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2014 Civil War Travelogues — Adventures in the Trans-Mississippi: Arkansas and Missouri

Welcome to my 2014 travelogue pages, commemorating the fourth year of the Civil War Sesquicentennial! This report covers my March trip to Arkansas and Missouri. I visited Prairie Grove and Pea Ridge on my own, and then Wilson's Creek with the Blue and Gray Education Society. To see the entire list of my 2014 trips, go here.

Here is a reminder about the reason I write these pages the way I do. They record my experiences and impressions of Civil War trips primarily for my future use. Thus, they sometimes make assumptions about things I already know and focus on insights that I receive. They are not general-purpose descriptions for people unfamiliar with the Civil War, although I do link to various Wikipedia articles throughout. Apologies about the quality of interior photographs—I don't take fancy cameras with big flashes to these events.

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Wednesday, March 26

Greetings from Bentonville, Arkansas! Although I have been involved in Civil War studies for over 10 years, I have rarely paid much attention to anything west of the Mississippi (the "Trans-Mississippi"). Now that drought has come to an end. But it is rather disconcerting for me to visit battles about which I have not written an article on Wikipedia! Please be aware that when I link to Wikipedia articles below, they are for your ease of reference and do not represent my work in most cases.

Today I flew to Springfield through Chicago, then drove to Bentonville, Arkansas. My excursion down into Arkansas Wednesday and Thursday totaled about 275 miles.

Thursday, March 27

Up early for the drive to Prairie Grove, Arkansas, about 40 minutes. The Battle of Prairie Grove occurred on December 7, 1862, so I was actually doing this tour in reverse chronological order. The state park there is very compact, very well preserved. They have an excellent visitor center, named after Thomas C. Hindman, with a 15 minute overview movie. The museum exhibits spend too much time disparaging the Union successes of 1862—totally ignoring the Union's strategic sweep through the Western Theater—attempting to make this action seem more important than it was. Both this and Pea Ridge claim to be the turning point in the Trans-Mississippi. It was really cold (well, actually mostly in windchill), so I did not undertake the one-mile walking trail, but I did do the five-mile auto tour. They had an audio CD for sale, but I did not bother with that. The prominent ridge at the center of the battlefield is very dramatic, reminiscent of Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg. Although there were not nearly as many troops here, the lines of fire and advance over a very broad open field were easy to follow and I consider it to be a difficult position to assault. About the only blemish on the battlefield is that a large high school has been built on part of the Confederate line, but I found it easy enough to interpret overall.

Prairie Grove Visitor Center, Hindman Hall Andy Thomas painting of Prairie Grove, showing the fighting at the Borden house
Prairie Grove battle monument Close-up of the inscription, explaining the unusual construction of the monument
Scene on the walking tour, near the visitor center
The Borden house
View from the Borden house, looking at the Union approach
Field over which the Union attacked, looking from the Confederate position

Pea Ridge was about an hour north of Prairie Grove. The Battle of Pea Ridge was fought March 7–8, 1862. This one is preserved as a National Park and has a very nice visitor center, including a 30 minute movie. There are also two excellent three dimensional maps with light movements to show the action on the two days of the battle. I was disappointed to see that the Battle of Pea Ridge book by my friend Jim Knight was not in stock at the bookstore. That was one of the first books I ever did maps for (although looking at those maps now, I am embarrassed by the relative lack of sophistication in comparison to my current work). Once again, I did the auto tour, but I have to say that the NPS has not done a terrific job interpreting the battlefield in this venue—there is simply too much action of interest that occurs away from the paved roads, and the maps/handout and roadside signs are not all that informative. Fortunately, I had a copy of the University of Nebraska Press battlefield guidebook by Hess, Hatcher, Piston, and Shea, which does quite an admirable job.

