Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Battle of Massard Prairie, Part Three - The Attack on Fort Smith

The stunning success of Gano's attack on the 6th Kansas Cavalry at Massard Prairie awakened the Confederates to the potential of additional attacks on the Union forces at Fort Smith.

Anxious to inflict additional damage, capture more supplies and create an opportunity for pro-secession families in the area to evacuate, the Southern commanders contemplated the situation and decided to try a second attack. Commanded in person by General Douglas H. Cooper, the Confederate troops moved up to Cedar Prairie on the Fort Towson Road due south of Fort Smith.

While Cooper believed that he might be able to break through the defenses of Fort Smith, he also recognized that doing so would result in severe casualties to his own command. Instead of attempting such an attack, he decided instead to send troops to demonstrate against the southern edges of Fort Smith from all directions. Gano was sent to occupy a position on the mountain overlooking Massard Prairie (today's Fianna Hills subdivision). From there he sent Lieutenant Colonel Jack McCurtain down onto the prairie with his force of Choctaw soldiers. McCurtain found the former camp of the 6th Kansas now abandoned, but did manage to captured a few horses, a drove of cattle and 11 Union soldiers.

At the same time, the 2nd Creek Regiment and a few Cherokee soldiers were sent up into the Poteau Bottom opposite the Poteau River from the main garrison of Fort Smith. Taking up positions along the bank, they fired across into the garrison, creating "great excitement and some consternation."

As these activities were underway, Cooper advanced up the Fort Towson (today's Towson Avenue) and State Line Roads toward the Federal positions along the south side of Fort Smith. The historic city had been enclosed with a semi-circular line of rifle pits that connected strong redoubts or forts placed on high points around the city. One of these, Battery Number Four, stood on the high hill near today's intersection of Towson and Dodson Avenues. Because the fort was manned by African American troops, the hill was described in Confederate reports as "Negro Hill." The photo above was taken from a position near the site of Battery Number 4 at the top of the hill looking south down Towson Avenue, the route by which part of Cooper's force attacked.

Advancing on the morning of July 31, 1864, Cooper's forces overran a Union picket camp about 4 1/2 miles south of town and continued to drive up the parallel roads toward Battery Number Four.

Led by Brigadier General Stand Watie, the Confederate advance struck hard and fast, quickly closing in on the Union lines. Overrunning a Union camp and driving the Federals to their entrenchments, Watie and his men fell back to the camp they had captured where they sat down and enjoyed a "plentiful dinner" just prepared by the Union soldiers. They also captured a vast supply of camp equipment and other supplies, the value of which was estimated by General Cooper to be in excess of $130,000.

To support the attack, Cooper ordered forward two batteries of light artillery to take position on a hill overlooking the camp captured by General Watie and facing the hill topped by Battery Number Four. Wells' Texas Battalion, the Choctaw Brigade and the 1st Creek Regiment were ordered forward to support the guns.

I'll continue with more on Cooper and Watie's attack on Fort Smith in the next post. You can always read more on the Battle of Massard Prairie by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com/massardprairie.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Battle of Massard Prairie - Part Two

The Confederates attacked the Union camp on Massard Prairie in three columns.

The first, composed primarily of Choctaw and Chickasaw soldiers, swung off to the right and closed in on the left flank of the camp. As these soldiers advanced, they also captured a Confederate deserter at a home just south of the battlefield and summarily executed him.

The second and third columns advanced together in a sweeping motion to the left. They quickly captured the herd of horses being grazed by the Federals on the prairie and then approached the camp itself. As they came within range of the grove of trees sheltering the camp, the third column broke away from the second and moved into a center position between the two flanking columns. All three forces then advanced on the camp.

As they approached, one group of Union soldiers came out to fight the advancing Confederate left column, but soon withdrew back to the camp itself where a line of battle was formed through the tents and parade ground. The Federals fought bravely, but the effort was hopeless. They were both outnumbered and taken by surprise.

As the Confederates moved to completely surround them, they broke and began to fall back across the open prairie. The battle deteriorated into a running fight that continued for more than a mile until the last organized contingent of Union troops were finally convinced to surrender. In a battle lasting just minutes, Gano had not only carried out a sweeping triple movement, he had led charging soldiers on horseback across miles of open prairie. An entire battalion of the 6th Kansas Cavalry was either killed, wounded or, with a few exceptions, captured.

Moving out the prisoners as quickly as possible, the Confederates returned to the Union camp where they collected weapons, provisions, camp equipment and every other needed item they could carry away on horseback. The rest was burned.

The Confederates then withdrew leisurely within sight of Union reinforcements that were gathering on the opposite side of the prairie. Total Southern losses at Massard Prairie were 7 killed, 26 wounded and one missing. Total Union losses were 10 killed, 17 wounded and 117 captured. In addition, the Southern forces captured 200 Sharps rifles and 400 revolvers.

In the next post, I'll take a closer look at a second Confederate attack on Fort Smith that followed closely on the heels of the fight.

To learn more about the Battle of Massard Prairie, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/massardprairie.