Wednesday, June 29, 2011

May 4, 1864 - Another Union Account of the Battle of Poison Spring

Poison Spring State Park
In the weeks and months after the Battle of Poison Spring (April 18, 1864), a steady stream of letters trickled north from officers and men in the Union army.

Most of these came from soldiers in Thayer's column, which had marched south from Fort Smith to join in the Camden phase of the Red River Campaign. Since many of these men were from Kansas or associated with regiments from that state, a number of their letters wound up in newspapers there.

The following, for example, was dated from Fort Smith on May 4, 1864, and appeared in the White Cloud Chief newspaper in Kansas on May 26th:

Interpretive Shelter at Poison Spring
...They fought the rebels nearly half a day, until, overpowered by superior numbers, they were crushed and dispersed. When the officers of the Colored Regiment held up their arms in token of surrender, the enemy took their arms and blew their brains out. The negroes, seeing that no quarter was to be given them, stood and fired as long as they had ammunition, then took what they could from the dead around them; and when this failed, clubbed their guns and waded out. One company went in with 80 men, and was led out by the Orderly Sergeant, with only 11 men left. Most of the Cavalry escaped. About 60 of the 18th Iowa were taken. One-half of the officers of the 1st Colored are reported killed or wounded. Col. Williams escaped. All the trains and guns were of course captured. One Major got in, in the evening. His first words were: “Good God! Why didn’t you reinforce us?” The question was asked by hundreds. They heard the firing at Camden, for hours. Gen. Thayer wanted to send reinforcements, but Gen. Steele was not willing. There he lay, with 12,000 men, in hearing distance of the guns, (about 8 or 10 miles,) when they were not only willing, but anxious to go; and more, he let the dead and wounded lie on the field for four days, without caring for the wounded or burying the dead. The wounded died by inches, and crawled into camp on their hands and knees; and in some instances, not until a flag of truce came in from the rebels....

The writer, who identified himself only by the initials "O.B.G.," appears to have been in Camden during the battle, since he describes such details as the arrival of Union survivors there and being able to hear clearly hear the sound of the guns.

Fought when Confederate forces trapped and overwhelmed a Union foraging force, the Battle of Poison Spring was one of a series of disasters that hit Steele's column as it tried to march to Shreveport to link up with a larger Union army marching up through Louisiana. Federal losses in the fight totaled more than 200 killed and missing and 97 wounded, while Southern forces 13 killed and 81 wounded. The Confederates also captured more than 1,200 mules, 170 wagons, 4 pieces of artillery and all of the corn, furniture and other items seized by the Union forces as they rampaged through the countryside.

To learn more about the battle, please visit

Friday, June 24, 2011

War on Civilians in the Ozarks - The Depopulation of the Mountains

The Ozarks
While many stories are told of Sherman's March to the Sea and other campaigns, nowhere in the South did attrocities against civilians approach what happened in the Ozarks of Arkansas and southern Missouri during the Civil War.

Many of the mountain people had no interest at all in the war and most just wanted to be left alone. They had moved west to the Ozarks in search of country that they liked and the isolation and freedom that life in the mountains offered them.

When war came, however, the very isolation of the mountain communities and homes made them easy prey for a reign of terror waged by soldiers and guerrillas from both sides and outlaws who came only to raid, rob and destroy. By the winter of 1864-1865, in fact, so many of the mountain people had been killed, burned out or driven away that the Ozarks presented a scene of desolation unparalleled in American history.

Elkhorn Tavern
Built on Ruins of Tavern burned by Guerrillas
The following account of a report by a postal official appeared in a South Carolina newspaper:

In the resumption of mail service in the South, continued evidence of the despoliation of the land is brought out. An employee of the Post Office Department, now superintending mail matters in Arkansas, writes that “on the mail route from Fort Smith, in that State, to Caswell, in Missouri, there is not a house nor habitation where a mail carrier could refresh himself or beast, in a distance of nearly two hundred miles. From Fayetteville to Caswell, by the old mail road, the distance is seventy-five miles, and there is not a house or garden fence left standing, nor a field under cultivation. - Keowee Courier, November 11, 1864.

The terrorism inflicted on the people of the Ozarks would continue for many years after the war, with guerrilla bands and outlaws roaming almost at will through the region.

