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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014

Worthless ammunition complicates battle

Saturday, August 1, 2009

"Keep your powder dry" is an old axiom that originated with the firing of flintlock weapons in the 17th, 18th and first half of the 19th century. A piece of flint would strike a spring operated iron frizzen causing sparks to ricochet into a shallow depression, igniting a small amount of gunpowder and that would, in turn, ignite the gunpowder in the barrel to fire or discharge the musket or rifle. Therefore, the key to successfully firing a musket or rifle was to "keep your powder dry." Wet, damp or poor-quality gunpowder could not be ignited and the weapon could not be fired.

Then, as a last resort of self-defense the soldier often used his musket or rifle as a club in hand-to-hand combat!

During the Civil War, the flintlock method of ignition was replaced with that of the percussion cap, but the soldier still had to keep his ammunition dry, because most of the available weapons used paper cartridges containing gunpowder. A wet or damp cartridge would result in wet or damp gunpowder that would in effect be worthless ammunition.

During the Civil War, at the Battle of Honey Springs on July 17, 1863, near the present town of Checotah, Okla., the Confederate forces commanded by General Douglas Cooper were plagued by worthless ammunition that contained wet or damp gunpowder. The fact that most of their ammunition was worthless is one of the main reasons that the Confederates were defeated in this battle and is described in General Cooper's After Action Report.

This report has been edited because of its length and the complete report is located on Pages 457 -- 461 in Vol. 22, Part 1 Reports of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

Headquarters First Brigade, Indian Troops (C.S.A.) Imochiah Creek, near Canadian [River], Aug. 12, 1863.

[To:] Brigadier General William Steele, Commanding Department of Indian Territory

General: My official report of the affair at Elk Creek, on the 17th ultimo, has been delayed in consequence of the movements of the troops under your command and the difficulty of getting correct reports from subordinate officers of the killed and wounded. Referring to my notes of the 18th ultimo, I now have the honor to submit the following.

Early on the 16th ultimo, information reached me that the Federals were crossing in force at the Creek (Indian) Agency.

About daylight on the morning of the 17th, the advance of the enemy came in sight of the position occupied by the Choctaws and Texans; commenced a brisk fire upon them (the Federals), which was returned and followed by a charge, which drove the enemy back upon the main column. Lieutenant Heiston reported the morning cloudy and damp, many of the guns failing to fire in consequence of the very inferior quality of the powder, the cartridges becoming worthless even upon exposure to the damp atmosphere. Soon after the Federals had been driven back it commenced raining heavily, which rendered their (Choctaws' and Texans') arms wholly useless. These troops then fell back slowly and in good order to their camp, for the purpose of obtaining a fresh supply of ammunition and preparing for the impending fight.

(Note: the confederates obtained more poor or worthless ammunition.)

A few remained with Lt. Heiston at Prairie Mountain, about 3 miles north of camp on the Gibson Road and were so disposed as to create an impression on the enemy that a large force was awaiting them (the enemy). Accordingly, their advance halted until the main body came up and formed in line of battle, thus affording my aide opportunity to form an estimate of their strength. He reported their force to be probably 4,000, which I found nearly correct, though some 500 under the mark.

Colonel T. C. Bass, with his regiment was ordered forward to support Capt. R. W. Lee's Battery. John Scanland's squadron and Gillett's squadron were directed to support the Creeks (Indians) at the upper crossing of Elk Creek and Col. Walker to hold his regiment in reserve at their camp near Honey Springs, sending pickets out on the road across the mountain in the direction of Prairie Springs.

Upon reconnoitering the enemy from the high prairie, where I had a full view of them, advancing upon the Gibson Road, I found their force larger than reported by Lt. Heiston and larger than I supposed they would bring from (Fort) Gibson; and seeing a heavy force wheeling off to their right and taking the road up the creek to the second crossing above the bridge -- our weakest point -- and from which the road continues up to the third crossing, where the Creeks were posted. Riding back near the creek, I discovered our men in small parties giving way. These increased and the retreat became general.

Captain Gillett's squadron, arriving promptly, was formed on the road and for a short time held the advance of the enemy in check. The Choctaws, under Col. Walker, opportunely arrived at this time and under my personal direction charged the enemy, who had now planted a battery upon the timbered ridge about 1,000 yards north of Honey Springs. With their usual intrepidity the Choctaws went at them, giving the war-whoop and succeeded in checking the advance of the enemy until their force could be concentrated and all brought up. The Choctaws discouraged on account of the worthless ammunition, then gave way and were ordered to fallback with the others in rear of the (supply) train, which had moved off in an easterly direction, covered by our troops who remained formed for hours in full view of the enemy, thus giving the train time to gain some 6 or 8 miles on the road to Briartown, which had been indicated by yourself as the route by which re-enforcements would be sent.

I feel confident we could have made good the defense of the position at Elk Creek but for the worthlessness of our ammunition!

The Choctaws, who had skirmished with the enemy on the morning of the 17th, returned wet and disheartened by finding their guns almost useless and their was a general feeling among the troops that with such ammunition it was useless to contend with a foe doubly superior in numbers, arms and munitions, with artillery 10 times superior to ours, weight of metal considered. Not withstanding all these untoward circumstances, the men of Col. Bass' regiment stood calmly and fearlessly to their posts in support of lee's battery until the conflict became a hand-to-hand one, even clubbing their muskets and never giving way until the battery had been withdrawn and even when defeated and in full retreat, the officers and men of different commands readily obeyed orders, formed, falling back and reforming at several different positions, as ordered deliberately and coolly.

Their steady conduct under these circumstances evidently intimidated the foe and alone enables us to save the (supply) train and many valuable lives.

Mr. P.N. Blackstone was particularly distinguished for his courage on the field. After being severely wounded, he succeeded in repulsing three of the enemy who attacked him, killing one of them and taking his gun, which he brought off with him, together with his own, closely pursued by the enemy, after the greater portion of our troops had left the field.

Our loss was 134 killed and wounded and 47 taken prisoners, while that of the enemy exceeded 200, as I learned from one of our surgeons who was at (Fort) Gibson when General Blunt's forces returned.

Referring to accompanying reports for further details and to list of killed and wounded, I am general respectfully,

Douglas H. Cooper, Brigadier General.

It appears that Gen. Cooper correctly believed that the worthless ammunition and lack of re-enforcements were two of the main reasons that the Confederates were defeated at the Battle of Honey Springs on July 17, 1863; and, of course, the war went on!

Today, Honey Springs Battlefield is an Oklahoma Historic Site and the current administrator is Superintendent Ralph Jones and the chief of interpretation is Howard McKinnis. The site may be reached as follows: 1863 Honey Springs Battlefield Road, Checotah, OK. 74426-6301. Telephone: (918) 473-5572. Admission: Free except for special events; Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. Closed on state holidays.

Arnold W. Schofield
Battlefield Dispatches