Kickapoo Indian men, c. 1867, photographer unknown
Image courtesy of http://www.hico-tx.com
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)
For the first military history post for the new year, I give you a small battle in the later, closing months of the War Between the States, where the Indians actually badly smashed Confederate regular cavalry and Texan militia. It was a case of mistaken identity, as the Indians – who were simply fed up with the «white man’s war» – were just trying to find peace and quiet.
Kickapoo wigwam, date and photographer unknown; Image courtesy of
The Kickapoo Indian tribe originated in Michigan. Many Kickapoo bands joined the confederation led by Tecumseh, and participated in the November, 1811 battle of Tippecanoe. They also opposed American forces during the War of 1812. Eventually, the Kickapoo moved to Wisconsin, then Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, then to Oklahoma, while smaller bands continued on to Texas and Mexico.
At the start of the «War of Northern Aggression,» many of the Kickapoo groups in Oklahoma took sides, sometimes fighting each other. Near the end of 1864, a large number of Kickapoos decided to leave the country altogether. They knew some of their fellow tribesmen were living across the Rio Grande in Mexico. Therefore, a large band of Kickapoo men, women, and children pulled up stakes and made plans for the trek to join their brothers «south of the border.»
This migrating band contained between 4000 and 5000 Kickapoo Indians. Of these, about 400-600 were warriors, the rest were women, children, and the old. The leaders decided to make the journey during the late fall and early winter of 1864-65. In addition, they determined to avoid any contact with Texan settlements, and went through the sparsely populated West Texas plains, which were the usual haunts of the Comanche Indians.
On December 9, 1864, Captain N. M. Gillintine (also spelled Gillentine) and a Texas militia scouting party of twenty-three, under the jurisdiction of the State Militia’s 2nd Frontier District, discovered an abandoned Indian camp. Gillintine reported that it had between 92 and 102 wigwam sites and was located about thirty miles up the Clear Fork of the Brazos River from the ruins of old Fort Phantom Hill. [The campsite was some 20 miles southwest of the present-day town of San Angelo.] The trail left by the Indians was quite large – nearly 100 yards wide. The experienced Indian scouts among the militamen estimated that there were probably 500-600 warriors in the band.
[However, there was sufficient evidence for even an experienced scout like Gillintine to realize this was not a hostile warparty. They even found the grave of a dead Indian child, not something you would encounter with a raiding party. But Gillintine viewed all Indians as hostile. Even when other Indian scouts told him the Indians were likely non-hostile, he ignored their advice.]
Capt. Gillintine sent his report to the commander of the 2nd Frontier District, asking for reinforcements of state militia and regular Confederate cavalry. By the end of December, a force of 325 state militiamen under Capt. Silas S. Totton set out to join a force of 112 Confederate regulars and an additional 49 militiamen under Capt. Henry Fossett. The two groups failed to keep in communication, and their scheduled rendezvous did not take place.
Kickapoo Indian Force
Pattern (or Model) 1853 Enfield rifled musket, used by Kickapoo Indians at Dove Creek fight
It was also imported by both Union and Confederate governments for their armies
The Kickapoo Indians, while generally peaceful, had participated in some battles in both Kansas and Oklahoma, a number of them fighting for the North, with others joining the South. They had received some general military training, including how to use firearms. Many of Kickapoos had been supplied with British-produced rifled muskets, specifically the Model 1853 Enfield. The Kickapoos were quite proficient in their use of the weapon.
The M1853 Enfield was the major firearm used by the British armed forces from 1853 to 1867. It was used in the Crimean War, the New Zealand Māori Wars, and the Indian Mutiny. In fact, the introduction of the Enfield to the Sepoys of the British-controlled East India Company army was a contributing factor to the start of the Indian Mutiny (or, if you wish to be politically correct, the Indian Uprising of 1857). The .577 caliber rifled musket fired a conical Minie ball, with an effective range to 600 years, with maximum range of 1250 yards.
The Kickapoo band had somewhere between 400 and 600 warriors in this migrating band, perhaps slightly more. But, neither the Confederate regulars nor the state militiamen had sent sufficient scouts to find out the exact figures.
