MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Features

February 10, 2013

Bold rescue took fort troops behind enemy lines

— The Civil War in Indian Territory turned many residents into refugees as they fled the violence of the conflict. A number of missionaries serving at schools and churches among the Indian Nations were forced to flee the territory, sometimes on very short notice. Some found themselves trapped at the missions where they worked, unable to reach a safe location in either Kansas or Texas or at one of the forts located in Indian Territory.

James Ramsey, a missionary to the Seminoles at Oak Ridge Mission near Holdenville, wrote of the conditions at this mission post during the Civil War. Ramsey and his wife had managed to leave the Territory before the war began, but his wife’s father, John Lilley, and a fellow missionary, John Bemo, remained at Oak Ridge. For more than three years they lived at the mission, constantly threatened by skirmishes and troop movements all around them.

By the winter of 1863-1864, Union forces were in control of much of Indian Territory. Rebel forces were being pushed farther and farther south, but the Seminole mission remained behind the Confederate line. At this time, a troop from the First Indian Home Guard, posted at Fort Gibson, was dispatched to Oak Ridge to assist the Lilley family in leaving the mission.

A freed slave, Robert Foster, was serving with the Indian Home Guard and acting as a Seminole interpreter. He had once lived at the Oak Ridge Mission, knew the Lilleys and was familiar with the area. The Fort Gibson soldiers learned that John Bemo was not at the mission so a portion of the troops, along with Foster, were sent to assist him while the remainder continued to Oak Ridge. Commander of the First Home Guard was a Seminole named John Chupco.

One of John Lilley’s daughters was married to a Confederate lieutenant named Henry Washburn, a son of missionaries. Washburn was a member of the First Seminole Mounted Rifles and happened to be at Oak Ridge when the Union forces arrived. Washburn was killed and his widow robbed, but otherwise not harmed.

Chupco had shown little mercy for the Confederate lieutenant because of his bitter memories of being chased by the Mounted Rifles across Indian Territory early in the war. Chupco had joined with other members of the Five Tribes in an attempt to remain neutral. Their group had been attacked by the Confederates, and most of the neutral Indians, after reaching Kansas, formed the Indian Home Guard.

The soldiers helped the Lilley family load their most valuable possessions into a wagon, harnessed a team for them and told them to head north toward Fort Gibson. The Home Guard did not remain long at the mission, however, because they were behind the Confederate line.

After the troops left, John Lilley called down a young Southern sympathizer named Thompson who had been hiding in the rafters of the mission cabin. Together the two men carried Washburn’s body into the cabin, and then Thompson headed south. The Rev. Lilley set fire to the cabin, and then his family and a Seminole woman who worked at the mission began the dangerous trek toward the fort.

Their heavy wagon made their travel much slower than the troops that had been sent to assist them. At one point they were stopped by a Confederate detachment, but the Seminole woman convinced them to let them pass. They caught up with the Home Guard where they had stopped to camp for the night. The troops then accompanied them the rest of the way to Fort Gibson.

After several weeks at Fort Gibson, the Lilleys were allowed to join a provision train heading to Kansas. From Lawrence they took a train the Rock Creek, Kan., and joined the Ramseys there for the remainder of the war.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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