Friday, May 30, 2008

Cove Creek Road - Washington County, Arkansas

This is Cove Creek Road at the point where it emerges from the Boston Mountains in southern Washington County, Arkansas.
This road was a major transportation artery for both armies during the Civil War.
During the first week of December, 1862, the Confederate army of Gen. Thomas Hindman advanced up the Cove Creek Road in a march that would lead to the Battle of Prairie Grove. Hindman hoped to catch the Union forces of Generals James G. Blunt and Francis J. Herron divided and defeat them in detail. The effort failed and the Battle of Prairie Grove was a bloody tactical stalemate.
The Confederate force withdrew back down this road following the battle. Blunt and Herron followed later in the month, advancing by both the Cove Creek and Telegraph or "Wire" Roads. Their advance resulted in the late December battles of Dripping Springs and Van Buren.
For the rest of the war, the Cove Creek Road was an important connector between Van Buren and Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas counties of Washington and Benton. There were numerous small encounters along the road, many of them involving irregular or guerilla bands.
Large sections of the original road can still be followed today. A graded road passing through southern Washington and northern Crawford Counties, it is little changed from the days of the Civil War.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day, Part Four

Memorial Day at Fort Smith National Cemetery is a moving annual event. The drives leading through the cemetery are lined with American flags and each of the headstones is fronted by a smaller flag.
The resulting combination of red, white, blue and green is among the most impressive I have ever seen, and I am an individual who frequents the final resting places of our nation's war dead.
The Civil War section of the cemetery struck me the first time I ever visited because of the way the Union and Confederate dead are buried together. In many other national cemeteries of the same era, this is not the case.
Yet at Fort Smith, as you walk among the graves, you will see an unknown Confederate soldier buried near an unknown Union soldier. Black and white Civil War dead are buried here together.
The cemetery also provides a somber reminder of the cost of war to our country. From large Civil War section, it is a short walk to visit the graves of men who served in other wars. Gen. William O. Darby, the namesake of the famed "Darby's Rangers" of World War II (today's U.S. Army Rangers) is buried here, as are men who served in the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf Wars.
I can think of no better place for remembering the sacrifices of America's veterans.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The First Memorial Day

As our nation pauses to observe Memorial Day, you might enjoy reading more about the origins of this special holiday.

I've posted a brief story about the first Memorial Day on our sister blog, Explore Southern History.

I hope you will take a few minutes to read it and add any Memorial Day comments you would like to make.

Memorial Day, Part Three

Continuing our Memorial Day weekend look at Fort Smith National Cemetery, this is the grave of Isaac C. Parker, the noted 19th century federal judge for the Western District of Arkansas.

Parker was the city attorney for St. Joseph, Missouri, when the Civil War began in 1861. Although he served in the 61st Missouri Emergency Regiment, he continued his duties as a public official throughout the war. In 1864 he was a member of the Electoral College that returned President Abraham Lincoln to office for a second term.

Parker served two terms in Congress (1870-1874) as a Radical Republican and in 1875 was appointed U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Arkansas by President U.S. Grant.

Judge Parker's jurisdiction included the Indian Territory of what is now Oklahoma. Numerous outlaws migrated to this region following the Civil War, believing they would be safe from justice. The peaceful inhabitants of the region were easy prey for these murderers and thieves and for years they had operated virtually unchallenged. Parker, however, assumed his bench with a commitment to bring law and order to the area.

His tenure on the bench at Fort Smith gained for him notoriety as the "Hanging Judge" of the Old West. Although he personally opposed the death penalty, Parker sent 79 convicted outlaws to the gallows in Fort Smith. It was the only sentence allowed by law in a number of the cases that came before his court. What is rarely mentioned, however, is that nearly as many of Parker's deputy marshals lost their lives in the line of duty to bring those 79 men to justice.

The days of Judge Parker's court provided the basis for such books and movies as True Grit, Rooster Cogburn and Hang 'Em High.

Judge Parker is buried in grave number 4000 at Fort Smith National Cemetery.