Texan Confederate Regulars/Milita Force
The major portion of the Texan force was the state militiamen. At the beginning of the War Between the States, the Texas government announced that if any man was a member of the Frontier Force (militia), they were exempt from service in the Confederate Army. Many of these men – as the rugged individualist they were – did not respond well to military discipline. If they didn’t want to obey an officer’s ofders, they would ignore him. There was no real uniformity of dress or equipment. Many of the militiamen were only armed with shotguns, squirrel rifles, ancient revolvers, and similar non-military weapons.
The Confederate regulars were only slightly better than their frontier militia brothers.
Prelude to the Battle
As it turned out, Totton and his command set out on their own, seeking the Indians’ trail. They found it – despite wet, rainy weather and the trail nearly being obliterated by the rain and a passing buffalo herd. The militia’s provisions and fodder began running low, and Totton was forced to send home a number of his troops whose horse were in poor shape. Totton’s force made camp on January 5 due to dwindling supplies; the commander sent men to nearby Fort Chadbourne to requisition some army beef.
Capt. Fossett and his Confederate regulars, finally tiring of waiting for Totton’s command, set out to find Totton’s men and the migrating Indians. Soon afterwards, scouts found four abandoned Indian camps with a total of 875 wigwam sites that could have sheltered about 4000 people. There was also a detail present that should have given the Texans pause; a tree was found that had been used by the «hostiles» for target practice. The tree was perforated with dozens of bullets, and exhibited a large number of bullseyes. This did not seem to bother Fossett unduly, and they continued their pursuit.
Capt. Fossett sent out some scouts to try and find the migrating band (one of the scouts was a Lt. Mulkey, a Cherokee Indian). His command continued to follow the trail. On the morning of January 7 they were met by Lt. Mulkey and the scouts. They reported the discovery of the Indian camp on Dove Creek, about 50 miles away. They stated that about 4000 Indians were present, along with a herd of about 7000 horses. Fossett decided to march immediately for this camp; he sent a messenger to find Totton’s command. The message included directions to the Indian camp, his intention to attack the camp at dawn the next day, and a rendezvous site three miles away.
[Again, during the conference with his scouts, Fossett was told by them that the Indians were probably peaceful – Mulkey even tentatively identified them as Kickapoos. The scout recommended that Fossett try to communicate with them to determine their intentions. Apparently, Capt. Fossett’s blood was up, as he stated, «I recognize no friendly Indians on the Texas frontier.»]
Capt. Totton received Fossett’s message shortly afterwards (they were about 30 miles away), and the militiamen broke camp and rode more than 80 miles through the night to reach the rendezvous point. During their ride, about 100 of the militiamen and their horses were so exhausted they could not continue. They were left behind with the pack train and Totton ordered them to proceed forward as best they could. However, the state militiamen simply left the area to return to their homes, taking the extra ammunition and provisions with them.
At sunrise on the morning of January 8, Capt. Fossett was thoroughly annoyed when Totton’s militiamen failed to appear, not showing up until nearly 9:00 am. The two commanders exchanged greetings, and began to make plans for the attack on the supposed «hostiles.» Totton was concerned that his 220 men – exhausted after an all-night ride in freezing temperatures and rain – were in no shape to fight a battle. Many of their horses were completely blown.
Fossett’s battleplan would begin with the recently arrived state militiamen crossing Dove Creek and attacking the camp from the north to draw the attention of the Indians. Then, Fossett and his Rebel regulars would cross the creek southwest of the camp and either capture or drive off the Indians’ grazing horses. Finally, a detachment of about 75 Confederates under the command of Lt. J.A. Brooks would attack the camp from the south, hopefully cutting off the Indians’ retreat.
The plan might have worked. However, the Kickapoos had placed their camp in an excellent strategic position. It was on the southern bank of Dove Creek, utilizing a dry wash to cover the encampment’s eastern and northeastern side. In addition, the campsite was surrounded by oak thickets and thick brier bushes. There were also ridges which protected the camp on several sides, and a large hill to the south of the camp.