Some places to learn about some of the destruction in the region include War Eagle Mill and Blue Spring Heritage Center in Northwest Arkansas. Both were the locations of important water mills destroyed during the war. The famed Elkhorn Tavern at Pea Ridge battlefield in Benton County was also destroyed by guerrillas the year after the battle. The present structure was rebuilt on the ruins after the war ended. To learn more, please follow these links:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Battle of Jenkins' Ferry, Arkansas - Capt. John Whiteford's letter to his wife

Jenkins' Ferry State Park
The letters of Captain John Whiteford, a Southern Unionist who commanded Company I, 1st Arkansas Infantry (U.S.) during the Camden Expedition of the Red River Campaign, reveal a great deal about the tribulations of a Southern family that fled north during the Civil War.

Whiteford was a resident of Texas when that state left the Union in 1861. Leaving his wife "among strangers" at Fort Riley in Kansas, he enlisted in the Union army. In September of 1863, he was appointed as the captain of Company I, 1st Arkansas (U.S.). In this capacity he served first in Sebastian County, but went on to fight in the Camden Expedition.

Saline River at Jenkins' Ferry Battlefield
On April 30, 1864, Whiteford was among the Union officers and soldiers who threw back the bloody attacks of Confederate forces at the Battle of Jenkins' Ferry on the Saline River near Sheridan, Arkansas. Under the command of General Kirby Smith, Southern troops tried to destroy the retreating Union army as it crossed the flooded Saline River at Jenkins Ferry. The attacks, however, were not well coordinated and the Federals escaped after inflicting heavy casualties on the Confederates.

Whiteford, who had never actually been mustered into the service and would later be labeled a "civilian" by the Union army, led his company in heavy fighting at Jenkins' Ferry and described the scene in a letter to his wife a short time later:

Jenkins' Ferry Battle Monument
...The infantry were in the rear to protect the train, and fight the rebels, while the balance of the army were crossing on the pontoon. It was a regular infantry fight. The rebels had four pieces of artillery in making the attack on us, but the Second Kansas Colored Volunteers captured that after the third charge, and then we had an even show. They massed their infantry on us and charged fiercely, but it was no go. Our regiment (Second Arkansas) distinguished itself. The dead rebels were thick over the ground. As we drove them back one man, by my side, was shot, and the bushes and sapplings were cutting down in front of me and bark and dirt thrown in my face, but no ball touched me. Thanks to God, who saw fit to spare my life awhile longer. The musketry was fiercer and more constant than at Prairie Grove. We fought all day on swampy land. The night before we were up all night in the rain in line of battle, and during the fight we were up to our knees in water, and when we had drove the enemy back we had to march on return four miles through mud knee deep. - Capt. John Whiteford, May 4, 1864.

Whiteford continued by describing the actual crossing of the Saline River, which took place at the site of today's Jenkins' Ferry State Park:

...Union families from Camden had to leave their carriages in the mud, and carry their children to the bridge. Men even dropped down in the confusion and wagons pass over them, it raining all the time. When we got across the bridge we had three miles more of such mud. Such a sight of women and children crying, and horses and mules dying, and wagons abandoned, I never saw. The rebels came to the river after we had crossed, but too late to do us any damage. We had destroyed the bridge that night, and all the wagons except one to each brigade. - Capt. John Whiteford, May 4, 1864.

Although the numbers may not be accurate, reported losses at the Battle of Jenkins' Ferry were 86 killed and 356 wounded for the Confederates and 63 killed, 413 wounded and 45 missing for the Federals.

You can learn more about the battle and today's Jenkins' Ferry State Park at

Friday, June 17, 2011

Eyewitness Account of the Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas

Poison Spring Battlefield
The Battle of Poison Spring, fought near Camden on April 18, 1864, was one of the deadliest Arkansas encounters of the Civil War.

Around 3,600 Confederates overwhelmed a force of 1,160 Union troops trying to escort a train of around 200 wagons loaded with corn, supplies and various other items taken from farms in the area. The battle has since been one of the more controversial of the war in the west, due largely to allegations by Union officers and newspaper writers that Southern troops murdered surrendering African American soldiers from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry.

Southern officers, however, attributed the high number of killed among the black soldiers from Kansas as being due to the fact that they would not surrender or give up their weapons.

A letter written by a lieutenant from the 1st Kansas seems to substantiate to some degree the Confederate version of events at Poison Spring:

Interpretive Panels at Poison Spring
We were attacked about 10 o’clock, a.m., and fought for about three hours, when our regiment was surrounded and we tried to cut our way out. We were fighting against ten thousand rebels. The [blacks] fought like hell. We had only 1,200 men but we repulsed the enemy three times. All our wagons (170) were captured. My captain, Armstrong, was killed, and Lieuts. Colman, Topping, Samuels and Hitchcock were all killed.