Our series will continue.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Memorial Day, Part Two

Continuing our Memorial Day look at Fort Smith National Cemetery in Arkansas, this is the monument to Brigadier General Richard C. Gatlin, C.S.A.
Gatlin was a major in the U.S. Army when Fort Smith was seized by the Arkansas State Militia in 1861. He was among the handful of U.S. soldiers at the post and was listed as a prisoner of war in the initial reports of the occupying force.
He subsequently resigned his commission, however, and soon became a soldier in the service of the Confederacy.
Volunteering his services to his native state of North Carolina, Gatlin served first as that state's adjutant general, but was soon commissioned as a colonel in the provisional army of the Confederacy. He was promoted to brigadier general in August of 1861 and assigned to command the coastal defenses of North Carolina.
His outnumbered forces were battered during Burnside's North Carolina campaign. Seriously ill, General Gatlin was relieved of duty in March of 1862. He resigned his commission due to his age later that year, although he continued to serve North Carolina as adjutant and inspector general.
After the war he returned to Arkansas where he operated a farm in Sebastian County and lived for a number of years in Fort Smith. He died at Mount Nebo, Arkansas in 1896 at age 87. He and his wife are both buried at Fort Smith National Cemetery.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Memorial Day at Fort Smith National Cemetery

In observance of Memorial Day, I thought I would spend the next few days acquainting you with Fort Smith National Cemetery and some of the brave individuals now resting there.
Walking through this historic cemetery is like walking through history itself. Fort Smith National Cemetery is unique because it spans the the nearly two centuries of American presence on the Arkansas frontier.
The first graves here predate the Civil War and are those of soldiers and a few civilians who died at Fort Smith during its early days as a frontier military post.
The Civil War section is particularly unique because Union soldiers, both white and black, rest in graves side by side with their former Confederate enemies. This is extremely rare in America's national cemeteries and personally I find it to be a moving reminder of how our nation came back together following one of the bloodiest wars in history.
Other graves here include that of Judge Isaac C. Parker, the "hanging judge" of the Old West who helped bring law and order to the frontier at a time when it was said that, "There is no law west of St. Louis and no God west of Fort Smith." Also buried here is Gen. William O. Darby, the father of the U.S. Army Rangers.
We will continue our look at Fort Smith National Cemetery through the Memorial Day weekend.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Battle of Devil's Backbone, Conclusion

The Battle of Devil's Backbone ended in disaster for the Confederates.
When Cabell's men broke and ran from behind their stone defenses on the mountain, the South lost forever its chance to hold or retake Fort Smith. The strategic post and city passed into Federal hands and would remain in them for the rest of the war.
Much of the site of the battle today is on private property, so please respect the rights of local property owners. There is a growing sense of awareness of the importance of the battlefield. The Civil War Preservation Trust recently obtained an important tract through which the Confederate retreat took place.
A monument to the battle can be seen on nearby Highway 71 at the point where the highway intersects the Backbone just south of Greenwood.
For more on the history of the Battle of Devil's Backbone, Arkansas, please visit

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Battle of Devil's Backbone, Part Five

The artillery exchange between the Confederates on top of Devil's Backbone and the Federals in the valley below was more noise than anything else, although this rock on the mountain side still displayed an impact mark from a shell more than 140 years later.
As the bombardment slowed and the Union troops began to run low on ammunition, it initially appeared that Cabell's Southern troops might hold. The best efforts of Cloud's Federals had been unable to dislodge the Confederates from the mountaintop.
Suddenly, however, large sections of the Confederate force broke and ran. The act stunned the commanders of both sides. Cabell wrote:
There was nothing to make these regiments run, except the sound of the cannon. Had they fought as troops fighting for liberty should, I would have captured the whole of the enemy’s command, and gone back to Fort Smith, and driven the remainder of the enemy’s force off and retaken the place.
While the general might have been thinking a bit optimistically about retaking Fort Smith with the force at his command, he was correct in his assessment of why his men broke and ran. He had sustained total casualties of only 5 killed and 12 wounded out of a total force of around 1,200 men.
Colonel Cloud was equally surprised by the sudden departure of the Confederate defenders:
...The enemy suddenly withdrew, leaving his dead and wounded, together with arms, baggage, &c., in our possession. I immediately occupied the field, and extended my pickets beyond, taking prisoners and receiving deserters, who came flocking in.
More than 100 deserters, including officers, joined the Union forces over the next several days. At the Battle of Dardanelle, Arkansas, just eight days later, Cloud reported that the former Confederates fought side by side with his men in an attack on their former comrades:
In the attack upon Dardanelle I was assisted by three officers and about 100 men, who had fought me at Backbone, under Cabell, and it was a novel sight to see men with the regular gray uniform and Confederate State belt-plate fighting side by side with the blue of the army, and this novelty was intensified by knowing that they were fighting their old command.
With no option left to him, Cabell withdrew his remaining forces from the battlefield and retreated to Waldron.
Our series will continue. Until the next post, you can read more by visiting

