The Journal, Fort Smith Historical Society, Inc., Volume IV, Number 1, April, 1980, pp.2-10.
FORT SMITH AND THE CIVIL WAR
Robert E. Johnson
A fort may be an outpost in enemy territory, a supply depot, a key to the control of a vast area, a base of operations, a political football, a gathering place for refugees, or a military liability. During the Civil War, at one time or another, Fort Smith was all of these things. As Fort Smith was the key to the occupation of a vast territory, so this territory tended to control Fort Smith. Each change of possession of the fort was accomplished by a forced evacuation, the only actual attack upon it was little more than a raid, and the only firing on the fort itself was for harassment rather than possession.
In Arkansas at that time the military events controlled the civilian government. For example, troops of the State of Arkansas took possession of Fort Smith before the state seceded from the United States, but the story should begin with the election of 1860. In November of that year the United States elected Abraham Lincoln as president, but in August of that year the Independent Henry Massie Rector defeated the Democrat candidate, Richard H. Johnson, in a very close election for the governorship of Arkansas. Rector had campaigned on a platform of loyalty to the Union.
Governor Rector was born in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1816 but came to Arkansas before statehood. In Arkansas in 1838 he married Jane Field, the daughter of the Clerk of the United States District Court. A U. S. Marshall from 1843-45, Rector had resigned from the Arkansas Supreme Court to campaign for governor.
The Arkansas legislature met in January, 1861, and provided for an election to determine if a Secession Convention should be called on March 4 of that year. While a majority of Arkansas voters favored a convention, the majority of delegates elected at the same election favored remaining in the Union.
The sentiment in and around Fort Smith was Unionist. There were few slaves in Northwest Arkansas and the Washington government was subsidizing the Butterfield Mail Route to the West Coast through this area. Also the Army provided a payroll for Fort Smith. As a result of this sentiment Sebastian County sent Union men Samuel L. Griffith, a prominent Fort Smith merchant, and William M. Fishback, then a Greenwood lawyer, to the convention as delegates. Crawford County sent lawyers Hugh F. Thomason and Jesse Turner while Franklin County also sent a lawyer, W. W. Mansfield.
The election of Fishback reveals the sentiment of the voters. Griffith, Thomason, Turner, and Mansfield were all well known in their communitites, but Fishback had arrived in Greenwood in 1858. Shortly thereafter he received a letter from Abraham Lincoln enclosing a fee and promising to share more business should Fishback move back to Illinois. Sebastian County selected an acquaintance of Lincoln to represent them.
Fishback, a native of Culpepper County, Virginia, went to Saint Louis after Arkansas seceded, but returned when Steele’s Army occupied Little Rock where he published a Union newspaper. He was elected to the U. S. Senate, but was not seated. Eventually he settled in Fort Smith where he was elected to the legislature for several terms and finally became governor of Arkansas.
When the convention met on March 4, 1861, and adjourned on March 21 until August 19 unless recalled earlier by their president, David Walker of Washington County, it appeared possible that Arkansas might remain loyal to the Union. Captain James Totten had evacuated the U. S. Arsenal at Little Rock at the insistence of Governor Rector. Opinion changed, however, with the Fort Sumter attack and the call for troops by President Lincoln. Walker recalled the convention to meet on May 6 and Governor Rector sent the Secretary of the Army a wire refusing the use of Arkansas troops, the quota being 780 men.
The night of April 23, the Steamers Frederick Notrebe and Talequah with about 300 men under the command of Colonel Solon Borland arrived at Van Buren. The Federal Army had anticipated that Governor Rector might take this action and Capt. S. D. Sturgis evacuated the post with all its equipment at 9:00 P.M. Two hours later the state troops arrived and took over. Borland left the post in the hands of Colonel N. P. Burrow and a detachment of state troops. Although General Winfield Scott sent an order on February 22 that no march be made from Fort Smith, he was verbally giving policies to Lt. Colonel W. H. Emory, the commander of the area, that were somewhat conflicting. Later, in writing, Emory was ordered to “if the commander at Fort Smith asks aid **** give it. If the state secedes march all troops beyond its limits.” Although it was April 6 before Emory could get to Fort Smith from Washington, he was able to evacuate Forts Washita, Arbuckle, and Cobb and after Sturgis joined him reach Fort Levenworth on May 31.
