Thursday, April 24, 2008

Massard Prairie, Part One

The summer of 1864 was a difficult time for the Union troops occupying Fort Smith. The Red River Campaign that spring had ended in disaster and the soldiers came back demoralized and worn down from the difficulties of the expedition.

By July, Confederate troops had swept back north through the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and had carried out successful attacks on the steamboat J.R. Williams and a Union outpost at Roseville, Arkansas.

Commanded by Gen. Douglas H. Cooper, they hovered around Fort Smith, watching and waiting for an opportunity to strike. The opportunity presented itself when Gen. John Thayer, the Union commander at Fort Smith, was forced to send out detachments of soldiers to guard herds and hay cutting parties sent into the area prairies to bring desperately needed fodder into the defenses of Fort Smith.

Confederate scouts soon picked up on these movements and relayed the intelligence back to Gen. Cooper, who had established his headquarters near the old Choctaw Council House in the Sans Bois Mountains southwest of Fort Smith. Deciding to strike against a force of "Arkansas Federals" (Union soldiers from Arkansas) that was camped just south of Fort Smith, he ordered Brig. Gen. Richard M. Gano to prepare a force of roughly 1,000 men for the attack.

Gano was a hard-riding Texas cavalry officer who had served with the famed Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan earlier in the war and then under Nathan Bedford Forrest at the Battle of Chickamauga. Now commanding the Texas mounted troops in the Trans-Mississippi Department, Gano had fought and been wounded during the Red River Campaign but by July of 1864 was in the Choctaw Nation, ready for action.

The Confederates had carried out attacks above and below Fort Smith. Brig. Gen. Stand Watie captured the steamboat J.R. Williams on the Arkansas River and another force struck a Union outpost at Roseville, downstream from the fort.

Union troops had heavily fortified Fort Smith, encircling the town with a series of earthen redoubts and rifle pits. General Cooper knew that he lacked both the artillery and sufficient troops to storm the works, but he kept scouts hovering around the town looking for targets of opportunity. The Federals soon provided them with exactly the chance they were seeking.

The Battle of Massard Prairie series will continue in the next post. Until then, you can read more by visiting

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