In the summer of 1864, a steamboat came up the Arkansas River with a thousand barrels of flour and 15 tons of bacon to resupply Union troops at Fort Gibson.
Cherokee Gen. Stand Waite, largely cut off from the rest of the Confederacy, didn’t want to sink the boat. He wanted to capture it, along with the food and other supplies on board.
“His men were on their own,” explained Bob Blackburn, the executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
“And they were hungry, trying to feed themselves and their families.”
For the ambush, Waite chose a bend just below the mouth of the Canadian River, near what is now Kerr Lake, where he positioned 400 men and at least two pieces of artillery. The steamboat, meanwhile, was guarded by a grand total of 26 Union troops.
“They never had a chance,” Blackburn said.
The Battle of the J.R. Williams lasted only a few minutes on June 15, 1864 — exactly 150 years ago Sunday. Shells hit the smoke stack and pilot house, causing the boat to lose steam and run aground on a sandbar. Four Union soldiers died while several others were wounded and the rest ran away.
So ended the only naval engagement fought in Indian Territory during the Civil War, Blackburn said — and quite likely the only naval battle in Oklahoma history, period.
In the grand scheme of the Civil War, of course, the battle was a minor sideshow. But in Indian Territory, it allowed the Cherokee Nation to maintain a stalemate, with the Union essentially controlling areas north of the Arkansas and the Confederacy holding everything south of the river, Blackburn said.
Waite went on to be the last Confederate general to surrender, holding out two months after Robert E. Lee gave up the cause at Appomattox.
A century and a half later, most Oklahomans don’t realize how pivotal the Civil War was to state history, Blackburn said.
The Land Runs, the late date of statehood and the rocky relationship between Indian tribes and the national government — a lot of it traces back to the Civil War and its aftermath, Blackburn said.
More than 80 battles were fought here. And per capita, Indian Territory saw more deaths and suffered more property damage than Virginia, in the very heart of the Confederacy, Blackburn said.
“That’s how devastating it was,” he said. “And it helped shape the state that we are today.”
Michael Overall 918-581-8383