Both William Hensley Emory and Samuel Davis Sturgis were West Point graduates, and both became Major Generals in other areas later in the war although Sturgis was under investigation for his part in the Brice’s Crossroads “disaster.” Both remained in the Army after the war, Emory retiring as a Brigadier General, Sturgis as a Colonel.
Solon Borland, a medical doctor, was at one time the editor of a strong democratic newspaper called the Little Rock Banner. In the Mexican War he became a prisoner and his health was impaired. Although he had resigned from the U. S. Senate for health reasons, he later became the minister to Nicaragua and Rector’s Adjutant General. After serving in Northwest Arkansas he resigned very early in the war.
Napoleon P. Burrow was a former State Senator from the 8th District consisting of Arkansas, Desha, and Jefferson counties. He was relieved of active duty when his command was relieved at Fort Smith.
When the Secession Convention reconvened on May 6, 1861, it wasted no time in passing an Ordinance of Secession. Shortly thereafter it created a Military Board composed of the Governor, Benjamin C. Totten, and C. C. Danley to provide some order in the calling out of troops. The convention went further and elected James Yell of Jefferson County as Major General and N. B. Pearce of Benton County, Brigadier of the First (West) Division with Thomas B. Bradley of Crittenden County Brigadier of the Second (East) Division. Of these, only Pearce, a West Point graduate had any experience in military matters. The Military Board requested the Confederate Government take over the state troops and that Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, Commander of the Indian Territory, assume command of the state troops in Northwest Arkansas.
The convention further provided that the arms and stores taken at Pine Bluff and Little Rock be made available to Pearce at Fort Smith. Pursuant to his commission, Pearce arrived on May 16 and took charge of the garrison which now consisted of four companies, two each from Crawford and Sebastian counties. The Little Rock troops of Borland and Burrow had withdrawn and gone home.
Shortly later McCulloch arrived at Little Rock where he was provoked to learn that the arms and ammunition seized at Little Rock had been disbursed “without any method or accountability, and it was impossible to tell what had become of them.” After several days of attempting to set up supply channels, McCulloch was authorized by the convention to draw on General Pearce for supplies with the “understanding they be returned by the Confederate States.” He was also assigned by the Confederate Government an energetic quartermaster, Major George W. Clarke of New Orleans, Louisiana.
When he boarded the Talequah at Little Rock on May 23, McCulloch had with him Albert Pike who had been commissioned by the Confederate State Department to negotiate with the Indian Nations and also a battery of state artillery. Two days later McCulloch and Pike were in Fort Smith assessing the Indian situation in hopes that at least a brigade could be raised there.
Before June 1, Pearce had established a training camp on Beatty Prairie in the extreme northwest of Benton County and the 3rd Louisiana had arrived at Little Rock where they were detained because of a rumor that the state would be invaded by way of Pocahontas. This rumor was false (as was many subsequent rumors of invasion by this route) and on June 7 this detachment was camped on a field near the Poteau south of Fort Smith.
Major Clarke arrived shortly with a large amount of stores and now McCulloch felt he could attack Fort Scott, Kansas, if he had control of Pearce’s men and the Missouri troops under Major General Sterling Price. But Governor Jackson of Missouri requested aid as he had been driven out of Jefferson City and on June 30 McCulloch left Fort Smith to Major Clarke and took a position near Pearce.
Details of the movements leading up to the Battle of Wilson Creek (Oak Hill) and even the details of the battle itself affected Fort Smith less than political events. Militarily the Confederates won a victory. The Union General Nathaniel Lyon was killed and it fell upon now Major Sturgis to lead the retreat to Rolla. Price and his Missourians occupied Springfield, Missouri, but McCulloch failed to harass the retreat. Politics probably made pursuit impossible.
Pearce received an order from the Military Board to transfer the troops in his command to Confederate service under Brigadier General William J. Hardee or his agents. Each unit would be polled and if a majority transferred it would keep its identity and all voting against transfer were to be discharged. Pearce withdrew to Camp Walker where Colonel Thomas. C. Hindman, Hardee’s agent made several speeches to them, but the men voted almost unanimously to disband.
Pearce, of course, opposed the transfer as it actually relieved him of his command. In the Eastern Division of Arkansas the troops had been glad to get competent leadership, but several factors caused a vote that shocked Hardee:
1. It was harvest time and the men were needed at home.
2. The current leadership was satisfactory.
3. Hindman was from East Arkansas (Helena), Hardee was from east of the Mississippi River (Georgia) and the men expected they would be transferred across the Mississippi. Western Arkansas had been on the frontier for more than twenty years and it would be forty years later before Oklahoma would be a state. These frontiersmen would defend their homes, but resented the idea that other parts of the Confederacy were more important than theirs.
This thinking proved to be correct. Within two months Hardee with all of his Arkansas troops including those recruited by Hindman were transferred to Columbus, Kentucky, and never returned to the state. These troops stayed with Hardee who was later promoted to Lieutenant General and was the last Confederate General to be given the impossible task of opposing Sherman on his March to the sea.
General Pearce later became a quartermaster in the Confederate service, commanded Fort Smith at one time as a Major, and at the end of the war was chief quartermaster of the State of Texas with the rank of Brigadier General.
With both Pearce and Price detached, McCulloch found his force reduced below 3,000 men. He was forced to withdraw to Little Sugar Creek in Benton County, Arkansas, where he had established Camp Jackson before the battle. Price refused to join him as his men “would not leave Missouri.” Hardee and Hindman were insisting on recruiting in the Fayetteville area and claiming the arms turned in by Pearce’s troops. There is some indication that the men took their arms home “in lieu of pay,” however.
Major Clarke continued his excellent work. He began to use the wagons that were taking supplies to the troops on the Missouri line to bring back lead from the Granby mines to help relieve the shortage of that metal and let a contract to string a telegraph line to Little Rock as the existing line through Springfield was now useless. McCulloch, however, to the dismay of the Richmond authorities went into winter quarters on November 19, 1861.
That same day the Union Army reorganized with Major General Henry Halleck assuming command of the Department of Missouri and Major General David Hunter the Department of Kansas. On Christmas day Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis assumed the command of the Army of Southwest Missouri. The Confederates were also reorganizing. Major General Earl Van Dorn became Commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department. While Van Dorn established his headquarters at Pocahontas and later Jacksonport, Within a month he was in Fort Smith preparing to attack Curtis in what turned out to be the Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern).
Curtis had been inching his way south so that by the last week in February his troops held Bentonville even though the Union in both Kansas and Missouri were busy dispersing partisan groups that seemed to spring up everywhere.
Pea Ridge was a disaster for the Confederates. Generals McCulloch, Mclntosh, and Slack were killed and General Hebert was captured, all of which caused the Confederate right flank to collapse. The second day of the fight the Confederates were forced to retreat to way of the Huntsville Road. Although some of Van Dorn’s Army disbanded a large part of it regrouped. Pike and his Indian Brigade went to the Indian Territory, but Van Dorn ordered the main portion of his Army to Pocahontas to give relief to Beauregard and Polk in Tennessee. This left Fort Smith without seasoned troops and under the command of now Major N. B. Pearce.
James Q. Mclntosh, 1828-1862, was a Florida graduate of West Point in 1849 ranking last of 43. He entered Arkansas service on the staff of Governor Rector and was in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. His brother was a Union General though not a West Point graduate.
General Curtis had been ordered to go no further south than Fayetteville, as General Halleck did not went to extend his supply lines. Playing the Union version of “move the troops east,” Curtis, pursuant to orders, followed his victory at Pea Ridge by proceeding down the White River to Batesville, eventually occupying Helena on July 12, 1862.
Meanwhile Governor Rector, who was up for re-election in October published a proclamation on May 5, 1862, threatening to secede from the Confederate States to lead a coalition of Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Missouri along with the Indian Territory. Further, he would raise no more troops to be sent east of the Mississippi. Former Governor John Selden Roane, now a General, had been left in charge of the remnants of Van Dorn’s Army, but he could stir no enthusiasm. As Curtis had reported, the people of Northwest Arkansas were tired of a war they did not want in the first place.
Such was the situation when General Beauregard appointed Major General Thomas C. Hindman as commander of the newly created Trans-Mississippi District. Barely over five feet tall with a left leg that was short so the heel of his boot was raised, Hindman was a hard worker with a volatile disposition. A native of New Jersey and a lawyer by profession, this resident of Helena had represented Arkansas in Congress at the outbreak of the war. He was killed by an unknown assassin while campaigning for Congress in Arkansas after the war.
With characteristic energy Hindman began to replenish the Confederate Army in Arkansas. The new conscription law was used to create new units although the establishment of new organizations was prohibited by its terms. Some exemptions were ignored. Martial law was put into effect. Price controls were instituted at Little Rock, Fort Smith, and Van Buren. Troops were promised from Texas and a Missouri Brigade was transferred from east of the Mississippi. Hindman obtained all the state troops from Governor Rector by threatening to conscript them and thereby stirred up a hornets nest.
He also crossed Albert Pike who was in charge of the Indian Territory. Pike, a native of Boston who had received his education at Harvard, was probably the most famous Arkansan throughout the country. He had contributed to many periodicals and was the highest ranking Mason in America. Because of his influence with the Indians he was sent by the Confederates to enlist their support and except for Pea Ridge he had been left pretty much alone. When Hindman ordered Pike to send his white organizations to Fort Smith, he got, instead, a resignation and a stream of long vitriolic letters to various officials at Richmond.
With Rector, the Arkansas Congressmen, and Albert Pike howling, the Confederate War Department acted in typical bureaucratic fashion. They set up another level of command by placing Lieutenant General T. H. Holmes in charge of the Trans-Mississippi Department.
Holmes, 1804-1880, a North Carolina graduate of West Point in 1829 ranking 44 of 46, accepted this command reluctantly. Although ordered to revoke the order establishing martial law he did not. Holmes, in fact, did little other than act as a buffer between Hindman and the politicians in Arkansas and Richmond to allow Hindman to concentrate his energies on the impending battle in Northwest Arkansas.
During the Summer of 1862 Fort Smith became the base of Hindman’s operations. Troops were stationed in Northwest Arkansas in a pattern deceptively similar as the pattern of 1861 so the Confederate Commander continued to build his Army and plan an advance. With an Army built largely with conscripts, he desperately needed a meaningful victory to stem desertions and build morale.
A victory he did not get, however. The Battle of Prairie Grove has sometimes been called a standoff, but Hindman was forced to withdraw for lack of supplies. The field was in the possession of Blunt and Herron, but Hindman claimed a victory because of the way that notes concerning removing the dead and wounded were dated.
Blunt and Herron pressed their advantage. Between Christmas of 1862 and New Years 1863 they led a cavalry raid through Van Buren that captured and sank the steamships that were transporting Hindman’s supplies eastward. This raid captured Van Buren with little trouble and destroyed the steamers Frederick Notrebe, Rose Douglass, and Key West and forced the Confederates to destroy the Eva and Arkansas. After the destruction of these vessels supplies were a problem at Fort Smith no matter which side had possession.
Although Hindman left Northwest Arkansas with a large portion of his Army, Holmes reported it dwindled from 12,000 to 6,000 men during the retreat. He left a legacy, however, in that he had authorized the formation without prior approval of “independent companies of 10 or more.” Few commanders allowed anything in writing if they authorized guerrilla activities, but Hindman boasted of arming 5,000 for this service. When Brigadier General William Steele took command of the Indian Territory Department (including Fort Smith) bushwhacking and jayhawking were common occurrences.
Steele, 1819-1885, a native of New York but a Texan by adoption, graduated from West Point in 1840 ranking 31 of 42. After the war he was a commission merchant and held a number of public offices. At Fort Smith his command was made independent of Hindman in January of 1863.
A detachment of Texans under Colonel John W. Speight were almost to Fort Smith to strengthen Steele when they were attacked by a group under the command of Martin D. Hart. Steele described these men as “Union men and deserters from Hindman’s Army” and sent all of his available cavalry in search of Hart whom he described as a renegade Texan. The Hart band had killed Colonel DeRosey Carroll and E. M. Richardson of Charleston before Captain A. V. Reiff, posing as a Union officer, captured him. Hart and his Lieutenant J. W. Hays were hanged in Fort Smith on January 22, 1863.
All during the Spring and Summer of 1863 there were partisan raids and bands roving the areas around Fort Smith. Many people left the area. Texas was the favorite refugee point and while many of these refugees returned when the war was over some did not. Few of the partisans, or bushwhackers or jayhawkers as they were called, were ever caught, much less executed.
Holmes, realizing the value of Fort Smith, requested that Marmaduke, then near Batesville, attempt to take Fayetteville, but Marmaduke felt too weak to make the attempt. Steele also found that Speight’s Brigade could not be fed at Fort Smith so he sent them back to the Red River for food.
The thrust that captured Fort Smith for the Federals came from the west. Union strategy had been to keep their enemy south of the Arkansas River until the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, to control that river; then try to take the Arkansas strong points south of the river such as Fort Smith, Little Rock, and Pine Bluff. General Steele, who was denied the use of reenforcements from Texas because they were combatting “irregulars” in Northern Texas, was in a quandry. His Indians would not leave the Indian Territory and the Arkansas Brigade under General Cabell suffered excessive desertions when sent into the Indian Territory.
Fort Gibson, now Fort Blunt, was in Federal hands, and Steele, because he lacked artillery, felt it was too strong to attack. For this reason Steele hoped to intercept Blunt’s supply train from Fort Scott and force the Federals out in the open. To accomplish this he had Cabell’s Brigade with him opposite the fort, but desertions in Cabell’s Brigade and the fear that Blunt would move on Fort Smith forced Steele to order Cabell back to within supporting distance of Fort Smith.
Blunt, a Kansas doctor turned soldier, finally came out of the fort after he was strengthened by troops from Missouri, principally Lieutenant Colonel Wm. F. Cloud and his 2nd Kansas Calvary. By this time, however, Steele was short of forage and was promptly outmaneuvered by Blunt’s innovative carrying infantry to new positions in wagons. Steele was forced back at Perryville and then Blunt turned toward Fort Smith with Colonel Cloud’s Kansans in the lead.
Cabell in the meantime diverted a wagon train at Dardenelle headed for Fort Smith to Waldron and sent a train with all the supplies he could salvage at Fort Smith to the same place. His brigade threatened with an attack, Cabell retreated at night from McLean’s crossing of the Poteau to Jenny Lind on the Waldron Road where they met the troops that had been occupying Fort Smith. Blunt took possession of Fort Smith without opposition September 1, 1863, while Cloud pursued Cabell down Waldron Road to the Devil’s Backbone Ridge where Cabell made a stand. Cloud was checked and it looked as though he might be defeated, but when the artillery was brought up and put into action a number of Confederates bolted. In the resulting confusion Cabell had to retreat. The casualties for the Union were Captain Lines and 1 man killed and 9 men wounded. Less than 20 Confederates were killed or wounded.
A week later Col. Cloud scouted the Arkansas River with a skirmish at Dardanelle where he was aided by 3 officers and 100 men who fought him at the Devil’s Backbone. Some 300 men in six independent companies also met displaying their Union colors brightly.
William Lewis Cabell, 1827-1911, was a Virginia graduate of West Point in 1850 ranking 33 of 44. He married a daughter of Elias Rector, long time U. S. Marshal in Fort Smith and practiced law in Fort Smith after the war until he moved to Dallas, Texas, where he was elected Mayor four times.
Fort Smith was now in Union hands. A brigade of Texans under Acting Brigadier General Smith P. Bankhead joined Steele at Boggy Depot the day that Cabell abandoned Fort Smith. Steele began an advance toward the fort. But Cabell effectively removed himself from Steele’s Command by obeying orders of Major General Sterling Price to join with his troops now retreating from Little Rock. Steele also could get no news of General Cooper’s whereabouts and was very anxious as Cooper was meeting with the partisan leader Quantrell. When Cooper and Steele finally met and agreed on a plan of attack, the presence of their troops became known to the Federals. All chance of surprise gone and two large trains having reached Fort Smith from Fort Scott, the Confederates withdrew into winter quarters.
General Blunt, whose name was also his characteristic, had alienated people in high places. Schofield asked about replacing him and eventually did with Brigadier General John McNeil, a Saint Louis businessman and politician born in Nova Scotia, Canada. McNeil was shot at while passing the house of S. L. Griffith. To start 1864, the powers at Washington made sweeping changes, creating the Department of Kansas to include the “State of Kansas, Indian Territory, and the post of Fort Smith” as well as the Department of Arkansas which included the state except Fort Smith.
General Curtis, now commanding the Department of Kansas, was perplexed. He felt the western counties were necessary to defend and supply Fort Smith and he also thought Van Buren was a better place to store supplies as it was north of the river. He did, however, place General Blunt in charge of Fort Smith.
Major General Frederick Steele, 1819-1868, (not to be confused with the Confederate William Steele) was a New York graduate of West Point in 1843 ranking 30 of 39 and remained in the Army until his death. Having captured Little Rock the preceding summer, he was named Commander of the Department of Arkansas. Upon receipt of the orders creating his department, he immediately wired back claiming all troops in Arkansas other than those in Fort Smith. When the War Department agreed, Steele, perceiving a political situation, sent a political general to command these troops, Brigadier General John M. Thayer.
Thayer, 1820-1906, was a native of Massachusetts and a Nebraska lawyer and Indian fighter who had served under Grant until Vicksburg as well as under Steele. After the war he became a U. S. Senator from Nebraska, Governor of Wyoming Territory, and Governor of Nebraska. When he arrived at Fort Smith he promptly began gathering troops for the coming Camden Expedition, but in early February when Curtis visited Fort Smith, Thayer did agree that earthworks be built on the approaches to the town and fort. Later this work would prove useful.
Blunt, however, did not take kindly to commanding a post without troops, and, without going into details, this controversy got so heated that finally on April 17, Fort Smith and the Indian Territory were attached to the Department of Arkansas.
Fort Smith during this time and later was being used as a base for cavalry scouts against irregulars. Thayer and most of his command had gone to aid Steel’s Camden Campaign while General Gano, who had replaced Bankhead, and Maxey, who had replaced William Steele, had gone to oppose it. By the middle of July, however, General Cooper was urging action to retake Fort Smith.
Brigadier General Douglas H. Cooper, a Mississippian, had been agent to the Choctaw Nation before the war and was sent by the Confederate Government to organize Indian troops. He served under Pike, commanding the Indian troops (not the Territory) until the end of the war.
There being insufficient forage in and around Fort Smith to sustain his cavalry mounts and other horses, Thayer was forced to graze outlying districts. With one brigade chasing General Jo Shelby in Northwest Arkansas, Thayer had insufficient troops or horses left to protect the grazing parties. The Confederates had word there was such a group on the south end of Massard Prairie near Caldwell’s on the Jenny Lind Road. Jenny Lind Road at that time was located the same as Old Jenny Lind Road in present day Fort Smith to Louisville Street and extended at the same angle so that it would strike present Arkansas Highway 45 about a mile or so south of the Rheem plant, along 45 to the Circle N Ranch and follow the old railroad to Jenny Lind. Greenwood Road was further east and roughly followed what is now Greenwood Road to Phoenix diagonally across the airport to a vestige now called Old Greenwood Road continuing across what is now Ben Geren Park and Fort Chaffee.
To raid the Union detachment (about 200 men of the 6th Kansas Cavalry under Captain David Mefford) Cooper sent General Gano and about 500 picked men from his command and 100 men from the Indian troops under Lieutenant Colonel Jack McCurtain who gathered at Page’s Ferry on the Poteau after dark July 26, 1864.
Captain J. Henry Minehart, a native of the area, guided Gano through the back roads and between reveille and breakfast Mefford and his troops were surprised completely. Horses were stampeded so that the cavalrymen had to fight on foot. A portion of them attempted to retreat to a farm house nearby but were cut off. A very small number escaped and managed to return to the fort by way of the Greenwood Road. The victorious Gano withdrew across Backbone Mountain to camp on the James Fork. Cooper reported the capture of 124 men, 200 Sharp’s Rifles and a number of horses with a loss of 7 killed, 26 wounded, and 1 missing. Thayer reported a loss of 10 killed, 15 wounded, and 83 taken prisoner, and that he sent a force after Gano, but it returned empty handed after reaching Backbone Mountain. (This Backbone Mountain is between Bonanza and Hackett extending into Oklahoma while the Devil’s Backbone is the Ridge south of Greenwood on the Waldron Road.) Fort Smith was on edge for another reason. Four Confederate guerrillas were to be executed for crimes committed while wearing Federal uniforms. This mass execution of A. J. Copeland, James H. Rowden, John Norwood, and William Carey took place on July 29. In the next two days a largesupply train arrived from Fort Scott, and Fort Smith suffered its only attack of the war which both sides called a “demonstration”.
Early on July 31, 1864, Cooper sent his troops in motion. General Stand Watie chose Colonel James M. Bell of the 1st Cherokee and Colonel William P. Adair of the 2nd Cherokee to lead the charge, Bell by the Fort Towson Road and Adair by the Line Road. Colonel Timothy Barnett with the 2nd Creek was to take the river road and keep and eye on Fort Smith from across the Poteau.
