Friday, January 29, 2010

The Second Fort Smith, 1838-1871

Politics, in the 19th century as much as today, often played a role in where military posts were located and how much money went into building them. This was definitely the case at Fort Smith in Arkansas.

The original Fort Smith had been evacuated by the U.S. Army in 1824 in favor of new posts closer to the rapidly expanding Western frontier. But politics came into play and, over the objections of the army itself, the U.S. Congress appropriated money for a new Fort Smith. Army officers saw no need for the new fort, but since the money had been appropriated, they oversaw its construction.

The second Fort Smith was a magnificent piece of construction. A complex of brick and stone buildings surrounded by a five-sided stone wall with imposing bastions at its corners, the fort was one of the most beautiful of the growing nation's western posts. Because at the time no one could see the need for a major defensive work at Fort Smith, the engineers designing and building the post halted construction of the original plans and developed the citadel to serve a primary function as a supply post for troops assigned to the frontiers.

They could not then imagine the conflict that would soon divide North and South and split the United States in two.

State troops from Arkansas seized Fort Smith in 1861, even before the state left the Union, and it remained an important Confederate post for the next two years. As had the U.S. Army, the Confederate army used Fort Smith as a supply post. It played a particularly critical role in the Prairie Grove Campaign of 1862, when its storehouses served to equip and provision General Thomas Hindman's growing Trans-Mississippi Army.

Fort Smith fell to Union troops in 1863 when it was evacuated ahead of the advance of an army led eastward through the Indian Nations of today's Oklahoma by General James G. Blunt. Southern troops tried to turn the tide of the disaster at the nearby Battle of Devil's Backbone, but failed. Despite demonstrations and actually bringing the fort under fire in 1864, they never again seriously threatened Union possession of Fort Smith.

The army continued to hold the post until 1871 when it was declared surplus and turned over to the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas and its famed "hanging judge," Isaac C. Parker.

To learn more about the second Fort Smith, please visit

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