Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cooper's Expedition to Fort Smith - Part Four

The key episode of Cooper's 1864 expedition to Fort Smith was the Battle of Massard Prairie, fought on this date (July 27th) in 1864.
Sweeping down from the ridge that overlooked the vast prairie, the Confederate forces stormed onto the open ground in two columns. One of these swept to the right to attack the left flank of the Union camp and the other, led by General Gano in person, rode hard to strike the right flank of the Union position.
A detachment of Union pickets, posted on the old Jenny Lind Road, was scattered by the oncoming Confederates and the sounds of the gunfire alerted the Federals at Picnic Grove that trouble was at hand.
The three companies of "Arkansas Feds," Union recruits from Arkansas, camped on the south side of the grove broke and fled in the face of the oncoming attack. The men of the 6th Kansas, however, hastily formed an east to west battleline through their camp. The position was along an almost distinguishable rise overlooking a trickling stream or branch that ran through the camp.
Because the herd of horses had already been moved out onto the prairie to graze, Company B of the 6th Kansas moved forward slightly and tried to cover the herd until it could be brought in to safety. There was no time, however, as Gano successfully cut off the herd and attacked the men of Company B in their advanced position.
The attack was one of sheer nerve against superior Union weaponry. The small arms of the 6th Kansas Cavalry were far superior to the shotguns, Mississippi rifles and other weapons carried by the Confederates. They had a much greater range. As a result, the Southern troops would wait for the Federals to fire a volley, then charge in on them, fire at short range with their own weapons and then pull back as the Union troops were reloading. It was an unusual, but in the case of Massard Prairie, highly successful tactic.
As Gano was engaged with Company B on the right (west) end of the Union line, the detachment from his column pushed through the grove and attacked the center of the Union position. At the same time, the Choctaw column suddenly appeared from behind the trees and opened fire on the left (east) end of the Union line.
The situation for the Federals quickly became critical and Company B was pulled back into line with the three other companies. Gano pushed forward after them and also began moving around the right flank to strike the Union line from both its flank and rear. The men of the 6th Kansas suddenly found themselves facing Confederate troops from all sides.
Our series will continue later today. Until the next post, you can read more by visiting

Cooper's Expedition to Fort Smith - Part Three

The Confederates moved into position for their attack on the Union camp at Massard Prairie during the night of July 26, 1864.
Led by guides, Gano's men experienced considerable difficulty getting into position due to the darkness and confusing road and trail patterns. Finally, though, they camped during the early morning hours in a position they believed to be only four miles from Camp Judson.
Daybreak, however, revealed that they were still more than 8 miles from their destination. Despite this disappointment, the Confederates were still anxious for action and Gano got them up and moving.
Pushing northeast from Cedar Prairie, they rode up onto the ridge just south of Fort Smith that is now the site of Fianna Hills subdivision, a large suburban neighborhood. From the crest of this ridge they could look out over Massard Prairie and clearly see the cluster of trees at the Picnic Grove, where the Federal troops were camped.
Gano's plan called for a textbook double envelopment of the Union camp. One column of men, led by Colonels Folsom and Wells and consisting largely of Choctaw troops, was ordered to sweep to the right and strike against the left flank of the Union camp. A second column, led by Gano himself and composed primarily of Texans, would at the same time sweep to the left and strike the right flank of the Federal camp. This latter column would also detach a smaller force to advance through the grove and strike the Union force from the front.
With these arrangements made, the Confederates moved down the slope of the ridge and began to move into the open prairie. As the ground leveled, they urged their horses forward and began one of the great open field cavalry charges of the war in the west.
Our series will continue with the opening shots of the Battle of Massard Prairie. To read more before the next post, please visit

Cooper's Expedition to Fort Smith - Part Two

We're resuming now our series on the Confederate Expedition against Fort Smith during the summer of 1864. I'm sorry I haven't been posting over the last few days, but hopefully we can catch up.
As his scouts and raiding parties brought information back to headquarters from their forays around Fort Smith, General Cooper developed a plan for an attack that he felt might have a reasonable chance of success. Union troops had ringed the town with a strong line of earthen fortifications and the Confederate force was not of sufficient strength to storm the works without sustaining great losses.
Instead, Cooper learned from his scouts that the Federals had moved several large bodies of troops into exposed positions around the town. Forage had grown so short at Fort Smith that Union commanders had little choice but to do this in order to save their horses and other livestock. The Southern general developed a plan for attacking one of this outlying camps, hoping to inflict damage and draw a pursuing Federal force into an ambush on the Devil's Backbone ridge south of Fort Smith.
The plan was placed in the quite capable hands of Brigadier General R.M. Gano. A native Kentuckian and resident of Texas before the war, Gano had achieved distinction east of the Mississippi as an able cavalry commander under the famed John Hunt Morgan.
Orders were sent for a striking force to assemble on the Poteau River in the Choctaw Nation on the afternoon of July 26, 1864. When Gano reached the launching point for the raid, however, he found that fewer troops had arrived than expected. Considering his options, he decided to alter the plan for the attack. Instead of carrying out Cooper's original plan (which called for a decoy force to lead pursuing Federal troops into an ambush while a larger Confederate force closed on them from the rear), Gano decided to strike a camp that scouts reported was in an exposed position on Massard Prairie.
This camp was Camp Judson, occupied by acting Major David Mefford's battalion from the 6th Kansas Cavalry. Assigned to a position at the "picnic" or "Diamond" Grove on Massard Prairie, an open grassland southeast of Fort Smith, the battalion was guarding a herd of horses that was being grazed on the open range. The battalion consisted of four companies from the 6th Kansas. Three companies of Arkansas Federal recruits were also camped at the position.
Our series will continue throughout the day on Sunday with a series of posts about the Battle of Massard Prairie. To read more until the next post, please visit