Friday, May 16, 2008

Battle of Devil's Backbone, Part Four

This photograph shows a surviving section of the Confederate main line at the top of Devil's Backbone.
General Cabell positioned his main force along the natural rocky spine of the mountain and the men piled extra rocks on top of the natural formation to create stone breastworks. This section of breastworks is just east of the old Waldron Road trace and was held by the right flank of the Confederate line.
The position was extremely strong and even though the Federals pushed back the Southern advanced lines from the lower slopes of the mountain, they were unable to dislodge Cabell and his men from their breastworks.
The fighting was intense. Confederate artillery, positioned at the center of the line scene here, opened on the Federals each time they exposed themselves. The Federals brought up the guns of Rabb's battery and for several hours the two sides shelled each other. Artifact discoveries at the battlefield indicate verify the reports of both sides, however, that they cannon fire was largely ineffective. The Confederate fire generally went over the heads of the Union soldiers on the lower slopes of hte mountain. Union fire, meanwhile, more often than not sailed over the top of the ridge and landed in the fields beyond. As a result, casualties were low.
This series will continue. If you would like to read more about the Battle of Devil's Backbone before the next post, please visit

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Battle of Devil's Backbone, Part Three

This view shows the trace of the old Jenny Lind Road at the point where it climbed up the steep slope of the Devil's Backbone near Greenwood, Arkansas.
The photograph was taken during winter, which explains the brown leaves and fairly open view of the otherwise heavily overgrown mountain.
The Confederates formed the first stage of their ambush just down the slope from this point at the bottom of the ridge. As the Federals arrived at Fort Smith on the morning of September 1, 1863, they sent forward a pursuing force under the command of Col. William F. Cloud of the 2nd Kansas Cavalry.
Cabell's Confederate cavalry skirmished with this oncoming force at Jenny Lind, a small community about midway between Fort Smith and the Devil's Backbone. As expected by the Southern general, his horsemen withdrew ahead of the Federals and drew them into the ambush at the mountain.
Colonel Cloud described the scene:
At 12 o’clock we came to their rear guard in ambush, whose deadly fire cut down Captain Lines and 10 or 12 of his command. I found a line of dismounted cavalry and howitzers and steadily drove their rear from their position, and up the mountain side, to within one-fourth of a mile of their line of battle, skillfully formed upon the summit of Backbone Mountain of the Poteau range. I here brought my whole force into action, and for three hours the battle raged with variable violence.
The Captain Lines mentioned in the report was Captain Edward C.D. Lines of Company C, 2nd Kansas cavalry. According to the regimental surgeon, he was shot through the "bowels and liver."
The Confederate ambush stunned the Union advance and a sharp encounter erupted along the lower slopes of the mountain. Cabell's staggered lines slowly withdrew up the ridge as the Federals attacked, falling back on the main line that was formed behind stone breastworks on the top of the mountain.
Our series on the Battle of Devil's Backbone will continue. Until the next post, you can read more by visiting

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Battle of Massard Prairie books now available at Prairie Grove Battlefield

I'm pleased to let you know that copies of my new book, The Battle of Massard Prairie, are now in stock and available at the gift shop at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in Northwest Arkansas.
Proceeds from the book benefit the new Driving Tour project for the Cane Hill Battlefield in Northwest Arkansas as well as other historic preservation efforts in Arkansas.
The book details the July 27, 1864 Confederate attack on the 6th Kansas Cavalry at Massard Prairie, Arkansas and the related attack on Fort Smith a few days later.
The book is also available for purchase online at
Please allow 10-15 days for delivery.

