The Long and Wild Ride of William Woods Averell

William Woods Averell, perhaps best known as a Union cavalry commander in the Eastern theater, experience the war first in the West.

William Woods Averell, perhaps best known as a Union cavalry commander in the Eastern theater, experience the war first in the West.

The young second lieutenant stepped out of General Winfield Scott Hancock’s office, having reported for duty and ready for his next assignment—whatever it may be.  He didn’t have to wait long.  That night, lounging in the lobby of the Willard Hotel in the heart of Washington, D.C., Second Lieutenant William Woods Averell was approached by several United States officers, including Majors Irwin McDowell and Fitz-John Porter.  Invited to play a game of pool, William quickly learned that more than billiards was at hand.  “While engaged in the game,” Averell recalled, “the Captain quietly asked me where I lodged and requested me to go to my room when the game should be finished and he would follow me.”  Meeting surreptitiously in Averell’s hotel room, the officers relayed orders and forced the young officer to memorize them.  Helpful suggestions were offered up by those familiar with the area in which Averell would soon be sojourning, and he prepared himself to set out the next day.  It was the night of April 16, 1861, and William Woods Averell would soon be headed west across a disintegrating United States.

America was young in 1861, and the vast space between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains still remained a wild frontier—only just beginning to be tamed by settlers.  This lieutenant’s particular orders carried him all the way to Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma.  Not only did the Territory lie on the frontier, but it was a veritable borderland where various Indian nations held more sway as did the Federal government or U.S. Army.  Regardless, William Averell had memorized his orders perfectly: 

“You will, by the order of the General-in-Chief, proceed at once to Fort Arbuckle and deliver the accompanying letter to Colonel W.H. Emory, or the senior officer present, receive from him communications for the government and return to this city.”  The orders to be handed over to Colonel Emory were evacuation orders—the U.S. Army was pulling out of Indian Territory and escaping north to safety around Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 

Untamed and uncertain though the political climate in Washington that April, it proved just as anxious and uncertain in the western towns of Little Rock, Lawrence, Dallas and Tahlequah.  Indian Territory was the cause for much uncertainty in these regions.  The state government in Arkansas—raucously pressing for secession—felt pressure from its western counties, who were reluctant to secede without their Cherokee neighbors joining them.  Texas citizens traveled north across the Red River to sit in Indian councils and support secession.  Kansans feared Indian secession; the last thing their poor, conflict-wracked state needed was a long new border with Southern sympathizers. Although Texas, Arkansas, and Kansas plowed ahead with their various political agendas regardless, worrisome glances were nevertheless being shot west.  What would the Indians do?

John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Tribe upon War's outbreak, Was one of several Indian leaders who struggled to remain neutral as the war grew.

John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Tribe upon War's outbreak, Was one of several Indian leaders who struggled to remain neutral as the war grew.

The simple answer is that the Native American tribes inhabiting Indian Territory weren’t certain themselves.  Five major Indian nations inhabited the Territory:  Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole.  As war loomed, both Northern and Southern agents, generals, and politicians courted these tribes' favor and sought alliances.  To be clear, these tribes did not exist in a political vacuum.  All of them had existing ties and treaties with the Federal government.  They were promised money, supplies, and especially protection.  There were risks to aiding the Southern cause, and Native leaders pondered the dangerous political waters they found themselves navigating.  As Alabamian David Hubbard, visiting Arkansas in 1860, noted:  “These Indians are at a spot very important, in my opinion, in this great sectional controversy, and must be assured that the South will do as well as the North before they could be induced to change their alliances and dependence.”  In sum, a careful diplomatic game must be played with the Indian nations.  And it was straight into this delicate uncertainty that William Woods Averell rode.

William Averell set out by train across the upheaval that was the United States on the morning of April 17th, 1861.  His recollections are telling.  “All along the route hence to Cincinnati and St. Louis the wildest excitement prevailed.  The railroad stations and telegraph offices were crowded with eager inquirers for the latest news, while in every city, town and village, the rousing drums and waving banners announced that the Nation was aroused and arming for the great conflict…” 

Reaching Rolla in southwest Missouri, Averell prepared to descend into Arkansas, hoping to reach Fort Smith where aid and supplies were promised from the U.S. quartermaster.  The lieutenant was hardly traveling in uniform, but instead “a good suit of butternut clothing, my black overcoat and a slouched hat, with a common carpetbag to match the outfit…”  Quite the blossoming secret agent, Averell also “composed an innocent little narrative to meet the apprehended emergency: ‘I belonged to a secessionist family of St. Louis and had a sister married to one of the United States officers at Fort Smith.  In view of the threatened troubles in Arkansas, I was going to escort her home.”  Thus disguised, Averell headed by stagecoach south into Arkansas, which before long would be enemy territory.