Friday, July 18, 2008

Cooper's Expedition to Fort Smith - Part One

The Confederate success during the Red River Campaign created an unexpected window of opportunity for Southern forces operating in the Indian Territory of present-day Oklahoma.
Commanded by Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Cooper, Confederate forces pushed north to the Old Choctaw Council House near Tuskahoma, Oklahoma, about 90 miles southwest of Fort Smith. It should be noted that this was not the Council House currently standing in Tuskahoma, as that structure was not constructed until the 1880s.
Sheltered by rugged mountains, Cooper consolidated his forces at the old council house and sent out scouting parties to observe Union activities along the Arkansas River and identify targets of opportunity.
While Southern-allied guerrilla bands preyed on small Union forces moving between through the Boston Mountains north of Fort Smith, Cooper's forces pushed out from their base.
In mid-June, Col. Stand Watie and his men struck the Union steamboat J.R. Williams as it made its way up the Arkansas River from Fort Smith to Fort Blunt (Fort Gibson). Watie disabled the boat with artillery fire, captured it and then burned it to the waterline.
The attack on the Williams was one of a series of incidents that tightened the noose around the Federals in Fort Smith, forcing them inside a ring of earthen fortifications they had constructed around the town. By the end of June, the Union cavalry horses were in poor condition and a lack of forage threatened the ability of the thousands of men there to make any offensive movements at all.
Our series on Cooper's expedition and the Battles of Massard Prairie and Fort Smith will continue. You can read more about this little known campaign by reading The Battle of Massard Prairie available at and at the visitor center of Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Civil War Anniversaries in Fort Smith

The anniversaries of two of the most significant events in the history of Fort Smith - the 1864 Battles of Massard Prairie and Fort Smith - will pass over the next two weeks and I thought it might be interesting to mark the occasion with a new series.
Beginning tomorrow, I will start a series on Gen. Douglas B. Cooper's 1864 Confederate expedition against Fort Smith. I've previously devoted some attention to the Battle of Massard Prairie here, but this series will be more wide-ranging and will look at the expedition as a whole.
Over the next two weeks, please stop by for a continuing discussion of both battles, as well as an overview of Cooper's movements and their significance as preliminaries to the dramatic Southern success at the Second Battle of Cabin Creek a short time later.
Also, if you are interested in learning more on the expedition, please consider my recent book The Battle of Massard Prairie: The 1864 Confederate Attacks on Fort Smith, Arkansas. For more information, please click here.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cane Hill Battlefield Driving Tour - Cane Hill, Arkansas

Alan Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Civil War Heritage Trail organization tells me that the first of the interpretive panels for the new Cane Hill Battlefield Driving Tour should be ready any day now.
An important preliminary of the Battle of Prairie Grove, the Battle of Cane Hill was fought on November 28, 1862, when Union troops attacked a Confederate force camped at Cane Hill.
Actually a series of communities, Cane Hill was an important landmark in Northwest Arkansas at the time of the war and was a strategic objective for both sides because of the numerous road connections it offered.
The Northwest Arkansas Civil War Heritage Trail group has started an effort to establish a driving tour of the extensive battlefield. This is a noteworthy effort and will expand the public's opportunity to explore another major battlefield of the Civil War in Arkansas. With Pea Ridge National Military Park and Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, the new tour will bring to three the number of major battlefields that can be explored in Northwest Arkansas.
The effort is an expensive proposition. Each of the interpretive panels for the stops on the tour cost $1,500. If you are interested in supporting a worthwhile historic preservation effort, I strongly urge you to consider this one. As I've mentioned before, I am donating proceeds from my new book, The Battle of Massard Prairie, Arkansas, to the project. If you are interested in donating, you can contact Alan Thompson at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park. Their number is 479-846-2990 or you can email the park at and just put Attn: Alan Thompson in the heading.
If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Cane Hill, please visit

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Scalpings at Massard Prairie