Battle of Devil's Backbone, Part Two

Cabell began withdrawing from his lines along the Poteau at around 9 p.m. on the night of August 31, 1863. Men were assigned to keep campfires burning to disguise the movement from the Federals.
At the same time, he sent back orders to Fort Smith instructing troops there to load as many supplies into wagons and possible and get them moving on the road to Waldron, Arkansas. The old road led southeast from Fort Smith by way of the community of Jenny Lind and present-day Greenwood to cross the Devil's Backbone near the latter community.
The supply trains of the army moved as well and wagons were soon strung out along the road. Cabell then put his infantry and artillery in motion, closing out his column with cavalry units assigned to skirmish with the Union troops when they advanced the next morning and draw them on into the ambush he planned to develop at Devil's Backbone.
The evacuation went well and General Blunt did not learn until the next morning that the Confederates were gone. Pushing across the Poteau, he advanced on Fort Smith. By the time he reached the post, however, Cabell had succeeded in pushing his wagon trains over the Devil's Backbone and to safety.
Planning his ambush, he positioned his men in a series of lines staggered up the sides of the Backbone at the point the Waldron Road climbed over the ridge. The first line was hidden in thick brush and timber at the base of the mountain and successive lines were placed in hiding at various points up the slope. The main battle line was then formed, along with the artillery, at the crest of the ridge where the stony spine of the mountain formed a natural rock breastwork. The Confederates strengthened this position by piling stones into low spots.
The cavalry, meanwhile, lingered behind to show themselves to the Federals when, as expected, they came on in pursuit of Cabell's column.
Our series will continue.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Battle of Devil's Backbone, Part One

The Devil's Backbone is a unique mountain ridge that stretches across the horizon south of the city of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Part of the Ouachita (pronounced Wah-she-tah) Mountains, it is a major feature of both Sebastian County, Arkansas and LeFlore County, Oklahoma.
At the time of the Civil War, the Backbone was more than just a beautiful mountain ridge. It served as a natural barrier to military forces operating in the area.
The Confederates were the first to put the ridge to use for military purposes. Facing a disastrous disintegration of his force as the stronger Union Army of the Frontier approached Fort Smith from the west in August of 1863, Brig. Gen. W.L. Cabell tried to decide on a strategy that might give him a chance for success against the Federals.
The night of August 31, 1863, found the two sides arrayed along the Poteau River in the Choctaw Nation (today's LeFlore County, Oklahoma) just west of Fort Smith. Although the Federals expected to fight the battle for Fort Smith along the Poteau the next morning, Cabell knew he was outnumbered by an enemy that also had superior artillery on the field. In addition, he was worried about the morale of his army. Desertion had become epidemic and he feared his men might break and run unless he put them in a strong position.
Consequently, Cabell developed a plan to pull his force back from the Poteau in the night, move his supply train across the Backbone to Waldron, Arkansas, and then position his force in a strong position along the ridge. He would then use some of his cavalry to fight a delaying action with the oncoming Union force and hopefully draw it into an ambush at the base of the mountain.
It was a risky strategy that would result in the evacuation of Fort Smith by the Confederates, but short of a complete retreat, it was the only reasonable option available to the Southern general.
Our series on the Battle of Devil's Backbone will continue.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Battle of Devil's Backbone, Arkansas

Beginning tomorrow I will start a new series on the Battle of Devil's Backbone and the important battlefield as it appears today.

This significant engagement took place near Greenwood in Sebastian County on September 1, 1863 between Confederate forces that had been forced out of Fort Smith and a pursuing command of Federal troops. The Southerners formed an ambush along the slopes of the Devil's Backbone, a mountain ridge that extends east-west across the horizon. The Union force ran headlong into it.

The battle resulted in a heavy exchange of artillery fire and fighting along the slopes of the ridge.