The tour starts at the western end of the battlefield, at the site of the village of Leetown, and I was quite surprised to smell smoke as soon as I got out of the car. Hundreds of acres had been burned, seriously enough so that the ground was almost uniformly black, but no other damage to trees or roads or fences was apparent. It must have been a controlled burn of some sort. Oberson's Field and Foster's Farm were completely blackened, but Morgan's Woods right across the road were untouched.

In the Pea Ridge visitor center, another
Andy Thomas painting
One of two cool electric maps
Oberson's Field, burned to a crisp
Morgan's Woods, with Little Mountain in the center background

One of the auto highlights is that there are two overlooks on Big Mountain. The one in the west is not so great, having a viewshed blocked by trees, but the one on the eastern end is spectacular. You get a dramatic, panoramic view of the entire line that the Union formed to attack on March 8. At Elkhorn Tavern, I encountered another surprise. Inside the tavern building, which is a reconstruction, there was an elaborate exhibit of Civil War medical instruments laid out loose on a table, entirely unsupervised by any person. It is a good thing that I am honest, and that the visitor count today seemed to be very low.

View from the Western Overlook stop on Big Mountain
View from the Eastern Overlook. The Union attack on March 8 stretched across most of this open area.
Elkhorn Tavern Medical display inside, unguarded

If you follow the guidebook and visit all of the optional stops, there is quite a bit of hiking around that you can do in this part of the battlefield. In fact, the NPS is woefully deficient in interpreting the battle in this area unless you do the walking. It is about 3 miles on moderate trails, climbing up and down the ridges north of the tavern. I did about half of the walking, mostly on the old Wire Road, out to the Tanyard area. The ridges and revines in this area are really quite rugged, but the path is easy enough. I was concerned about an impending storm (which actually did not come to pass as early as advertised) and my timing for the day.

One of only two battlefield monuments at Pea Ridge Detail
Ground-level view of the area from which the Union attacked on March 8

Back north to Springfield later in the afternoon. The headquarters hotel is the Arbor Suites at the Mall, which is one of those extended stay hotels that have large kitchens inside the rooms.

At 7 PM was the introductory session for the tour. Len Riedel gave an overview of the Missouri situation, starting this far back as 1820. Jeff Patrick, a ranger at Wilson's Creek, brought an hour-long movie about the battle called August Light, a production of Wide Awake Films, the company heavily influenced by reenactors. They have a peculiar film style in which they take modern reenactor footage and degrade the quality to imply that it was done with an antique movie camera, as if Thomas Edison had been present on the battlefield. This was a pretty good film, but I have to say that they skimped on the quality of their animated map graphics.

There was a big thunderstorm with hail while we were eating dinner, but none of the tornadoes that the weather forecast said might happen. The weather was fine for the rest of the trip, although pretty chilly for my California bones.

Friday, March 28

We were joined by Bill Piston, history professor at Missouri State University and co-author of the definitive study of Wilson's Creek. Rick Hatcher of the Fort Sumter NPS, his co-author, was supposed to join us as well, but work duties prevented him from attending. Although the program overall is about Wilson's Creek, we spent an entire day today exploring the Battle of Carthage. This was a small affair on July 5, 1861, which could arguably be called a skirmish rather than a battle. We started with an hour drive to Carthage, Missouri, which is a cute little old-fashioned town with a big traditional town square. Our first stop was the Civil War Museum, where Steve Weldon, who works in the county clerk's office, I believe, guided us through the exhibits. There was a really nice diorama, a number of good poster exhibits, a few artifacts, and a brief movie narrated by the mayor of the town about the museum. The entrance to the museum is dominated by a giant mural by local artist Andy Thomas, which shows considerably more action in the town square during the battle than actually happened. (I do not have a photograph of the mural because it is partially obscured by the receptionist.) In addition to the 1861 battle (which the museum bills as the first major battle of the war), Steve indicated that one of the claims to fame of the town was a connection with the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, but I did not really understand that connection. That regiment suffered a massacre at Poison Springs, but a later conversation with Bill Piston indicated that the town is simply trying to capitalize on race relations issues and the actual connection with the First Kansas is relatively remote. As with Missouri in general, there was considerable guerrilla warfare for the remainder of the war.