The 27th of this month will mark the 144th anniversary of the Battle of Massard Prairie, Arkansas.
The engagement took place when Confederate troops led by Gen. R.M. Gano swept down on the Union camp of Mefford's Battalion from the 6th Kansas Cavalry at Massard Prairie, a vast grassland on the outskirts of Fort Smith.
An overwhelming Southern victory, the battle was unique for a number of reasons. Among the most morbid, however, was the fact that it resulted in one of the few documented cases of scalping by Union soldiers during the Civil War.
After overrunning the Union camp and pursuing retreating Federals across miles of open prairie, the Confederate force withdrew quickly from the scene before Union reinforcements could reach the scene. Due to the speed with which they left the battlefield, Gano's men left a number of dead and seriously wounded soldiers behind.
According to 15-year-old James Robert Barnes, who witnessed the battle from the nearby home of his uncle, the Confederate dead were scalped by men in the Union force after the fight:
Someof the Federals with the artillery were Cherokee Indians, the White soldiers called the Cherokee "Pin Indians"...The Pin Indians cut a patch of scalp about the size of the palm of their hand off the top of the dead Rebels head, taking the scalp with them.
The bodies were then piled into a trench on the battlefield and buried.
This brief passage is the only known eyewitness account of scalpings carried out by Union troops in Arkansas. Confederate Native American soldiers were accused of scalping Union soldiers at the Battle of Pea Ridge. The Pea Ridge incident was widely publicized, but the Massard Prairie scalpings never entered the popular media of the time.
If you are interested in learning more about the Battle of Massard Prairie, please consider my new book: The Battle of Massard Prairie: The 1864 Confederate Attacks on Fort Smith, Arkansas. The book can be purchased online by visiting It is also available at the bookstore at Prairie Grove Battlefield Park in Northwest Arkansas.
Proceeds from each copy sold help fund the development of a driving tour at Cane Hill Battlefield in Washington County, Arkansas.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Independence Day - A Flashback to the American Revolution

The primary purpose of Arkansas in the Civil War is to focus on sites of Civil War interest, but in celebration of Independence Day, I thought it might be worthwhile to pause and visit the Arkansas site of the last battle of the American Revolution.
On April 17, 1783, long after all of the other supposed "last battles" of the Revolution, a force of British partisans led by James Colbert attacked the Spanish fort at Arkansas Post.
Spain had formed an alliance with the fledgling United States and fought in a number of battles of the American Revolution, including the ones at both Pensacola and Mobile. Their fort at Arkansas Post, however, had not come under attack during the war until Colbert led his command across the Mississippi River and into the swamps of the Delta.
Moving into position in and around the adjacent village of Arkansas Post, Colbert's men struck the fort at dawn on the morning of April 17th. Rounding up the civilizians and seizing Spanish cannon, Colbert attacked the walls of the fort shortly after 6 a.m. The garrison held out, however, and a sharp battle opened that continued for about 3 hours.
Even though he had only 14 soldiers in the fort, Jacabo de Brueil decided to sally out and attack Colbert before his men could position artillery to bombard the fort. They were preparing for their attack when suddenly they saw a white flag approaching the fort with a demand to surrender. After reading the demand, he ordered the attack.
Yelling as loudly as they could to create the impression of a much larger force, the little band of Spanish soldiers and volunteers stormed out of the gates of the fort. The bold ruse worked. Thinking they were about to be slaughtered, Colbert's men broke and ran. The fort held and the Battle of Arkansas Post was over.
The last battle of the American Revolution was unique from a number of perspectives. It was a Spanish victory, it was one of only two battles fought west of the Mississippi River during the war, it resulted in the last loss of life of the Revolution and was noted for the death of an African American soldier who took up arms to defend the town when the British attacked. He was one of the last soldiers killed in the American Revolution.
The site of the battle is now interpreted at Arkansas Post National Memorial. To learn more, please visit
Please have a Happy and Safe Fourth of July!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Battle of Fayetteville, Arkansas - Part Five

The failure of Monroe's charge to break the Union lines convinced Gen. Cabell that he would not be able to take Fayetteville.
Consequently, he begin to pull his command back. Heavy firing continued between the two sides According to Union reports, the Confederate center continued to maintain its position while Cabell withdrew both wings and his artillery.
By 12 noon, however, the entire force withdrew from the battlefield and, other than some light skirmishing, the Battle of Fayetteville was over. Critically short of horses for his cavalry, Col. Harrison made no attempt to pursue Cabell and the Confederates passed back over the mountains to Ozark with no difficulty.
Precise casualties from the battle are difficult to determine. On the Union side, Harrison reported 4 killed, 26 wounded, 4 captured and 35 missing in action. Some of the wounded died from their injuries over the following day, so the final number of killed grew somewhat. Most of the missing had actually been taken prisoner by the Confederates. Cabell reported that he captured one lieutenant, one non-commissioned officer and 24 privates, but paroled them all before returning to Ozark.
Confederate losses were not reported with certainty by Cabell, who estimated that his casualty list would not exceed 20 killed, 30 wounded and 20 missing. This number was consistent with Harrison's estimate that the Southern troops lost around 20 killed and 50 wounded.
The Southern dead from the battle are buried at Confederate Cemetery in Fayetteville, a beautiful plot on the lower slopes of Mt. Sequoyah overlooking the battlefield. The Union dead rest at Fayetteville National Cemetery. The Headquarters House, which served as both Harrison's headquarters and the center of the Union line of battle, is now a museum. Located on East Dickson Street, the house can be toured by appointment through the Washington County Historical Society. You can visit their website by clicking here.
This concludes our series on the Battle of Fayetteville. To read more about the battle and see additional photographs of the battlefield, please visit