Over the next week or so, we will explore this historic battle and look at surviving areas of the battlefield. Please check back tomorrow for part one!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Massard Prairie, Conclusion

This post concludes a special series on the Battle of Massard Prairie, Arkansas. To read the previous posts, please consult the Archives section.
The Battle of Massard Prairie was an overwhelming Confederate victory. In his after action report, General Cooper (seen here) described it as "a gallant and dashing affair."
The Confederates rounded up their prisoners and collected all the weapons and supplies they could carry before setting fire to the Union camp and starting back over the ridge at the south side of the prairie. As they were leaving, Union reinforcements appeared on the opposite side of Massard Prairie. The Federals followed them, but did not attempt a serious attack and turned back before they could be drawn into the planned ambush at Devil's Backbone.
Union losses in the attack were 13 killed, 14 wounded and 124 captured. Confederate losses were 12 killed, 26 wounded and 1 missing. The Union dead were buried at what is now Fort Smith National Cemetery. The Confederate dead were buried in a trench on the battlefield. One eyewitness reported that the Southern dead were scalped before they were buried.
Massard Prairie Battlefield Park now preserves the site of much of the camp of the 6th Kansas Cavalry and the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the battle. Located near the intersection of Morgan and Red Pine off Geren Road in Fort Smith, the park features a walking trail, monument, memorial flagstaff and small signs pointing out the locations of various features of the camp.
To learn more about the Battle of Massard Prairie, please visit Also please consider my new book, The Battle of Massard Prairie, available now by following the same link.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Massard Prairie, Part Six

This is part six of a series on the Battle of Massard Prairie, Arkansas. To read the previous posts first, please scroll down the page or consult the Archives section.
The breaking of the Union line resulted in disaster for the men of the 6th Kansas Cavalry, many of whom were killed, wounded or captured. The man shown here, James Asher, was a cavalrymen in the 6th Kansas at the time of the battle and was severely wounded in the fight at Massard Prairie.
Realizing that they had been left on their own, the officers and men of the two companies on the right flank of the Union line began to fall back across the open prairie, trying to catch back up with the two companies that had been positioned on the left.
Confederate troops now swarmed after them. The Union soldiers knew that many of the Confederates were Native American and prisoners later told their captors that they continued to fight because they believed they would be massacred if they surrendered.
The running fight continued for about two miles across the open prairie, with Confederate cavalrymen striking the retreating Federals from all sides. By the time ended, the four company battalion of the 6th Kansas Cavalry would sustain nearly 40% casualties.
The battle finally came to a close when acting-Major Mefford was convinced to surrender by Confederate officers. Dead and wounded lay scattered across the prairie and more than 120 Union troops were now prisoners of Gano's men, along with massive quantities of commissary and camp supplies.
Our series on Massard Prairie will continue in the next post. Until then, you can read more on the battle by visiting Please also consider my new book, The Battle of Massard Prairie, now available by following the link.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Massard Prairie, Part Five

This is part five of a continuing series on the Battle of Massard Prairie, Arkansas. To read the previous posts, please scroll down or check the archive section.
It is a little known fact today that in 1864, Fort Smith stood at the very edge of the United States. Directly across the river from the fort was what during the 19th century was called the "Indian Territory," a large area of land set aside for the displaced members of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee and Seminole Nations, as well as a number of other peoples forced into the region.
The photograph above shows a reconstruction of the survey marker dividing Arkansas from the Choctaw Nation. The flat stone area next to it marks the site of the original wall of Fort Smith. Both can be seen at Fort Smith National Historic Site.
A large force of Choctaw Confederates took part in the Battle of Massard Prairie, forming the main force of the right or eastern-most wing of Gano's attack. As the general and his Texans struck the west side of the Union camp at Massard Prairie, the Choctaw horsemen swept around the grove to strike the east side of the camp.
The result was a well-conducted envelopment of the 6th Kansas Cavalry. The Union battleline soon found itself assaulted on both flanks and under fire from a third, smaller column that Gano send through the grove to attack the center. The Union left flank, facing heavy attack from the Choctaw column, was the first to give way. Although acting-Major Judson, commanding the 6th Kansas, supposedly gave orders for his entire battalion to retreat, the orders were not conveyed up and down the line. As a result, Judson fell back with the two companies on the left, leaving the two right companies to face Gano's full attack.
Our series will continue. Until the next post, you can read more by visiting Also please consider my new book, The Battle of Massard Prairie, now available by following the same link. Proceeds from the book support historic preservation efforts in Arkansas, including the new Cane Hill Driving Tour project.