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Battlefield Dispatches No. 253: Wagon Boss No. 6 'On the Road To Fort Gibson'

Friday, February 18, 2011

After returning to Fort Scott from Humboldt, Kan., in the late spring of 1862, R.M. Peck, hired on as the Assistant Wagon Boss with a wagon train of Commissary Stores going to south to Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma). The following is Peck's memoir of this trip that was published in the July 28, 1904 edition of the National Tribune newspaper in Washington, D.C.

"Taking transportation with George Underhill's (wagon) train, I went to Fort Scott (from Humboldt) to look for another job.

On applying to Hugh Kirkendall, master of transportation there, I found there was no opening for a wagon master and accepted the position of assistant to Underhill, which Hugh offered me. We immediately loaded up with commissaries, and under an escort of a company of cavalry, started down to the (Cherokee) "Nation" to overtake the invading command.

Here, being in the country at present held by the enemy all wagon trains are guarded and escorted by soldiers. From Fort Scott to Baxter Springs, 60 miles, the country is entirely unsettled. This strip (of land) at that time was called the Cherokee Neutral Land and now constitutes the counties of Crawford and Cherokee in Kansas.

At Baxter Springs, where there was but one house, we caught up with the rear of the invading (Union) column and traveled with it down to Cabin Creek where we found the main command under Brevet Brigadier General Weir, formerly colonel of the 10th Kansas Volunteer Infantry.

A day or two before our arrival, Weir had surprised a body of rebels, commanded by the Rebel General Cooper, at a place called "Locust Grove" and whipped them capturing their camp and some prisoners.

Chief John Ross, of the Cherokees and his family joined us at Cabin Creek. He had been playing "fast andloose" with the rebels until our arrival gave him an opportunity to get out of their clutches, of which he promptly availed himself. John Ross took no active part in the war, but went on east with his family to Philadelphia, where he remained until the war ended. He is reputed to be wealthy. (Note John Ross's wife was the white Anglo-Saxon daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family and the "Cherokee" Treasury accompanied the Ross party to Pennsylvania.)

We moved by easy marches, feeling our way from Cabin Creek to Flat Rock Creek, within 12 miles of Fort Gibson where the rebels were said to be in considerable force under the command of Gens. Cooper and Stand Watie. The latter is a full-blooded Cherokee and in command of all the rebel Indians. He is described as quite an intelligent and well educated man and the ugliest featured man in the "nation"

From Baxter Springs, as we move toward Gibson, the settlements (farms -- no towns) become more numerous, but still the country is sparsely settled, the improvements being confined to the choicest localities along the water courses. This is truly a fine country, fairly diversified in prairie and timber and well watered by the numerous streams, nearly all of which are bordered by timber.

Wherever we find houses they seem to have been either recently abandoned or are occupied only by women and children or Negroes. A man or boy big enough to bear arms cannot remain at home here where the country is overrun first by rebels and then by the federals. Even the women and children are moving out as fast as they can get opportunities to places of greater security; abandoning livestock, poultry, furniture, crops and everything; some going north, some going south, in whichever direction they have friends or their political sympathies lead them. Some families are still remaining and holding on to their homes and property, loath to abandon and lose what they cannot take away with them; but they have a rough time of it, being subjected to abuse and robbery by roving parties from either army.

Most of the well-to-do families of (Indians) of the "Nation" own slaves and the Negroes are not slow to take advantage of the situation to secure their "freedom." Those whose masters have gone into the rebel army usually help themselves to the best of their owner's horses and mules and ride away to Kansas or to the Union camps to seek freedom and employment; some being given work as teamsters and laborers in the Quartermaster's Department; some securing employment as officer's servants. Many of the women and girls eagerly accept service as cooks or to do any kind of work for the teamsters, soldiers or anyone who can afford to feed them, asking no other compensation.

Our camps soon became so crowded with these suddenly freed slaves that the commanding general found it necessary to ship trainloads of them to Kansas and usually the empty mule trains returning to Fort Scott are loaded with Negroes and their plunder.

All horses, mules or other property captured from the rebels or taken from the families of rebels, are supposed to be confiscated for the use of the government and the livestock (cattle, sheep, hogs, etc.) is turned into a drove called the "contraband herd." The country is full of nice fat cattle and of these the army appropriates what it needs for beef.

After remaining at Flat Rock a few days, I was ordered by "Wagon Master Red dark" to take charge of George Anderson's Train. Anderson having been put under arrest by General Weir for some reason and take it back to Fort Scott; Anderson accompanying me as a passenger."

Next week's column is entitled "On the Road to Fort Scott" and of course the War Went On!

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches