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.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Battle of Massard Prairie Anniversary is Monday

Monday, July 27th, is the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Massard Prairie, Arkansas.

Fought on a broad prairie that was then on the outskirts of the important western Arkansas city of Fort Smith, the battle involved one of the last great open field cavalry charges in American history. It also marked one of the few occasions during the war that Union soldiers were documented as having scalped and mutilated Confederate dead.

The battle took place when a large Confederate force commanded by Brigadier General Richard L. Gano, who previously had served as an officer under the noted Southern cavalry leader John Hunt Morgan, stormed down from today's Fianna Hills ridge and swept across the open ground of Massard Prairie. The dramatic open field charge caught a full battalion of the 6th Kansas Cavalry and several companies of Union cavalry from Arkansas completely by surprise.

The Arkansas Feds, as they were called then, fled precipitately ahead of Gano's charge, but the troopers of the 6th Kansas tried to make a stand. Quickly surrounded, they bolted to the north in a dramatic effort to escape. The fight continued for nearly two miles across the open prairie before the main body of the Union troops surrendered. Virtually an entire battalion from the 6th Kansas Cavalry was captured, killed, wounded or scattered.

I'll take a closer look at some of the more interesting aspects of the battle over the next couple of days, but if you would like to read more, please consider my book The Battle of Massard Prairie. You can also order at or learn more about the battle by visiting

If you are in the area, this weekend would be a great time to take a few minutes and walk the battlefield at Massard Prairie Battlefield Park, located near the intersection of Morgan and Red Pine in Fort Smith.

Monday, July 13, 2009

New Exhibit on CSS Arkansas in Little Rock

The Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in Little Rock has announced a new exhibit on one of the most famous ironclads of the Civil War, the C.S.S. Arkansas. This photo shows a section of replica armor from the exhibit.
Built on the Yazoo River in Mississippi in remarkable time, the Arkansas was a makeshift ironclad plated with railroad track. Despite the conditions under which she was built, the lack of materials available to her builders, and the overall "ramshackle" nature of the project, she was one of the most successful ironclads launched by the Confederacy.

Here is the official press release from the museum:

Nearly 150 years ago, in the spring of 1862, a warship was being built in a makeshift shipyard in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Her armor, pieces of railroad track, had to be pulled out of the river where they had sunk. Unpainted, the rusted rails gave the vessel her only color.

This new ship fought not one, but three battles in a single day, one against an entire enemy fleet. Afterward, her captain would write, “We stood for them, fought them, ran by them at pistol-shot distance…and I think, did much injury…”

150 years ago, one ship thwarted the ambitions of not one, but two enemy fleets. One ship returned 400 miles of river to friendly control.

The ship? The Ironclad Ram CSS Arkansas.

Learn about this one-of-a-kind vessel, built under the direst circumstances imaginable. Touch replicas of her armor, see her weaponry, and read about her short career by visiting the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum (AIMM) and touring their new exhibit, “We Fought Them” – The Ironclad CSS Arkansas. This exhibit will also feature artwork loaned to the museum by artist Dan Dowdey and never before exhibited to the public.

AIMM is located just blocks from both Verizon Arena and Dickey-Stephens Park in downtown North Little Rock and short walk across the Junction Bridge from the Riverwalk in downtown Little Rock. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday. For more information call the museum at 371-8320 or visit

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Beaver Bridge marks important Civil War crossing site

Sometimes called the "Little Golden Gate" of Arkansas because of its similarity to its better known California cousin, the historic Beaver Bridge over the White River marks the site of an important crossing in use long before the Civil War.

The existing bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the last suspension bridge of its type in Arkansas. Built in 1949, it is located on Arkansas Highway 187 about 6.6 miles northwest of Eureka Springs. Only wide enough for traffic to move in one direction at a time, the bridge still has wooden floors and rails.

The little community of Beaver, which overlooks the bridge, has fewer than 100 residents but is picturesque and extremely rich in Arkansas history. It was one of the settings for the made for television epic, The Blue and the Gray.

Beaver gained its unique name in 1850 when Wilson A. Beaver moved his family there from Tennessee. He operated a ferry, mill, inn and other establishments for many years. The crossing, in fact, had numerous brushes with American history.

In 1857, for example, the Fancher wagon train crossed the White River here on its way from Arkansas to what its members thought would be prosperous new lives in California. Instead, they were brutally murdered in Utah at what became known as the Mountain Meadow Massacre.

In 1862, local tradition holds that General Sterling Price stopped at the Beaver home following the disastrous Confederate defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Both Union and Confederate forces passed back and forth through the area for the rest of the war, as did the notorious guerrilla gangs that hid out deep in the Ozarks.

To learn more, please visit

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

General Francis L. Shoup at Prairie Grove

One of the more fascinating participants in the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, was Brigadier General Francis A. Shoup.

A native of Indiana, Shoup was Northern born and raised. He was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from Indiana and graduated 15th in the Class of 1854. He served in Florida's Third Seminole War from 1856-1858, chasing small bands of Seminole warriors through the great swamps of South Florida.

By 1860 Shoup had resigned his commission and was back in Indiana. When he learned of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, he formed a company of Zoaves in Indianapolis to defend against possible abolitionist insurrections. When the secession of the Southern states became evident, however, Shoup resigned from the Indianapolis company and walked away from his Indiana friends and family to offer his sword to the Governor of Florida. Moving to St. Augustine, he was appointed a lieutenant by the governor and ordered to erect an artillery battery at Fernandina, Florida. He was soon commissioned into the regular Confederate military.

By October of 1861, he was promoted to Major and served in Kentucky as commander of twelve pieces of artillery with a force of Arkansas troops. At the Battle of Shiloh, he commanded artillery and was the officer that massed the Confederate artillery against Union General Prentiss's troops in one of of the most brutal open field bombardments of the war.

After Shiloh, Shoup was ordered west to Arkansas where Major General Hindman was organizing a new army. Promoted to Brigadier General, he served as Hindman's Chief of Artillery and was on the field at the Battle of Prairie Grove.

After Prairie Grove, Shoup was ordered to Mobile, Alabama, but was in Missisippi for the Battle of Vicksburg, where he was among those captured on July 4, 1863. Eventually exchanged, he served during the Atlanta Campaign and was among those who urged the Confederate Congress to allow the enlistment of slaves in the Confederate Army.

After the war, Shoup entered the ministry with the Episcopal Church and eventually became a professor of metaphysics at the University of the South in Tennessee. He authored books on infantry tactics and algebra.

To learn more about the Battle of Prairie Grove, please visit

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ozark, Arkansas - Civil War Landmark

One of my favorite communities in Arkansas is the beautiful city of Ozark. Nestled on the banks of the Arkansas River, the community has a rich history that dates back for hundreds of years.

French fur trappers and hunters frequented this area during the 1600s and 1700s. In fact, it is believed that today's "Ozark" originated from the French term "Aux Arc" ("The Arc"). The term is thought by some to refer to the sweeping bend of the Arkansas River where Ozark is located. It has grown to apply not just to the vicinity, but to the entire mountainous region known today as the Ozarks.

During the Civil War, Ozark was an important base of operations for Confederate troops following the Battle of Prairie Grove. General W.L. Cabell marched from Ozark in April of 1863 on his way to the Battle of Fayetteville. Today's Pig Trail Scenic Byway follows part of the old road that led north through the mountains from Ozark to Fayetteville.

Several small engagements were fought at Ozark during the last two years of the Civil War and a monument on the grounds of the courthouse pays tribute to a Confederate officer who was killed just north of town.

The area was also frequented by guerrilla bands that hid out in the mountains just north of town. These groups, some associated with the Confederates, some associated with the Federals and some worried only about themselves, terrorized local citizens both during and after the war.

Ozark today is a beautiful community. Overlooking the river, the city's museum includes fascinating exhibits on area history. It is also a stop on the water route of the Trail of Tears. There are historic structures, a nice collection of monuments on the grounds of the courthouse, and the Arkansas River bridge at Ozark offers what has been named one of the finest views in the country. And by the way, Rivertowne BBQ in downtown Ozark cooks up some of the finest BBQ in the South. To learn more about Ozark, please visit

Friday, July 3, 2009

Remembering American History on Independence Day!

I hope you have a great Indepence Day! If you are in Arkansas and looking for something to do to help remind your friends or family members of the state's magnificent role in American history, here are some locations you might consider:

Arkansas Post National Memorial near Gillett was the site of the last battle of the American Revolution, the oldest European settlement west of the Mississippi and the first capital of Arkansas as well as a major Civil War battle.

Fort Smith National Historic Site in Fort Smith was the site of a major frontier military outpost as well as the courtrooom of U.S. District Judge Isaac C. Parker, best remembered as the "Hanging Judge" of the Old West.

Hot Springs National Park preserves America's oldest preserve established to protect a natural wonder.

Massard Prairie Battlefield Park in Fort Smith was the site of a significant cavalry battle during the Civil War.

Pea Ridge National Military Park in Benton County was the site of one of the most significant battles of the Civil War.

Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in Prairie Grove was the site of a brutal Civil War battle.

Drive safely and celebrate our nation's proud and unique history this 4th of July!