Battle of Dove Creek
Capt. Totton and his state militia began the attack at about 10:00 am, crossing the freezing waters of Dove Creek on foot. The men had not had anything to eat in nearly 12 hours. Their attack initially took the Kickapoos by surprise, but after only a few minutes, the Indian warriors grabbed their Enfields and began laying down accurate fire on the attacking Texans. Very soon, at least 16 of the militia were killed, inclluding three of their officers. The assault on the Indian camp was aborted, and the militia withdrew rapidly in a disordered rout.
At the same time, Fossett’s Confederate regulars crossed the creek and took charge of the horse herd with ease. Watching the herd were an old Kickapoo man and two boys. The old man told the Texans that they were Kickapoos – not Comanches or Kiowas, as Fossett suspected – and that they were friendly. Fossett again stated his belief in «no friendly Indians on the Texas fronter.» He then added, «I take no prisoners,» and the old man was shot dead. Fossett ordered his men to execute the two boys, but they refused. The boys were taken prisoner (fortunately later escaped).
Battle of Dove Creek, January 8, 1865
From the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 53, July 1949 – April 1950
Image courtesy of http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101126/m1/472/
The Confederate horsemen under Lt. Brooks advanced on the southern end of the Kickapoo encampment, but with met with withering musket fire. About a dozen of the Rebel regulars had their horses shot out from under them. The volume of fire from the Kickapoo positions (described by one Texan participant as «perfect natural riflepits») made the Texans realize that these were not the Indians they thought they were.
Both the Confederate regulars and the state militiamen, badly shot up by the Kickapoos, fell back to the juncture of Dove and Spring creeks (see map above). By early afternoon, the disordered Texas were in full retreat, heading northeast to escape the pursuing Kickapoos. Thus ended the battle of Dove Creek.
The Texans lost 22 killed and 19 wounded. In the retreat a number of the wounded died of the cold; a major snow storm was blowing across Texas. At least 12 inches of snow fell on the day after the battle (some sources said it was two to three feet), making travel very slow. Food was so scarce, the Texans were forced to slaughter three of their captured Indian horses. A week after the battle, they reached the ranch of John Chisum – at the confluence of the Concho and Colorado rivers – who offered them shelter, food, fodder, and medical care. [This is the same John Chisum who was portrayed by Johy Wayne in the 1970 film «Chisum.»]
The Kickapoo Indians lost less than 50 men killed and an unknown number of wounded. Shortly after the Texans retreated, the Kickapoos pulled up stakes – leaving nearly all of their equipment behind – and headed directly for the Rio Grande. They crossed the Texas-Mexico border and headed to the settlement of their fellow Kickapoos, and settled down.
Footnote #1: For years after Dove Creek, the Kickapoos launched a number of raids against Texas settlements, in retaliation for the unprovoked attack.
Footnote #2: The Kickapoo tribe achieved lasting fame in American popular culture as a result of cartoonist Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip, which ran in 900 newspapers across the country from 1934 to 1977. Among the plethora of unique characters that inhabited Dogpatch, USA were Hairless Joe and Lonesome Polecat. The two fast friends dwelt in a cave near Dogpatch, and brewed the concoction in a huge vat sitting just outside their cave mouth. Its exact formula was unknown; but if Joe or Polecat periodically tasted it and said, «It needs more body,» they would promptly hunt down some local animal – usually a bear or a moose – and throw its carcass [«body,» get it?] into the vat where the Joy Juice was constantly percolating. KJJ was said to be so strong, its fumes could melt the rivets off a battleship. Capp was constantly denying claims that KJJ was «moonshine.»
Kickapoo Joy Juice (see below)
Image courtesy of https://sodapopriot.wordpress.com
In the 1960s, as a competitor of Mountain Dew, the Monarch Beverage Company of Atlanta, GA developed a similar citrus-flavored soft drink dubbed Kickapoo Joy Juice. It is currently sold mainly in Asian markets (Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia and Bangladesh), the can still comes decorated with a vintage Li’l Abner drawing.