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An Affair to Remember

77 Counties



The Sky Over The Rolling Prairie of Eastern Oklahoma is The Color of Pewter. The smell of campfire smoke hangs in the air. Confederate battle flags fly above men in uniform who cluster near white canvas tents. Union cavalry officers trot by on matching chestnut horses. The Confederates around the fire ignore them, laughing and talking of events that transpired 150 years ago in the present tense, as if they had just happened … because they had. It’s the Saturday before Veterans Day, 2013.

Every third year, history buffs from around the country gather north of Checotah like so many chess pieces, acting out parts assigned long ago by the hand of fate. They are there to re-enact a Civil War battle, the largest military clash within the borders of modern-day Oklahoma.

The names used to describe what happened on the site July 17, 1863, have a whimsical ring. Those from the North called it “The Engagement at Honey Springs.” Southerners would call it “The Affair at Elk Creek.”

But there was nothing romantic about that rainy Friday, two weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg.

The forests and fields in the old Creek Nation would see the most important and deadliest fight of the 107 documented Civil War “hostile encounters” in Indian Territory. The stakes were high. The issue being decided, in hand-to-hand combat, was whether the land west of the Mississippi would be controlled by the Union or the Confederacy.

The 3,000-acre Honey Springs Battlefield, between Rentiesville and Oktaha, runs over the McIntosh County line north into Muskogee. About 3,000 Union troops faced off against an estimated 5,700 Confederate soldiers, most of them waiting in the brush north of Elk Creek, stretched in a line a mile-and-a-half long. Incessant rain had turned much of the Confederates’ Mexican-made gunpowder into paste, causing misfires and accidents and prompting some frustrated fighters to resort to using their guns as clubs. Some of the battle was waged hand-to-hand, bayonets drawn. Over a span of six hours, according to Christopher Price, the battlefield’s director, between 250 and 300 men – nearly all of them Confederates – died near the rain-swollen creek and the woods-dotted field.

Civil War reenactments took hold 50 years ago among history buffs wanting to commemorate the war’s centennial. The first reenactment of the Battle of Honey Springs was held July 18, 1993, one day after the event’s 130th anniversary. Mike Farrar, a retired police officer, traveled to Honey Springs from Livingston, Texas, November 8-10, 2013 to mark the battlefield’s 150th anniversary.

The toll makes July 17, 1863, one of the deadliest days in Oklahoma history, on a par with the estimated 300 claimed by the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots. But unlike most other fateful events, the Battle of Honey Springs is relived time and again.

The re-enactors are motivated by different reasons, Price said: “Some of them like the history, understanding what life was like then. It’s one thing to read about the Civil War, and another to be right next to one of those canons when they’re set off. Some of them have ancestors who fought. And, well, some of them just like to shoot guns.”

The Union victory at Honey Springs was the first time in history that black soldiers fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Native Americans and whites, and was the rare Civil War battle in which whites were in the minority on both sides.

The 1st Division of the Army of the Frontier, commanded by Maj. Gen. James Blunt of the U.S. Army, included the 1st and 2nd Indian Home Guard, members of the Five Civilized Tribes who did not support tribal treaties of alliance with the Confederates. Also fighting for the Union at Honey Springs: the acclaimed 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, comprised mostly of former slaves. Theirs was the first-ever African-American regiment, and the fourth to be mustered into federal service.

 The Union soldiers, outnumbered nearly 2-to-1, faced a Confederate force under the command of Brig. Gen. Douglas Cooper. Troops from Texas were bolstered by the 1st and 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles, 1st Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles, 1st and 2nd Creek Mounted Rifles. It is said the Texans brought leg-irons and handcuffs to the battle, planning to return any surviving African-American soldiers to slavery.

The 1st Kansas regiment, however, defeated the Texans so decisively that Blunt’s official report declared:

“The First Kansas (colored) particularly distinguished itself; they fought like veterans, and preserved their line unbroken throughout the engagement. Their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed; they were in the hottest of the fight, and opposed to Texas troops twice their number, whom they completely routed. One Texas regiment (the 20th Cavalry) that fought against them went into the fight with 300 men and came out with only sixty.”

“The idea of fighting for freedom was not an abstract concept to them,” Price said of the black soldiers. “They literally were fighting for their personal freedom. With the Native Americans too, they were fighting for control of their homeland, and had more skin in the game.”

Though markers at the Honey Springs Battlefield memorialize the lives lost, there are no tombstones. The bodies of most of the Confederate dead are interred in mass graves, buried by Union soldiers after the Confederates were driven out. The Confederate Gen. Cooper wrote Gen. Blunt a note of thanks for the courtesy.

The recognition of Honey Springs as a pivotal moment in American history gained ground in 2013 when the National Park Service designated the battlefield a national historic landmark and part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. A new visitors’ and interpretative center is scheduled to open next year.

At the July 2013 ceremony and memorial service announcing the honor, re-enactor Lynn Shackleford, a member of the Trans-Mississippi Rifle Veterans Reserve, said: “We re-enact to educate, educate to preserve, and preserve to honor ... We believe in America. Some people consider what we do playing, but to us it is serious. We get a lot out of it, and we want to give back.”

Price would love to see more awareness of the diversity of the Honey Springs forces. Although there are many re-enactors with Indian ancestors, “We’ve been trying for a long time to get an African-American regiment. A lot of the re-enactors are older now, and we’re trying to get more people interested in it. But it can be a hard sell: ‘Hey, why don’t you spend $400 on a wool uniform that you can wear in the heat and be all sweaty and come hang out with us?’”