Taking the stagecoach to Fayetteville, Arkansas, Averell had a plethora of exciting encounters along the way.  He shared a bed with future Confederate General James Rains, who regaled William with his burgeoning military plans and prowess.  Perhaps his braggadocio prevented the soon-to-be Confederate from delving deeper into his acquaintance’s identity.  At Cassville, the young lieutenant was mistaken by a postmistress and her wards as a long-lost relative.  “I was confounded and abashed at the warmth of her greeting,” Averell recounted, “assisted as she was by half a dozen boys and girls, who seized my hands and coat tails, vociferating, ‘How d’ye do, Uncle John?’  It was with some difficulty that I checked this torrent of joy and convinced the amiable family of their mistake.”

Yet his next encounters were far less agreeable.  Reaching Fayetteville, Arkansas, in the northwest corner of the state and today home to University of Arkansas Razorbacks, Averell was accosted by several mounted men while seated on the stagecoach.

“Look here, stranger.  Where do you come from, where are you goin’, and what’s your business?”

Holding a cocked pistol under his black overcoat, Averell testily answered, “I am from any place else but this, and I am going to get out of here as soon as I can, and if anybody happens to ask you what my business is you can tell him you don’t know.”

Gruffly satisfied, the mounted men left, and Averell was informed by the stagecoach driver that “They were four of the cussedest cutthroats in Arkansas, and the man you talked with was head devil.  He has killed a half-dozen-men about here and is a terror to the whole region.”  Averell was clearly not in Washington anymore, and he admits in his recollections that his five-shot pistol suddenly seemed far from sufficient for his protection.

Ready to crash for the evening in the local inn, the landlord instead advised him to show his face a little, lest the locals grow curious—in a decidedly bad way—about the stranger in town.  Thus warned, Averell made his way to the bar and courted the men there—“the most villainous looking blackguards”—and spun them with a web of lies that secured Averell his safety for the night.  The next morning, he left for Fort Smith.

There was no Fort Smith.  Soon into his journey, Lieutenant Averell learned that Fort Smith had been captured by secessionists, and the U.S. troops there had marched westward.  Although the news was confirmed by coaches passing north, Averell continued south.  There was no alternative:  there were no available horses with which to travel into Indian country, and no stagecoach would deviate from its route.  Averell was swept southward.

Fort Smith, on the border of Arkansas and Indian Territory, in 1861

Fort Smith, on the border of Arkansas and Indian Territory, in 1861

Crossing the Arkansas River by ferry, Averell reached Fort Smith, perched on the border of Indian Territory, on April 27th, exactly ten days since leaving Washington:

“Here was a scene to be remembered rather than described.  Just imagine a mob of wild Southern borderers boiling over with political frenzy and unlimited whiskey.  Mounted men riding madly, secession flags flying and women displaying them from windows.  Horsemen galloped alongside the stage and peered into the windows, making inquiries or shouting like bedlamites.  That I got to the St. Charles Hotel without being shot or hanged seemed like a special providence.”

The tavern-keeper, however, proved to be a more sane man, apparently a Unionist.  He informed Averell that the situation “was damned bad, the country would be ruined and so would he.”  The Quartermaster of Fort Smith was imprisoned, the local bridges burnt, the streams were swollen.  For twenty dollars cash and a gold watch, Averell secured a horse from the sympathetic tavern-keeper and headed west.  Coming to the Poteau River, Averell passed what had been a bridge.  “The abutments and charred remains of the burned bridge were within sight—the first picture of desolation of the Civil War that I remember seeing.”  It would be the first of many.

