Monday, July 27, 2009

Battle of Massard Prairie Anniversary - Part One

Today marks the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Massard Prairie, Arkansas.

Fought in the southeast quadrant of the modern city of Fort Smith, the battle was part of an important campaign launched by Confederate troops during the summer of 1864. Victory in the Red River Campaign allowed Southern forces to surge back north through the Ouachita Mountains and the Choctaw Nation to establish themselves once again along the line of the Arkansas River.

After successfully capturing a steamboat making its way upriver from Fort Smith to Fort Gibson and striking at Union forces around Roseville and at other points below Fort Smith, the Confederate General Douglas Cooper focused his attention on the main Union garrison.

Federal troops and local citizens had spent the spring and summer strongly fortifying the town of Fort Smith with an semi-circular line of earthwork forts, batteries and rifle pits that ran from the Arkansas River above the town, around the ridges to its rear and back to the river below. In addition, Union soldiers occupied the main garrison of Fort Smith itself, protected by earth reinforced stone walls.

Cooper felt that he could probably take Fort Smith by storming the Federal lines, but also recognized that it that such an attack would be result in a terrible casualty rate to his forces. Instead, he opted to carry out a series of attacks designed to drive Union troops entirely within their works and eliminate their ability to effectively scout or secure forage for their animals. His strategy proved highly effective and opened the door for the dramatic Confederate sweep north through the Cherokee Nation that resulted in the massive victory at Cabin Creek, regarded as one of the greatest seizures of Union supplies by Southern forces during the entire war.

To put his plan into motion, Cooper sent Brigadier General Richard Gano forward from a base in what is now eastern Oklahoma with a mixed force of both white and Native American cavalry. The initial plan was for Gano to decoy Union troops from Fort Smith out and into an ambush at the Devil's Backbone, a substantial ridge that ran east to west across the horizon south of the city. Gano, an outstanding cavalry commander who had earlier served with the famed Morgan in Kentucky and Tennessee, was forced to change the plan when his force proved smaller than expected and the positions of the Federal troops around Fort Smith were different than expected.

Instead, he learned from scouts that a large force of Union cavalry was camped in the Diamond or Picnic Grove on Massard Prairie. Then a vast open prairie just southeast of the city, Massard Prairie offered outstanding grazing for Union livestock and the shaded grove was a comfortable campsite for Union troops. Camped there in a semi-permanent position were four companies of the 6th Kansas Cavalry and three companies of "Arkansas Feds."

Believing that he could strike and destroy this force, Gano moved into position south of Fort Smith during the night of July 26, 1864, and on the morning of July 27th swept down from what is today recognized as the Fianna Hills neighborhood in one of the great open field cavalry charges of the Civil War. The Union troops were caught completely by surprise.

I will continue to look at the Battle of Massard Prairie in the next couple of posts. Until then, you can read more by visiting or by ordering my 2008 book, The Battle of Massard Prairie. It is available from or can be purchased at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in Northwest Arkansas. The Fort Smith Museum of History is temporarily sold out, but will have more soon.

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