For Mike Farrar, the camaraderie is what has made his 20 years as a re-enactor.  A retired Houston police officer and former chief of police of Corrigan, Texas, he made the pilgrimage to Honey Springs for the battle’s 150th anniversary. Though his great-great grandfather Robert Farrar fought for the Confederacy out of Louisiana, Mike Farrar participates as a “Confederalist,” with uniform tweaks that allow him to serve as either a Union dismounted cavalry soldier or a Confederate artilleryman.

What would his great-great-grandfather, who surrendered at Vicksburg the same month as the battle at Honey Springs, and his fellow Civil War soldiers think of 21st century re-enactments of their 19th-century battles?

Mike Farrar laughed.

“They’d probably think we were a bunch of silly assholes. They didn’t go around re-enacting the Revolutionary War, or the War of 1812.”

He cast a glance over at the lines of cars and pickups and trailers parked down the hill in a neighboring field and smiled. “I’ll bet they’d like to see our horses, though!”


Editor’s Note: This is the 17th installment in a continuing series as author and photographer M.J. Alexander chronicles her travels across the state of Oklahoma.

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September 2018

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More than 20 speakers in a one-track session designed for the digital marketing professional, marketer, business owner or anyone interested in branding, PR, advertising, social media, SEO, search,...

Cost: $250

Where:
Tower Theatre
425 NW 23rd St
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
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Sponsor: BigWing
Telephone: 405.475.4185
Contact Name: Janelle Archer
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This year will mark the eighth time the John F. Kennedy Awards have been celebrated, honoring individuals making a significant contribution to Oklahoma, its communities and its people, while paying...

Cost: $300

Where:
Skirvin Hilton Hotel
1 Park Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
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Sponsor: Santa Fe Family Life Center
Telephone: 405-840-1817
Contact Name: James Timberlake
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More than 20 speakers in a one-track session designed for the digital marketing professional, marketer, business owner or anyone interested in branding, PR, advertising, social media, SEO, search,...

Cost: $250

Where:
Tower Theatre
425 NW 23rd St
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
View map »


Sponsor: BigWing
Telephone: 405.475.4185
Contact Name: Janelle Archer
Website »

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Price Tower Art Gallery in Bartlesville will host Women Artists of the West's 48th annual juried art exhibition, featuring over 200 original art works, created by women in all mediums, subjects...

Cost: Free 2018-09-21,22,23

Where:
Price Tower Art Gallery
510 S. Dewey Ave.
Bartlesville, OK  74003
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Sponsor: Price Tower Arts Center
Telephone: 918.336.4949
Contact Name: Angelina Bourgou
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Escape the ordinary, and learn about OKC from a different point of view. Relax in the climate controlled cabin on one of our 65’ cruisers, or enjoy the breeze on the viewing deck and listen...

Cost: $15 for Seniors and kids under 12, $20 Adults

Where:
Regatta Landing
701 S. Lincoln Blvd.
OKC, OK  73109
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Telephone: 405.702.7755
Contact Name: Business Office
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A fabulous art auction to raise money to help support Oklahoma A+ Schools at UCO.

Cost: $100

Where:
CHK|Central Boathouse
732 Riversport Dr.
Oklahoma City, OK  73129
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Sponsor: Oklahoma A+ Schools at UCO
Telephone: 405.974.3791
Contact Name: Heather Bryant
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The evening Cocktail Cruise offers stunning views of the downtown skyline, the Boathouse District and Finish Line Tower, the Wheeler Ferris wheel and quite possibly an amazing Oklahoma sunset. Come...

Cost: $15 for Seniors and kids under 12, $20 Adults

Where:
Regatta Landing
701 S. Lincoln Blvd.
OKC, OK  73109
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Telephone: 405.702.7755
Contact Name: Business Office
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Join supporters in communities across the nation for the St. Jude Walk/Run to End Childhood Cancer during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. This family-friendly event raises funds to support the...

Cost: $10 for adults or children six and older

Where:
Stars and Stripes Park
3701 S. Lake Hefner Drive
Oklahoma City , OK  73116
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Telephone: 405.403.7762
Contact Name: Emily Drover
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Let’s end childhood cancer. Together! This September, supporters across the country will unite to participate in the St. Jude Walk/Run to End Childhood Cancer, an exciting, family-friendly...

Cost: $10 for Registration

Where:
Stars and Stripes Park
3701 S Lake Hefner Dr
Oklahoma City, OK  73116
View map »


Sponsor: ALSAC St. Jude Oklahoma City
Telephone: 405.403.7762
Contact Name: Emily Drover
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Price Tower Art Gallery in Bartlesville will host Women Artists of the West's 48th annual juried art exhibition, featuring over 200 original art works, created by women in all mediums, subjects...

Cost: Free 2018-09-21,22,23

Where:
Price Tower Art Gallery
510 S. Dewey Ave.
Bartlesville, OK  74003
View map »


Sponsor: Price Tower Arts Center
Telephone: 918.336.4949
Contact Name: Angelina Bourgou
Website »

More information

Escape the ordinary, and learn about OKC from a different point of view. Relax in the climate controlled cabin on one of our 65’ cruisers, or enjoy the breeze on the viewing deck and listen...

Cost: $15 for Seniors and kids under 12, $20 Adults

Where:
Regatta Landing
701 S. Lincoln Blvd.
OKC, OK  73109
View map »


Telephone: 405.702.7755
Contact Name: Business Office
Website »

More information

The evening Cocktail Cruise offers stunning views of the downtown skyline, the Boathouse District and Finish Line Tower, the Wheeler Ferris wheel and quite possibly an amazing Oklahoma sunset. Come...

Cost: $15 for Seniors and kids under 12, $20 Adults

Where:
Regatta Landing
701 S. Lincoln Blvd.
OKC, OK  73109
View map »


Telephone: 405.702.7755
Contact Name: Business Office
Website »

More information

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