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

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