Lieutenant Averell was now in Indian Territory, riding through the southeast portion of the state.  His objective shifted; he was roughly attempting to follow the Union soldiers who had evacuated Fort Smith, and it became apparent that they were headed not to Fort Arbuckle, but instead Fort Washita.  Chasing after the escaping Union soldiers, Averell travelled along the old Butterfield Overland Mail route, a competitor to the Pony Express.  The small stations dotting the well-marked road west provided rough stops for rest and replenishment. 

Still, unlike the excitement and anxiety in Arkansas, Averell had entered into a lonely part of his journey west: 

“The overland route was so well defined that even the night traveler ran no risk of losing his way, but it was awfully lonesome.  The Moon’s glimmering light over forest and prairie invested commonplace objects with strange and frightful shapes.  Howling wolves responded to hooting owls on every side, while other night birds and beasts lent their strange voices to swell the wild chorus…”

The young lieutenant made his was to Holloway’s Station, “a double log house on one side and a corral on the other,” where he spent the night upstairs. Sunbeams woke him up the next morning, and the danger below.  Two men “whose villainous countenances were shaded by Texan sombreros,” were asking the station keeper about Averell and whether he was armed.  Just as in Fayetteville, Averell concluded the best course of action was to talk to the men directly.  He joined them for breakfast and shared his familiar story about seeing his sister at Fort Washita.  The terse, polite questioning by the men kept Averell on edge, as throughout his “right had carelessly resting in my pocket had finger on the trigger and thumb on the hammer of my pistol, with intent to shoot him through the head at the first hostile gesture…”

When asked if he’d seen anyone on the road since departing Fort Smith, Averell replied affirmatively and deceitfully, conjuring up another rider who he had seen a few miles back.  Excitedly, the sombrero-topped men confirmed that they was the man they were after, as they “believe it’s Montgomery from Kansas or some other damned Yankee spy.  He left Fort Smith yesterday morning.”  They were, of course, talking about Averell himself.  They left, chasing their target further west.  Averell waited by the roadside, pondering his next move.  He was being pursued by armed men, and his route west to Fort Washita was being watched.  A passerby confirmed that the riders had realized their deception and were “turribly riled about it.”  Tentatively riding west, Averell bumped into the party again.  Upon being spotted, Averell dashed into the woods to his right and pulled up quickly in front of a gully.  “Dismounting, I leaped into the arroyo, dragging my horse after me, tearing my way through the vines and bushes to a crevice in the other side up which I climbed…”  His acrobatic escape allowed him to gain on his pursuers, who stayed close behind for several miles before their “calls and halloos” faded behind Averell in the plains wind.

The San Bois Mountains today; Over this beautiful but rugged country did Averell Ride.

The San Bois Mountains today; Over this beautiful but rugged country did Averell Ride.

Half a dozen miles north of his road west, which was now being watched by unfriendly riders, Averell’s only choice was to ride north, across the San Bois Mountains, to the road west to Fort Arbuckle, his original destination.  Thirty-five miles northward across a rugged landscape took their toll.  “The difficulties of the route had not been overestimated,” Averell admitted, “indeed they could not be conceived by one who had not experienced them.  I shall not attempt to picture them, but often during that terrible journey I realized that it might be sometimes easier to die than to live, and had it not been for the order I was carrying I should have given up the struggle.”  Riding blindly north, after days of chase and travel and fear, “This was the point of my lowest depression morally and physically.”

Nearly twenty-four hours after being chased away from Holloway’s Station, at two in the morning Averell stumbled upon the road to Fort Arbuckle.  This route proved no friendlier to the rider from the East.  In a daze, Averell relived almost exactly his experiences on the road to Fort Washita all over again.  A half-Indian watching over his cattle informed the lieutenant that men were on the road searching for someone.  Moving west cautiously, Averell bumped into his pursuers, and again was forced to ride north, only losing his followers by riding hard through grazing horses to mask his tracks.

Having lost the road west in his latest escape, Averell came across the small cabin of a Chickasaw squaw, who “hospitably entertained me with the best breakfast I ever enjoyed” and help guide him back to the road.  Averell continued to ride west, eventually reaching Cochrane’s Station, where the sutler for Fort Arbuckle lived.  Major Fitz Porter had advised him, those few but long weeks ago, that the man was trustworthy; he lived up to his word.  From the sutler, Averell was provided with food and a new mount, but also learned that Fort Arbuckle had been abandoned.  U.S. troops had concentrated back at Fort Washita.

