Friday, July 8, 2011

Murder at Massard Prairie - July 27, 1864

Massard Prairie
The 27th of this month will mark the 147th anniversary of the Battle of Massard Prairie, a remarkable cavalry battle fought at Fort Smith in July of 1864.

One of the little known aspects of this engagement is the alleged murder of Southern deserters that took place as Confederate troops stormed down the mountain from what is now the Fianna Hills subdivision onto the prairie in the first stages of their attack on the Union camp on the prairie.

The target of the Southern attack was the "Diamond" or "Picnic Grove" on Massard Prairie. An area of large trees on the otherwise open prairie, the grove was the site of a camp then occupied by a battalion from the 6th Kansas Cavalry along with several companies of the short-lived 4th Arkansas (U.S.).

As the Federals were about to discover, they were in a dangerously exposed position. They had been sent there to protect the herd of horses being grazed on the prairie and until the morning of July 27, 1864, were living a fairly good existence out on the prairie.  A small stream flowed through their camp, providing good water, and the Union soldiers routinely raided area farms for beef and other foodstuffs.

Massard Prairie Battlefield Park
Some of these farms also provided food and other supplies to Confederate deserters. And to their misfortune, a group of these men had come in from the hills south of Fort Smith that morning to obtain food at the homes of John Barnes and Flem Johnson. These houses were located on the southern end of the prairie. Fifteen year old Joseph Barnes, a nephew of John Barnes, later described his first sight of the Confederate cavalrymen coming down the mountain onto the prairie. He had been sent out to keep lookout while a group of deserters got breakfast at the house:

...While they were getting breakfast, I saw a string of Rebels coming down the hill on the [South] side of the field. I ran to my uncle and said, "I see a bunch of Rebels coming yonder." They men made a break for the brush. Jonathan Glenn ran up the road to the West to cut into the brush and, as he did not see some of the Rebels, they got him. The others got away.

The soldiers seen by Barnes were members of Folsom's Choctaw Brigade. As their homes and farms had been severely looted during Union raids the previous winter, they were not kindly disposed towards Federal soldiers or Southern sympathizers.  As one group swarmed around the Barnes house, a second detachment rode on to the nearby home of Flem Johnson, who "had the pneumonia and was expected by everyone to die."

According to Joseph Barnes, the soldiers found Johnson in bed and too sick to run from them. His account states simply that, "Rebels carried Flem out of his bed in the house and set him up against a tree and shot him to death."

The fates of the other men captured in and around the houses that morning are not known. Having quickly carried out the events described by Barnes, the Choctaws joined the main body of Folsom's column, which had been ordered to sweep around to the right and strike the east side of the Union camp at the Picnic Grove.

If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Massard Prairie, please consider my book on the engagement (also available in Amazon Kindle format at a reduced price). You can also read more at

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