Monday, February 22, 2010

The Union Fortifications of Fort Smith

After the Union troops took possession of Fort Smith in 1863, their focus turned to holding the key post.

This initially was not a problem, as the Confederate forces in the region had been driven away and were suffering from extremely low morale. The winter months, however, gave them time to reorganize and for new recruits and desperately needed supplies to arrive. By early 1864, rumors were reaching Fort Smith of Confederate plans to retake the vital city and post.

To prepare a defense against such a plan, the Federals began building an impressive line of fortifications that rings the main garrison as well as the downtown area of the city itself. Running from just below today's Fort Smith National Historic Site and National Cemetery, the defenses started on the Poteau River. From there they followed a series of ridges and hilltops around the city to the banks of the Arkansas River just north (downstream) from the downtown area.

This line consisted of rifle pits and breastworks, some of which were stockaded. The land in front of the defenses was cleared and tangled branches and tops from felled trees were used to create an additional defense against an infantry attack. At key hilltops along the line, earthwork forts and batteries were built to serve as strong points. Cannon placed in these works could sweep the approaches to the defenses and control the main roads leading into Fort Smith.

Key forts were built to control the Fort Towson Road (today's Towson Avenue), the Van Buren Road and on the grounds of the Immaculate Conception Church. The Catholic church owned a full square mile on the hills just west of the downtown area and the Sisters of Mercy strongly voiced their opposition to the construction of fortifications on church property. Their pleas reached deaf ears. The military importance of the site was obvious.

The construction of these fortifications continued through the spring of 1864. Citizens often picked up shovels and axes to join in the work, as did details from the various regiments stationed at Fort Smith.

In addition to the main line that surrounded the town, Union engineers also threw up earthen embankments against the stone walls of the main fort and placed a battery at Belle Point in front of the fort to control the river approaches to the garrison.

Very little remains of these fortifications today. Some small sections of rifle pits can still be seen and in a few places vague traces of earthworks are still visible. For the most part, though, the Union defenses of Fort Smith vanished during the late 19th and early 20th century residential and industrial expansion of the city. To learn more about Fort Smith National Historic Site, please visit

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Battle of Devil's Backbone, Arkansas - Mountain Fight for Fort Smith

As Union troops surged into Fort Smith on the morning of September 1, 1863, General James G. Blunt ordered his cavalry to pursue the retreating soldiers lead by Confederate General W.L. Cabell.

The Confederates were falling back on the Waldron Road, having evacuated Fort Smith without a fight, and appeared to be in full flight. Following Blunt's orders, Union Colonel William F. Cloud led the 2nd Kansas and 6th Missouri Cavalries, along with two sections from Rabb's Indiana battery, down the road leading to Jenny Lind and Waldron.

The Federals skirmished with Cabell's rear guard at Jenny Lind, sending the Confederate horsemen into a rapid retreat. What Cloud didn't know as he stormed after them, however, was that it was all part of a trap planned by the Southern general. Knowing that the Union commander would think he had the Confederates on the run and was closing in on the rear of their column, Cabell prepared an ambush where the Waldron Road crossed the Devil's Backbone, an abrupt mountain ridge that runs east to west across the horizon south of Fort Smith.

As Cloud and his horsemen rode up to the foot of the ridge, intent on catching their prey, the hunter suddenly became the hunted. The Union troopers road into a deadly trap and were ambushed by the Confederates of Monroe's Regiment who were hidden at the bottom of the Backbone:

The enemy formed in a dense growth of small timber and brush, and when our scouts came up, they let them pass through without firing a gun, but when Company C came up, they opened upon them a very heavy volley of infantry in two columns. Your son (Capt. E.D. Lines, 2nd Kansas) was killed at that time. He was in the extreme advance, (as was his custom,) and was shot by a Minnie ball, through the bowels and liver.

Following the ambush, the Battle of Devil's Backbone raged for three hours. The two forces engaged in a severe artillery duel that damaged nerves far more than it did bodies. The Confederates held their own and appeared to be on the verge of prevailing when the cannon fire finally slowed. To his shock and dismay, however, General Cabell watched as his army virtually disintegrated around him.

Not under immediate attack and having fought well so far, the Confederate lines suddenly collapsed and soldiers streamed down the backside of the ridge. Cabell could do nothing but withdraw his remaining intact units and fight a rear guard action as he pulled back to Waldron. The loss of the fight at Devil's Backbone ended his hopes of defeating the Union army in detail and retaking Fort Smith.

To learn more about the battle, please visit

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Fort Smith during the Civil War

Following its seizure by the state militia in April of 1861, the post of Fort Smith and the adjacent community bearing its name entered one of the most turbulent periods of Arkansas history.

Confederate troops occupied Fort Smith for the first two years of the Civil War, using it as a supply depot and base of operations. It served as a point of refuge for Southern soldiers following the disastrous Pea Ridge Campaign in March of 1862 and was the center of General Thomas Hindman's efforts to build a new Army of the Trans-Mississippi later that year in anticipation of his Prairie Grove Campaign.

Thousands of men camped on the hills and prairies surrounding Fort Smith, while quartermasters and commissary officers did their best to obtain uniforms, shoes, weapons, ammunition and food for the soldiers.

Even after Hindman withdrew what remained of his army from the vicinity in December of 1862, Fort Smith remained in Southern hands. Finally during the final days of August 1863, however, the Union army of General James G. Blunt closed in on the fort from the west. After moving into position along the nearby Poteau River to block the Federal approach, Confederate General W.L. Cabell decided he could not hope to hold Blunt in check.

Withdrawing from the Poteau River position on the night of August 31, 1863, Cabell evacuated Fort Smith and moved his his command to protect the supply wagons as they lumbered south across the mountain roads to Waldron, Arkansas.

Sending a large force of cavalry to pursue Cabell, Blunt occupied Fort Smith. For the first time in more than two years, the Stars and Stripes flew again over the walls of Fort Smith.

To learn more, please visit

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Southern Seizure of Fort Smith, April 23, 1861

Even as Arkansas deliberated the critical move of joining her sister Southern states in leaving the Union, the clouds of war loomed on the state's western borner.

The U.S. Army maintained a garrison at Fort Smith in 1861 and pro-secession leaders in Arkansas realized that as long as Federal troops held the fort, it would be a thorn in the side of their dreams of an independent Southern nation.

As a result, the state called out its militia and organized a military force to take Fort Smith, fully realizing that if the fort's garrison resisted, war could result even while the state was still part of the Union. Led by Colonel Solon Borland, the Arkansas troops left Little Rock and headed up the Arkansas River by steamboat. The force of infantry and artillery grew as it moved. In a final stop in Van Buren, for example, additional militiamen joined Borland's force.

Well aware that Borland was coming, Major Samuel Sturgis of the 4th U.S. Cavalry deliberated what to do. Finally deciding that he could not hope to hold the large fort with the small command at his disposal, Sturgis decided that the time had come to go. As Borland's command steamed up the river, Sturgis gave the order for his men to prepare to evacuate Fort Smith.

Major Sturgis and his men left Fort Smith at 9 p.m. on the evening of April 23, 1861, heading for Fort Washita in what is now Oklahoma. Behind they left a couple of officers including the post quartermaster, a few soldiers, the women who did the post laundry and the sick men in the hospital.

Borland's men came off their boats just 2 hours after the U.S. soldiers left, claimed possession of the fort for Arkansas and took the few men remaining there as prisoners of war. They were quickly paroled and at least one, Major Richard C. Gatlin who was visiting the post, soon resigned his commission and went on to become a Confederate general.