Carthage Civil War Museum. Steve Weldon in the leather jacket. Jasper County Courthouse

Next we walked across the street to the Jasper County Courthouse. They had a number of exhibits on display, including some military focused, but most of the Civil War items they had in the past have been moved to the Civil War Museum we just visited. There were some exhibits about Route 66, which used to go through both Springfield and Carthage. A number of famous people were born in the county. From the town of Carthage itself, Marlin Perkins and Belle Starr, the famous outlaw, were born there. We had lunch in the town square in a deli that had a Route 66 theme. Then we spent some time in an art gallery, looking at a number of paintings by the aforementioned Andy Thomas. There was one very attractive one of Ronald Reagan, which was on sale for $75,500!

The rest of the day was devoted to the battlefield. The battle, or skirmish, occurred over a nine-mile road from north of the town to a little ways southeast. We started overlooking Coon Creek, which was called Double Trouble Creek during the war (a much more interesting name). Here we talked about the position of the Missouri State Guard and their rather confusing order of battle. Bill indicated that this engagement was heavily affected by artillery. The Union force, under Franz Sigel, effectively used artillery as a psychological deterrent to the MSG, which outnumbered him; there were actually very few casualties from artillery fire.

Bill Piston at the second battle line Spring River

The next stop was a slight rise above Dry Fork Creek, where the heaviest fighting of the day occurred. Then we saw Bucks Branch, where the third line of defense was located. Then the Spring River, where Sigel had difficulty maneuvering his 32 wagons and troops across a rather treacherous ford with high, slippery banks. Our final stop was the State Historic Site, which is a small park that has a kiosk describing a lot of details about the battle, but no monuments. This was the location of the final portion of the skirmish, and we saw the bluff on which Sigel placed his artillery to dissuade the MSG. The kiosk talked in two places about fighting house to house, but Bill discounted the amount of action that occurred in the town itself.

Back to Springfield, where a number of us had a good Italian meal at Nonna’s.

Saturday, March 29

Today was a long day, all devoted to Wilson's Creek. Even though it is only 9 miles away, in total we spent over 10 hours. Bill started with an interesting statistic: a majority of Nathaniel Lyon's Union force was foreign-born, which seems pretty unique for a Civil War battle. We began our day at the visitor center, where Bill did a map talk orientation. Both of the maps he used were created by yours truly and blown up to 2 x 3' in size. The visitor center was somewhat of a disappointment because they are rebuilding a number of their exhibits, so almost everything was closed, including the electric map. (I love electric maps.) As a consolation prize, rangers brought out some precious artifacts from their museum collection, which they invited us to hold if we were willing to put on gloves. The most interesting pieces to me were: a sash and ammunition belt worn by Patrick Cleburne when he was killed at the Battle of Franklin; a presentation sword owned by Nathaniel Lyon; a telescope and Sharp's carbine owned by John Brown; and three Medals of Honor, awarded to no one I recognized.

Ranger with the collection of museum items Closer up view of Cleburne's sash, belt, and eating utensils
Lyons's sword, Brown's carbine and telescope Medal of Honor

We drove on the main park automobile tour road, but did a lot of additional stops and hikes for most of the day. Bill distributed copies of many of the maps from his book (the one I used at Pea Ridge), which provided a lot of detail. First was the Scott farm, where we discussed the Union approach. Then the orchard, springhouse, cornfield, and residents of the John Ray family. The Rays were relatively prosperous, owning a farm of 450 acres, and he was also the US postmaster. They lost everything after the battle. The house was rather large, but it had to accommodate the couple, their 11 children, one slave and her four children, so it must've been awfully crowded. A ranger gave us a tour of the interior. The most interesting artifact was the bed on which they laid the body of the deceased Nathaniel Lyon. One can imagine what the wounded soldiers thought about lying on the floor while the body of their dead general was taking up the bed.

Ray House Ray's spring house
View of Bloody Hill from the Ray cornfield
Bed where Lyons's body was laid

Next we visited the side of the Pulaski Battery, which Bill opined was actually misplaced, and should have been located a little farther to the north. I was surprised to hear that there is been no archaeological research to determine such issues. Although the battery had four 6-pounder smoothbores, for some reason the National Park Service decided to represent them with a single rifled Napoleon. Next we visited the Edwards cabin, obtaining a good view of Bloody Hill. We lamented the growth of trees that have obscured a lot of the famous hill, but Bill explained that the Park Service is reluctant to cut down some of those non-historic trees because of endangered species concerns. This cabin was Sterling Price's headquarters, and here we heard about the MSG being rousted out of their nearby camps and sent up the hill. The Confederate attack was across a wide front, en echelon, sweeping considerably west of the park boundary.

Len and Bill at Pulaski's Battery
Edwards Cabin and partial view of Bloody Hill

We crossed over some shallow water in Skaggs Branch, and I slipped on a slippery spot and almost did a face plant. At the Sharpe farm site, we discussed the actions of Sigel that morning—his secretive approach into the Confederate rear and his attack and retreat. Bill was quite critical about his lack of use of his cavalry resources to perform reconnaissance, or to disrupt the Confederate rear area. At Guibor's Battery (pronounced Gabor), we had a good view from the Confederate perspective of the attack against Bloody Hill. We then walked up to the top of the hill, which was not a significant climb, but it was covered with brambles or other things with stickers on them (my wife told me afterward that she suspected they were raspberries) that caused a bit of discomfort. We walked to the Nathaniel Lyon Monument, which is quite modest, and is the only monument anywhere on the battlefield. Bill said that it is misplaced, and that Lyon was killed closer to the top of the hill. He surmises that the location of the monument was actually the place that Lyon's horse was killed earlier in the battle.

The treacherous crossing of Skaggs Branch
View from the top of Bloody Hill, looking southeast
Lyons Memorial

We stopped at "The Sinkhole" in which a number of soldiers are buried. (Bill amused me by using the expression "burying the wounded" a number of times.) We used this opportunity to discuss medical care at the battle. I was interested to hear that they used the triage system, because I had been under the impression that that was an innovation introduced by Jonathan Letterman the following year.

We left the official boundaries of the park by crossing the highway known as ZZ. (We went to the top of the hill, so it was pointed out that we were at ZZ Top.) Bill told us that the US Congress did not want to create a park that had a highway running through the middle of it, so they chopped off a large area of important assaults on Bloody Hill, everything to the west of Highway ZZ, a decision that ignored a recommendation by Ed Bearss. We discussed the Confederate assaults in this area, and did a bit of driving around to see the Union line, which bent back in some places about parallel to ZZ.

Outside the park boundary, the view from the Union line on Bloody Hill looking south
Also outside, the view of Bloody Hill from the south. Highway ZZ is approximately the park boundary.

Then we went farther field to visit the Battle of Dug Springs. This turned out to be little more than a descriptive sign in the town of Clever. It was a minor affair on August 2, eight days before Wilson's Creek. (It was so minor that even the obsessives at Wikipedia don't have an article about it.) Then we drove to Delawaretown, where Sigel's force was ambushed after the battle. Finally, we drove to the southernmost area of the park, where Sigel attacked the Confederate cavalry camp at about 5 AM at the start of the battle.

Today's tour was really excellent, and kudos to Bill Piston for the great job he did.

Sunday, March 30

A pleasant and uneventful flight back to San Francisco. I had a great time on the Blue and Gray expedition, as usual. My next Civil War trip will be in May, also with BGES, commemorating Grant's Overland Campaign with Gordon Rhea. See you then.