Capt. Welch, and Lieut. Macy, were wounded. Twelve of my men were killed and fifteen missing.

Wilson’s Creek was nothing compared with this fight. All the cannon were captured. Our regiment is literally cut to pieces. Our loss is three hundred killed and wounded. Most of the Iowa regiment were killed or taken prisoners. Our regiment would not surrender, but fought their way out.

This account, by Lieutenant D. McFarland from Company D of the 1st Kansas, appeared in the Marysville, Kansas, Big Blue Union newspaper on May 14, 1864. It clearly indicates that the 1st Kansas Colored did not surrender at Poison Spring, as many Union accounts soon claimed, but instead fought to the last.
To learn more about the Battle of Poison Spring and see photos of the battlefield, please visit

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fort Smith NHS to host programs on Native Trees

Fort Smith National Historic Site
There is a neat educational program coming up on Saturday (June 18) at Fort Smith National Historic Site in Fort Smith that offers a great opportunity to learn about the original trees that grew in the area and how they were used by soldiers at Fort Smith decades before the Civil War.

Here are the details from the National Park Service:

Native Trees of Fort Smith
Trail of Tears Overlook at Fort Smith NHS
Saturday, June 18, 2011 at 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., Fort Smith National Historic Site will present a program on the importance of trees to Native Americans, soldiers, and early settlers. To survive on the frontier, a good knowledge of how to use various trees was necessary. Program participants will learn about five trees used by the first soldiers at Fort Smith and how they were used in building the fort.

Fort Smith National Historic Site is located in downtown Fort Smith . To access the free parking lot from Garrison Avenue, turn south on 4th Street and west on Garland Avenue . For more information, please call the park at 479-783-3961.

Fort Smith National Historic Site preserves the remains of two important frontier forts that served the United States from 1819 through the end of the Civil War. The post was subsequently used as a base of operations for U.S. District Judge Isaac C. Parker, the "hanging judge" of the Old West, and his force of deputy U.S. marshals that brought law and order to the frontier during the turbulent years after the Civil War.

To learn more, please visit

Monday, June 6, 2011

Fort Smith in the Movies - True Grit released on DVD and Blu-ray

The Fort Smith based movie True Grit was released on both DVD and Blu-ray today and if you didn't see it when it was in theaters, I highly recommend it. It was nominated for a ton of Academy Awards and should have won some.

True Grit is the somewhat tongue in cheek story of a one-eyed Deputy U.S. Marshal from Fort Smith named Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn. In the story, he is hired by a determined young girl to hunt down the man who killed her father. And while writer Charles Portis might have been trying to poke a little fun at Old West characters, he really achieved the opposite. Rooster Cogburn is a larger than life figure who portrays the reality of life on the western frontier much better than Portis probably ever intended.

The story begins in Fort Smith, where Cogburn is testifying in the court of U.S. District Judge Isaac C. Parker, the "hanging judge" of the Old West. From there it crosses the river into the Indian Nations (today's Oklahoma) and takes off on a fascinating journey to the Winding Stair region of the Ouachita Mountains.

Although Portis has said his Rooster Cogburn character was a compilation of different figures from the history of Fort Smith, in reality it seems almost without doubt that the deputy marshal was based on Union army veteran Cal Whitson, who became a lawman after his son was killed while attempting to apprehend an outlaw.

I've posted about Whitson here in the past, but it seems a good day to remember him. He was a hard fighting soldier during the Civil War who lost an eye in battle. Unlike the eye patch worn by Jeff Bridges in the new edition and John Wayne in the original, he covered his wound by keeping his hat dipped low on one side.

He was a well known figure in Fort Smith and rode out to apprehend outlaws hiding in the Nations many times. The U.S. District Court at Fort Smith was responsible for protecting the people of the Nations from roaming outlaws after the Civil War and Judge Parker - who actually opposed the death penalty, even though he executed more men than any federal judge in history - is usually credited, along with his deputy marshals, with bringing law and order to the region durng the turbulent Reconstruction years. Cal Whitson - the "real Rooster Cogburn" - was part of that heroic effort.

The new movie is a big closer to the book than the original, which is also one of my favorite films. Being a John Wayne fan, I wasn't sure what I would think of the new effort, but I have to admit that Jeff Bridges did a phenomenal job in the role.

I've added links above at left so you can order the new release of the film if you like. And if you would like to learn more about Cal Whitson, please follow this link:

You can learn more about Judge Parker and the Deputy Marshals of Fort Smith here: