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

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Original Fort Smith, 1817-1824

Beginning our look at the historic sites in Fort Smith, I thought it would be interesting to look back at how the fort came to be established on the western frontier more than forty years before the Civil War.

Although the Trail of Tears would not come for another nineteen years, by 1817 a number of Cherokee had accepted the inevitable and started moving west from their homes in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas. The began settling in western Arkansas, carving homes and fields from the wilderness and rebuilding their lives.

The problem was that the Osage, a well established tribe already in the area, objected to what they considered a Cherokee intrusion. The two nations neared the point of war as incidents of violence escalated. To keep peace between the Osage and the Cherokee, the United States decided to establish a garrison on the far western frontier. On December 25, 1817, a company of 64 riflemen led by Major William Bradford nosed a boat up to a high bluff at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers. Then called Belle Point, a settlement of French fur trappers had existed at the site for many years.

The soldiers built a rectangular fort atop the bluff that had been designed by Major Stephen Long. He later selected the site for the modern city of Atlanta. With blockhouses on diagonal corners, other structures to serve as quarters, storehouses, etc., and cannon for its defense, the fort was named Fort Smith after General Thomas A. Smith.

The officers and soldiers of the isolated fort spent their first few years negotiating with the Native American tribes to avoid a full scale war and also roamed the hills and valleys of Arkansas and what is now Oklahoma on noteworthy trips of exploration. They visited such points of interest as Mount Magazine and even Hot Springs.

In 1821, the 7th U.S. Infantry arrived at Fort Smith, greatly expanding the military presence at the post. The noteworthy regiment had fought at the Battle of New Orleans under Andrew Jackson and was ordered west from Fort Scott in Georgia.

The original fort was held by the Army until 1824, by which time the flood of both Cherokee and white settlers into the region had pushed the frontier west. Seeing no need for the continued occupation of Fort Smith, the army evacuated the post in favor of new forts closer to the expanding frontier. The abandonment, however, would quickly prove to be temporary in nature.

To learn more about the original Fort Smith, the ruins of which are shown above, please visit

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fort Smith National Historic Site - Fort Smith, Arkansas

One of the most significant historic sites in the nation can be found on the banks of the Arkansas River in the historic old city of Fort Smith.

Fort Smith National Historic Site preserves what remains of the historic fort that defended the frontier for more 50 years along with structures associated with the Judge Isaac C. Parker and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Parker was known even in his lifetime as the "Hanging Judge" of Fort Smith and the deputies who operated under his jurisdiction brought law and order to the Old West and inspired such films as John Wayne's "True Grit" and "Rooster Cogburn" and Clint Eastwood's "Hang Em High."

Largely because the Parker years generate so much interest, many people do not realize today that the old fort played a key role in the Civil War. Both Union and Confederate troops occupied it at various stages of the war and it was a strategic focal point for both armies as they struggled to control both western Arkansas and the Indian Nations of what is now Oklahoma.

Over the next few posts, I will focus on Fort Smith and its role in the Civil War so I hope you will check back every day or so to learn more about one of my favorite cities and favorite historic sites in the nation. You can also learn more any time at

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Battle of Reeds Mountain - Washington County, Arkansas

On December 6, 1862 - the day before the Battle of Prairie Grove - Union and Confederate troops battled for control of Reed's Mountain, a ridge separating the Cove Creek Road from today's community of Canehill (then spelled Cane Hill).

The mountain was critical to Confederate General Thomas Hindman's plans to advance up from Van Buren into Northwest Arkansas before the divided Union Army of the Frontier could reassemble. If all went well, he hoped to move up the Cove Creek Road and destroy one Union division with overwhelming force before then turning on the other with the same advantage.

To achieve this objective, however, it was critical that Hindman's movement up Cove Creek be screened from Union General James G. Blunt's division at Cane Hill. Since Blunt had pickets on the road and a small force overlooking the Cove Creek Valley from the crest of Reed's Mountain, Hindman ordered Colonel J.C. Monroe to take his brigade of Arkansas cavalry ahead of the main army and drive off the Federals.

Driving Blunt's pickets up the road, Monroe struck Reed's Mountain with a force of only 400 men (150 of his soldiers were doing picket duty up and down the road). Charging up the slope of the mountain, he was initially driven back by the Union soldiers at the top. Spreading into a full line of battle, however, he engaged the Federals in a severe firefight and then, finally, was able to move around one of their flanks and drive them from the mountain as night fell on December 6, 1862.

The small victory by Monroe's Arkansans created the opportunity Hindman wanted to push his army past Blunt's position at Cane Hill before his movement was detected by the Union commander.

To learn more about the remarkable fight at Reed's Mountain, please visit

Friday, January 8, 2010

Confederate Section of Fairview Cemetery - Van Buren, Arkansas

A walk through the Confederate Section of Van Buren's picturesque Fairview Cemetery provides a haunting reminder of just how brutal the year 1862 was for the Southern forces in Arkansas.