How tiring this must have sounded!  Originally planning to ride to Fort Arbuckle, at Fort Smith Averell changed his plans to pursue retreating U.S. soldiers to Fort Washita, but had then been driven off the road by armed pursuers back to the road to Arbuckle, only to learn that Washita must be his destination! 

Now accompanied by an Indian guide, the pair managed to make their way some forty miles southward.  As they finally approached Washita, they learned that the fort had been abandoned the night before and was already occupied by Texan troops; the United States troops were camped six miles beyond on the road.  “With my fleet steed and a good will, those six miles were soon accomplished, and it was with an exultant heart that I saw my old comrades in arms just forming squadrons for the march,” Averell gushes in his memoirs.  The first officer he encountered was Eugene A. Carr, who within two years would be winning glory in the Ozarks at Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge.  Carr, who didn’t recognize Averell, directed him to Colonel Emory. 

Approaching the colonel, who was mounted and “looking grim as a grizzly bear,” Averell finally arrived at the conclusion of his long, wild ride.  “Colonel!” Averell exclaimed, “You don’t seem to know me!”  “No, I don’t,” Emory replied.  “Who are you?”  The response:  “I am Lieutenant Averell, with dispatches from Washington, and here they are,” Averell replied.

Emory’s grim countenance transformed, and he cried, “My God!  Averell, how did you get here?”  The other young officers, riding up, also expressed their curiosity and disbelief; “not one of them recognized me, not even my classmate, Colburn,” Averell recalled.

Having delivered his papers, Averell could finally relax.  “The next distinct remembrance—I was in Sandy Colburn’s strong arms and the doctors were giving me something to drink.  Now I was at home under the flag of my country and surrounded by old friends and comrades.”  The long, wild ride was finally over.

Although Second Lieutenant Averell’s mission came to a close as he approached the dusty U.S. soldiers camped outside of Fort Washita that spring of 1861, much more lay ahead.  William Woods Averell would serve throughout the Civil War, much of that time spent commanding cavalry within the Army of the Potomac, with which his name is now linked.  He would end his military career Brevet Major General Averell.

Yet while Averell’s mission concluded outside of Fort Arbuckle, Indian Territory’s journey had just begun.  Colonel William Emory, who would later serve at Port Hudson and in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in 1864, successfully led his regulars to the safety of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  He left behind an abandoned, unprotected Indian Territory; the decision by the United States government to abandon Indian Territory (in violation of treaties) had significant consequences.  The U.S. retreat north hardly went unnoticed by the Cherokee and other tribes.  Confederate efforts to gain alliances with the tribes succeeded, despite the fact that many Indians desired neutrality or continued loyalty to the Federal government.  By mid-1862, vicious intra-tribal civil wars emerged that would haunt and desolate the Territory until 1865.

When first reading about Averell’s wild ride, I was struck by the story—it sounded more like a Western thriller than a Civil War tale.  In many ways, this is emblematic of the war in Indian Territory and indeed the Trans-Mississippi theater.  The conflict fought here was between North and South, yes, but it was shaped by the West.  The landscapes, the actors, and the manner in which the war was fought was different than those east of the Mississippi River.  Perhaps nothing serves as a better introduction to the American West on the verge of the Civil War better than the long and wild ride of William Woods Averell.

Zac Cowsert currently studies 19th-century U.S. history as a doctoral student at West Virginia University, where he also received his master's degree.  He earned his bachelor's degree in history and political science at Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport.  Zac's research focuses on the involvement and experiences of the Five Tribes of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) during the American Civil War. He has worked for the National Park Service at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. ©

Sources and Further Reading:

Averell, William Woods.  Ten Years in the Saddle:  The Memoir of William Woods Averell.  San Rafael, CA:  Presidio Press, 1978.

Confer, Clarissa W.  The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War.  Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.

Josephy, Alvin M.  The Civil War in the American WestNew York:  Knopf, 1991.

Smith, William R, “The Report of Hon. David Hubbard, Commissioner to Arkansas,” The History and Debates of the Convention of the People of Alabama.  Atlanta:  Wood, Hanleiter, Rice & Co., 1861.

Wright, Muriel H.  "Lieutenant Averell's Ride at the Outbreak of the Civil War," Chronicles of Oklahoma 39 (no. 1, 1961):  2-14.