Hometown Battlefields

Northwest Arkansas’ Rich Civil War History

By Will McAllister

With Northwest Arkansas being a haven for thriving municipalities, successful small businesses and plentiful farmers, and with the bloodiest conflicts the world experiences today being oceans away, it is difficult to imagine this area of the country as being the stage of all-out war. Yet that was the case nearly a century and half ago.

Two significant battles of the American Civil War — a war where, until just a few years ago, more American lives were lost than in all other United States wars combined — occurred within 45 miles of one another.

Over 5,000 lives were lost in these two battles. The sites of these fights are now two of the best-preserved battlefields in the nation as state and national parks open to the public.

Although Memorial Day, the day when we remember those who died in battle, this is a good time of year to visit our local parks and learn more about the history that was made in our own backyard. Here is some background on the parks.

The Battle of Pea Ridge occurred March 7-8, 1862, near modern day Garfield, about a 30-minute drive north of Fayetteville.

The Battle of Prairie Grove erupted on Dec. 7, 1862, at the site of its modern-day namesake town, 15 minutes west of Fayetteville. The Pea Ridge site is now a national park and the Prairie Grove site a state park.

Why Arkansas?

Missouri was the reason for both battles. The Union wanted Arkansas’ northern neighbor for two main purposes. One, armed southern sympathizers were a big problem for the North in southern Missouri and two, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant wanted to spearhead down the Mississippi River cutting the South in half and ridding it of waterborne supplies.

The Battle of Pea Ridge

Holding Missouri would secure Grant’s right flank and enable as many blue troops as possible to be devoted to the campaign down the river instead of Missouri and Arkansas. Confederate armies wanted Missouri to gather more recruits from the southern part of the state and assault St. Louis. From there, they could flank Grant down the Mississippi River, regaining the watery lifeline for the South, and launch a western invasion of Northern territory, which would have probably timed just right in assisting the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee as they conducted their own invasion of the North in the fall of 1862.

But when the North lost the Battle of Wilson’s Creek near Springfield, Mo., on Aug. 10,1861, Southern generals thought that the Union armies would not pursue further South, but would stay put for the winter. They thought wrong.

The new commander of the Union Army of the Southwest, Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, marched south from Springfield all winter until his troops were occupying upper Northwest Arkansas. By March he was expecting a Confederate attack, so he entrenched his soldiers on the northern bluffs on the banks of Sugar Creek near Pea Ridge. When the attack came, it was not where he was expecting.

Confederate Gen. Earl Van Dorn had marched his Army of the West to the north and west of the Union position, circled east around Elkhorn Mountain, and assaulted the Yankee supply depot at Elkhorn Tavern while simultaneously engaging Union Troops at Leetown Village.

By the end of the first day on March 7, things looked good for the Confederates. The Union supplies were captured. However the next day, Union Gen.Curtis counterattacked a Confederate troop that was running out of ammunition because they left their supply wagons behind unintentionally. The Rebels had to retreat and the Union won the battle, sealing off Missouri for the Union.

The Battle of Prairie Grove

Nine months later, Confederate Gen. Thomas C. Hindman raised his own army (the means by which are rather sketchy and scandalous), named it the Trans-Mississippi Army, and set out from Fort Smith with the goal of driving Union forces from Arkansas, and reviving the plan of taking back Missouri for the South.

The Yankee unit Hindman intended to drive out was half of the Union Army of the Frontier commanded by Gen. James G. Blunt that was currently occupying Northwest Arkansas. The other half was under command of Union Gen. Francis J. Herron and still in Springfield, Mo.

Due to a minor battle where Hindman’s Confederate cavalry engaged Blunt’s Union cavalry at Cane Hill on Nov. 28, Blunt sent word to Herron back in Springfield to reinforce him in Arkansas. When the Southern Gen. Hindman learned of this, he marched the Trans-Mississippi Army north, intending to intercept Herron, defeat him, then turn around and defeat Blunt. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Hindman and Herron’s armies opened fire on one another on the morning of Dec. 7 just outside Prairie Grove Church, which Hindman was using as his headquarters. The fighting turned bloody and bitter, but Herron held his position to the northeast of Hindman long enough to give Blunt the time to arrive on the field of battle and attack Hindman simultaneously from the northwest. These combined assaults forced the Confederates to retreat from the field of battle that night, solidifying Missouri and Northwest Arkansas for the Union for the rest of the war.

Pea Ridge Today

If these stories aren’t enough to get you to visit these hallowed sites to learn more, those who maintain the parks shared more insights about the parks and battles.

Troy Banzhaf, park ranger and historic interpreter at Pea Ridge National Military Park, highlighted the significance that Native American Culture has on the place. Banzhaf said the Battle of Pea Ridge witnessed the largest group of Native Americans that participated in the Civil War (for the Confederacy, in this battle). The battlefield, coincidently, lies on the path of a northern arm of the Trail of Tears that was traveled 24 years earlier.

On the relevance of the battle to society today, Banzhaf said that a large portion of the soldiers who participated in the Battle of Pea Ridge were immigrants. The First and Second Divisions of Curtis’ Army of the West were entirely comprised of German immigrants, many of whom could not speak much English. Yet they still took pride in their new country and were willing to fight and die for it.

Banzhaf said that we, as effectors of the future, should look at our history, mimic our past successes and prevent our past failures.

“It’s always good to take a look in the rearview mirror and note the things that shaped where we came from,” Banzhaf said.

Along with an accessible and understandable tour of the battlefield, Pea Ridge National Park also offers nature trails for biking and walking. It hosts living history groups from time to time; experts who demonstrate the weaponry and clothing at the time of the battle.

“The cannon blast is quite startling,” Banzhaf said.

Prairie Grove Today

At Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, Holly Houser Cherry, the historical park interpreter explained how the battle affected all of Northwest Arkansas.

“Two thousand seven hundred people died in one day, 600 of them instantly,” Cherry said. “After this battle, the state became a lawless, chaotic place.”

She explained why people should visit the site. “Even though this took place a long time ago, we as Arkansans can still gain so much from coming here. You can still see much of the place just as the soldiers who fought and died here did.”

The park features a driving self-tour as well as a walking self-tour. New interactive displays of the battle, including maps and animations are in the works to help visitors better grasp what took place. Every year, special activities take place at the battlefield, including a haunted battlefield tour around Halloween.

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