freely to mind,
“A soldier of the Legion
Lay dying in
There was want of woman’s nursing,
There was dearth of woman’s tears;
But a comrade knelt beside him,
While his life blood ebbed away,
And bent with pitying glances
To hear what he might say.
“The dying soldier faltered
As his comrade took his hand,
Saying, ‘Alas! I never more shall see
My own dear, native land;
Bear a message and a token
To some distant friends of mine;
For I was born in Bingen-
Calm Bingen on the
An Irishman’s Love
Going back into the operating room of the hospital I found the Surgeons were now busy amputating limbs for the rebel wounded. One Captain Malloy, of the 27th
a fine-looking young Irishman, was on the table to have his leg taken off. He
begged the doctors to spare the limb and let him “die a whole man,” for he said
he knew he would die anyway; but they insisted that taking the leg off might
save his life, and off it came.
This rebel, Captain Malloy, seemed to take his misfortune hard, and after he was carried from the table and laid on the floor, I walked over and stood by him. He had drawn a tintype from his breast pocket and was contemplating it earnestly, while his eyes filled with tears. Noticing my sympathetic looks he reached the picture to me, saying impulsively.
“Look at her. Ain’t she a beauty? The blamest best girl in
she’s lost to me now. And that d----d Bass, my Colonel, I mean, - is the cause
of it, d--n him! You see, he and I were both courtin’ her, an’ there was no
show for him while I was on the string, so I think he concluded today in the fight that now was a good time to get
rid of me; and so he left us in the cornfield when he retreated with the rest
of the regiment, without sayin’ a word about retreatin’ at all, knowin’, as he
must, that we would be killed or captured. Well, he’s succeeded only too well
in puttin’ me out of his way; for even if I should live to get well, the girl
would hardly choose a one-legged cripple in preference to a whole man.”
I tried to console him by remarking,
“I wouldn’t be discouraged. If she loved you she’ll surely not go back on you on account of your misfortune.”
“I don’t know about that,” he replied doubtfully. “Bass is a blamed fine-looking fellow himself. Can ride like a Comanche; dead shot with a pistol or rifle; can rope an’ throw a steer with any cowboy; an’ with a nice uniform on, sich a fellow’d be a devil to capture the woman’s heart- at least Texas women. I’m afraid I’d stan’ a poor show- a one-legged cripple hobblin’ about on crutches- ag’in a whole man, an’ a fine-lookin’ fellow like Bass, G-d D--n him! I don’t think it’d be worth me while to go back, if I get over this, for it’s kill me dead entirely to be refused by that girl, an’ see the other fellow walk away with her.”
He was truly a fine-looking young fellow, and in appearance well calculated to win the affections of any girl. I tried to cheer him up by assuring him that if his girl truly loved him she would stick to him even without a leg at all, but he did not seem to feel hopeful. Possibly he had well-founded doubts of his hold on the girl’s affections.
He expressed deep gratitude for the kind treatment and sympathy that he and his comrade had received from our men since their surrender, and shook hands with me at parting. I never saw him again, but was told a few days later on inquiry that he died in the hospital at
shortly after being removed to that place from the effects of the amputation.
He was at least saved the humiliation of “being refused by that girl, an’
seein’ the other fellow walk away with her.” Fort Gibson
At the end of the day’s work for the surgeons there was quite a little mound of legs and arms in front of the hospital door where they had been tossed out as they were taken off, which I caused to be hauled away and buried the next day.
The rebel wounded, as they were somewhat scattered in the timber and brush and difficult to find, were not all gathered in when night put a stop to the work; and no doubt many a poor fellow moaned out his life all alone before morning for the want of medical assistance.
The Rebels Had All the Advantage
Considering that the rebels had so much the advantage of us in being familiar with the locality, choosing their own ground to fight on, being sheltered by the timber, and having a fair pick at our men as they advanced over open ground, and also having a force about equal to ours- taking all these advantages, which they possessed, into consideration, they made a poor fight. They ought to have been able to whip us, and probably would if they had been well handled; but their Generals- Cooper and Stand Watie- were never successful in a pitched battle- their best hold being raiding and guerrilla war- and seemed to have made up their minds that they were going to get whipped before our men came in sight- probably greatly magnifying our numbers- and prepared to fall back on North Fork Town accordingly.
A message was received here this day (July 17, 1863), by General Blunt, forwarded from Gibson, announcing the glorious victories of our armies, after three days of desperate fighting at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and also the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Grant took General Pemberton and 35,000 rebels, after a siege and bombardment of several months’ duration, both of which important events had been brought to a close on the glorious 4th of July, 1863.
It had taken 13 days for the news to reach us. Such cheering as our men did on receipt of the glad tidings might have been heard a long way down in “
It was confidently predicted in these “crushing defeats” of the rebels would certainly bring the war to a close in a few months- that the “backbone of the rebellion” was surely broken this time, and the Southern Confederacy was dead; but in spite of these prophecies that defunct institution with the disjointed spinal column managed to worry along, and made it mighty interesting for us nearly two years longer.
After the battle of Honey Springs the contemptuous epithet of “D----d niggers,” that had previously been used so freely in speaking of the colored troops, was adopted by them as a title that they seemed rather proud of. It was common to hear the black fellows speak of their regiment as the “1st Kansas Damned Niggers,” etc.
Negroes as Soldiers
The conclusion I arrived at in reference to the fighting qualities of the colored soldiers is that they will probably do as good service as the white troops if officered and led by brave and efficient white officers. The Negro having always been accustomed to look up to the whites as a superior race naturally consider them their masters, and give them prompt obedience. But I noticed that where men of their own color are appointed as officers over them they don’t have the same confidence in these as in the white officers.
I deduce the rule that a brave and efficient white officer will make out of the average freedman a good soldier, and vice versa. The negro soldier is perfectly willing to let his white officer do his (the soldier’s) thinking; but, lacking that self-reliance that the superior intelligence of the white soldier gives him, is more liable to a panic than the white.
The white soldier, on the contrary, in spite of the oft-repeated assertion of his superiors, “You have no right to think- your officers are paid to do your thinking”- which is dinned into him from his enlistment- will persist in running a “thinkery” of his own; and where thrown upon his own resources is by no means helpless, as the darky generally is.
The next day after the battle we spent in burying the dead- our own first and then the rebel dead- and on the day following (the 19th) we moved back to Gibson.
On the return trip we found that both the
Arkansas and Grand
Rivers had fallen sufficiently so that
we could easily ford them and dispense with the ferryboat, which, with a detail
of soldiers, I towed back up to its old place in Grand River at . Fort Gibson
As I crossed the river with my train at the ford where the team of the negro regiment had drowned, the wagon and dead mules were visible above the water, and some of the black soldiers swam out to it, and fished out the bodies of the driver (one of whose feet was found to be fastened to the stirrups), and the two darky soldiers who had drowned in the wagon. These were drawn ashore by ropes. The swimmers then attached one end of a stout rope to the team, carried the other end ashore, and a party of men soon pulled the team of dead mules to the edge of the water where the carcasses were stripped of the harness and allowed to float down the river, and the wagon was pulled up onto dry ground, another set of mules put into the harness and the wagon taken away, carrying the bodies of the drowned negroes.
Taking my teams out to the hayfield, I again resumed the hay-hauling. Blunt’s little army was again dispersed, some remaining at Fort Gibson, some going to Fort Smith and other points, the General with an escort having himself to Kansas presumably to enjoy the felicitations and congratulations of his fellow-citizens on his recent victory.
A herd of contraband horses, mules and ponies had been gathered up in the vicinity of the battlefield at Honey Springs, which I had been ordered to take charge of, but as I had no available men to look after them they were left in care of some soldiers till we got back to Fort Gibson, where what was left of them were turned over to me.
As usual, all the best animals had been sneaked off by officers and soldiers who had opportunities for smuggling them away, and only the scrubs were transferred to me for Uncle Sam. There was one exception, a large, finely-built six-year-old mustang stallion, which I modestly concluded to appropriate to my own use, wondering why the jayhawkers had left so good-looking an animal; but when I threw a rope on him I found out the reason- he was so wild and vicious that no one cared to break him.
As I was very busy about then, and could not well take time to break a wild horse, I offered to pay one of my rough riding negro teamsters $10 to ride him for me, for a few days, but they found him such a devil to fight that, after he had nearly crippled several of the boys, they threw up the job and turned him back into the herd.