Row after row of headstones, many of them marked as "Unknown," bring a great deal of reality to the brutal cost of the Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove Campaigns. This is especially true because, with a few exceptions, the men and boys buried here did not die in combat. Instead, they suffered from horrible battle wounds and debilitating disease. Often linger in misery for days and weeks before finally breathing their last.

These men were the hard luck soldiers of the Western frontier. Some of them marched through winter snows and ice with no shoes and threadbare uniforms literally falling off of their emaciated bodies as they followed Van Dorn to Pea Ridge and Hindman to Prairie Grove. Unlike many others, they did not desert and slip away into the mountains or through the lines to join the Federal forces. Instead they stood their ground and fought fiercely and bravely for the cause in which they believed.

Walking the beautifully preserved and landscaped battlefields of Prairie Grove and Pea Ridge today, it is difficult to really conceive the brutality that took place on such picturesque fields and ridges. But a walk through Fairview provides a sobering reminder of just how brutal the war was for the men in the ranks.

To learn more about the cemetery, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, please visit

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Albert Pike's School House - Van Buren, Arkansas

A little log one-room schoolhouse now preserved on the grounds of the Crawford County Courthouse in Van Buren holds a unique place in American history. Albert Pike once taught there.

A major figure in Arkansas in the years before the War Between the States, Pike was opposed to the secession of the Southern states, but served the Confederacy as a brigadier general. By the time he received his appointment in November of 1861, however,

he was already a noted explorer, lawyer, poet, writer, educator and soldier.

A native of Massachusetts, Albert Pike had arrived west of the Mississippi in 1831, spending time in St. Louis and Independence, Missouri, before joining several major hunting and trading expeditions into Texas and New Mexico. In 1833 he accepted a job teaching at the log school that can be seen today in Van Buren.

It is thought that the structure was built in around 1820, making it one of the oldest sta

nding buildings in Arkansas. Pike did not teach long before moving on to Little Rock where he engaged on a career in law, journalism and politics. He became a nationally known writer and poet in the Antebellum era.

His career as a Confederate general was brief. Assigned to command in the Indian Nations in what is now Oklahoma

, he led Native American troops at the Battle of Pea Ridge. He became involved in a conflict with General Thomas Hindman, however, and resigned his commission the following year.

Pike sat out the rest of the war, living part of the time in the Ouachita Mountains. In later years he continued his work in Freemasonry, which he had begun in the 1840s. He eventually became a 33rd degree Mason and is regarded as the father of modern Freemasonry.

To learn more about Albert Pike's School House in Van Buren, please visit

Friday, January 1, 2010

Siloam Springs, Simon Sager and the Civil War

Although the modern city of Siloam Springs was not incorporated until 1881, the settlement of Hico existed on the site of the Northwest Arkansas community during the Civil War.

A Prussian immigrant named Simon Sager had arrived in the area by around 1839 and established a plantation adjacent to the little community, established a few years earlier as a trading post for the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee had arrived in what is now eastern Oklahoma after their long journey west on the Trail of Tears. They were desperately in need of basic necessities and the trading post at Hico, along with other similar establishments along the border, supplied at least some of these needs.

In addition to his skills as a farmer, Simon Sager was an accomplished carpenter and furniture maker. He helped build the Cherokee Male and Female Acadamies in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and supplied his neighbors with beautiful pieces of furniture, some of which survive to this day. He also raised beef and was by all accounts a successful entrepreneur along what was then the western frontier.

The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, however, changed everything for both Sager and the little community that would eventually become Siloam Springs. The area was heavily raided by Blunt's Division of the Union Army of the Frontier during the summer and fall of 1862. The Federals defeated Confederate troops at the Battle of Old Fort Wayne - less than 20 miles to the northwest - on October 22, 1862 and more fighting followed before the end of the year at the Battle of Cane Hill and the Battle of Prairie Grove.

To supply his thousands of men with food and other necessities, Union General James G. Blunt ordered out foraging parties that ravaged the countryside around what is now Siloam Springs. Farms, including that of Sager, were stripped of forage, grain, beef, pork, poultry and anything else the soldiers wanted. Families were often left to face starvation or flee and pro-secession families watched their homes go up in flames.

After the Prairie Grove Campaign, the armies soon moved on, but the area along today's Arkansas-Oklahoma border was then overrun by guerrilla bands. Some of these were allied with the Union, some with the Confederacy and some with no one at all. They swarmed over the countryside, raiding farms, mills and homes. Murder, robbery and assault were the watchwords of the day.

On May 17, 1864, Simon Sager's home was surrounded by a pro-Union guerrilla party of Cherokee "Pin" Indians. When the attack ended, Sager was dead. The creek flowing through the heart of Siloam Springs, however, still bears his name and one of his cabins is preserved on the campus of John Brown University.

To see additional photos and learn more about Siloam Springs, please visit For a good account of the 1862 fighting in Northwest Arkansas, be sure to check out William L. Shea's new book, Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign.