The Battle of Chusto-Talasah
During the Civil War, the Native American tribes of Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) primarily allied with the Confederacy. Yet in 1861, thousands of rebellious Natives gathered under Chief Opothleyahola in rejection of Confederate alliances. Confederate forces under Colonel Douglas Cooper attempted to quash this rebellion. On December 9, 1861, 1,100 Confederates (including Confederate Indians) clashed with several thousand of Opothleyahola's warriors along the banks of Bird Creek. The four-hour Battle of Chusto-Talasah (also known as Caving Banks) proved indecisive. Opothleyahola's forces were decisively defeated later in the month at the Battle of Chustenahlah.
Backstory and Context
At the onset of the Civil War, the Confederacy courted the Five Tribes living in Indian Territory (present Oklahoma): Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole. These tribes had adopted many aspects of American society and culture, including agriculture, representative government, and the use of enslaved African labor. Confederate officials managed to secure the support of many tribal leaders (particularly slaveholders) and inked treaties of alliance with the Five Tribes.
Yet these treaties did not enjoy the support of all Native Americans. Among the Creek and Seminole tribes in particular, many Indians viewed the treaties as fraudulent and favored remaining neutral in the brewing Civil War. In the autumn of 1861, thousands of Creeks, Seminoles, and runaway blacks, along with small numbers from other tribes, gathered under Creek Chief Opothleyahola in opposition to the Confederate treaties. Although these dissident Natives desired neutrality, their refusal to acknowledge the Confederate treaties resulted in conflict.
In November 1861, Confederate forces under Colonel Douglas H. Cooper clashed with Opothleyahola’s forces at the Battle of Round Mountain. Although the “Loyal Indians” (as they came to be known) under Opothleyahola were forced to retreat, they performed well in the short battle and remained a threat to Confederate authorities. In early December, Colonel Cooper again set out to defeat Opothleyahola, whose force included Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Texan units. On the evening of December 8, Cooper’s forces camped near the enemy near Bird Creek. Opothleyahola’s force numbered between 2,500-4,000 warriors.
During the night, many of the Cherokees under Col. Cooper fled. Unwilling to clash with other Native-Americans (with whom many Cherokees were sympathetic), hundreds of Cherokees deserted and some even defected to Opothleyahola. On the morning of December 9, having lost several hundred defected Cherokees, Colonel Cooper attempted to avoid battle, having only 1,100 men. But Opothleyahola forced an engagement.
For nearly four hours, the two small armies fought along the banks of Bird Creek. Opothleyahola’s forces utilized a horseshoe bend in the creek as a stronghold. Indians clashed with Indians amid the brush, and the Confederate made repeated attempts to capture the horseshoe bend stronghold. Just as Opothleyahola’s forces began to buckle, the sun set. Darkness ended the battle and allowed Opothleyohola and his followers to escape. Colonel Cooper likewise ordered a retreat.
The Battle of Chusto-Talasah (also referred to as “Caving Banks”) proved a fiery but indecisive engagement. Although tactically the Confederates could perhaps claim victory, Opothleyahola’s army remained a strategic threat. The Confederates suffered 15 killed and 37 wounded. Native casualties are harder to determine but probably numbered around 150. Unable to defeat Opothleyahola, Colonel Cooper eventually requested aid from Arkansas. On December 26, Colonel James McIntosh finally and decisively defeated Opothleyahola at the Battle of Chustenahlah. Opothleyahola’s followers were forced to feel into a Kansan exile in the dead of winter. Many of Loyal Indians eventually enlisted in the Union army within the Indian Home Guard regiments.
Today, two historical markers in Sperry, Oklahoma acknowledges the importance of Chusto-Talash within Oklahoma history. The battlefield is inaccessible, unfortunately compromised because of the dirt mining taking place on the location.
1. Battle of Chusto-Talasah Historical Marker. The Historical Marker Database. June 16, 2016. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=39564.
2. Battle of Chusto-Talasah or 'Caving Banks' Historical Marker. The Historical Marker Database. June 16, 2016. Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=52260.
3. Battle Summary: Chusto-Talasah, OK. National Parks Service. . Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/abpp/battles/ok002.htm.
4. Chusto-Talasah (Caving Banks ). Tripler's Report on Sanitation in the Army of the Potomac. EHISTORY. December 09, 1861. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://ehistory.osu.edu/battles/chusto-talasah-caving-banks.
5. Hughes, Michael A. CHUSTO-TALASAH, BATTLE OF. Oklahoma Historical Society. . Accessed March 08, 2019. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CH066.
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7. Zachery C. Cowsert. "The Civil War in Indian Territory, 1861-1865." PhD dissertation. West Virginia University. 2020. https://researchrepository.wvu.edu/etd/7553/
8. Mary Jane Warde. When the Wolf Came: The Civil War and the Indian Territory. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2014.
9. Christine Schultz White and Benton R. White. Now the Wolf Has Come: The Creek Nation in the Civil War. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996.
10. Richard Lowe, ed. A Texas Cavalry Officer's Civil War: The Diary and Letters of James C. Bates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.
11. Anna Eddings. "Opothleyahola." Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Web. Accessed December 30, 2020. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=OP003
National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/people/douglas-cooper.htm