Lieutenant Levi Stewart and a detachment of the 6th Kansas were posted where the Line Road converged with the Fort Towson Road near what we now call the Cavanaugh Community of Fort Smith. When he heard firing from his pickets his men mounted and had a running gun battle back up the Fort Towson Road (Towson Avenue) tothe recently completed earthworks. Both sides stopped to regroup. Captain John T. Humphreys with Lee’s Texas light battery was brought up and began harassing the Federals until they were able to bring up their own artillery. A Federal shell landed on one of Humphrey’s guns and the Indians were forced to manhandle it from the field to keep it from falling into Federal hands. Apparently the earthworks were near Dodson Avenue (Cooper said Negro Hill in his report) while the Confederates probably were able to advance no further than South W Street before being forced to withdraw.
While the main force was withdrawing, Barnett’s Creeks were actually firing on Fort Smith from across the Poteau River but apparently with no effect. The Confederates had 2 killed and 4 wounded while Thayer reported 11 casualties.
Brigadier General Stand Watie, 1806-1871, was a Cherokee born near Rome, Georgia. He was a signer of the Removal Treaty and barely escaped with his life. Reputedly the last Confederate General to surrender, he became a planter and tobacco processor after the war.
Captain John T. Humphreys, a Virginian, came to the Fort Smith area before the war and married Belle Aldridge, daughter of an early Franklin County Judge. A lawyer, he lived in Fort Smith and San Francisco, California, after the war and was the father of T. H. Humphreys, a long time Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
One immediate effect of Cooper’s attack was an increase in Union families seeking to go north. The train that was returning to Fort Scott was loaded with refugees. Families with both Union and Confederate sympathies had left the area and Fort Smith was full of refugees.
What the Confederates could not do by arms, the Federals almost did for them. A Union Reorganization after the ill-fated Camden-Red River Campaign had placed the Department of Arkansas in the Military Division of the West Mississippi with headquarters at New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Commander, Major General Edward R. S. Canby decided that Fort Smith was not worth the expense of the upkeep.
Canby, 1817-1873, an Indiana graduate of West Point in 1839 ranking 30 or 31, was a veteran of both the Seminole and Mexican Wars as well as a veteran of the western frontier. He had held New Mexico for the Union and with it California. After the war he stayed in the Army and was killed by the Modoc Indians while attempting to make peace with them. Canby had been responsible for a study that concluded that the Arkansas and the Red Rivers could not be depended upon and therefore were of little Military value. Therefore, on Decembers, 1864, Canby ordered Fort Smith and its dependences evacuated. General Steele at Little Rock was also to be relieved. Both of these actions stirred up political protest.
The closing order was five days reaching Steele who kept it until December 13 before forwarding to Thayer who received them 5 days later. Thayer immediately began to gather his scattered forces but a large portion of them were guarding a wagon train that had just left Fort Scott. Fort Smith had been an unofficial refugee center for some time and as many refugees were evacuated as possible.
Militarily, the decision to close Fort Smith might have made sense, but politically it did not, so before Thayer could organize, a wire reached Little Rock overruling Canby. That was not the end, however. General J. J. Reynolds, who had succeeded Steele at Little Rock, interpreted, delayed and failed to forward the Washington orders to Thayer until an exasperated General Halleck wired Thayer directly through both Little Rock and Fayetteville to remain in or reoccupy Fort Smith.
Joseph Jones Reynolds, 1822-1899, was a Kentucky graduate of West Point in 1843 ranking 10 of 39. He resigned from the Army to teach at Washington University of Saint Louis and become a partner with his brother in the grocery business. After the war he remained in the Army until a court martial looked into his conduct of the campaign against Crazy Horse when he resigned.
Politics also decreed that General Thayer be relieved. He had commanded during the period of most drastic short supply that the fort and the surrounding area had ever known. At least his subordinate commanders and quartermasters were being accused of speculations and manipulation of supplies. Although Thayer had allowed the destitute civilians to receive rations from the commissary further action was needed.
On February 14, 1865, Brigadier General Cyrus Bussey relieved Thayer. Bussey was extremely fortunate. With the help of General Reynolds he set up a rotation system so that all units stationed at Fort Smith would be replaced. The river was navigable more often than at any time during the war. So many steamships were at Fort Smith that Bussey was able to allow merchants to have goods shipped to their private accounts. Best of all, the last Confederate raid along the Arkansas River had been made by Colonel Brooks before Bussey assumed command. The status of Fort Smith was to change once more as the Confederates laid down their arms.
1. William Steele and Fred Steele were distant cousins through John Steel, a founder of Hartford, Connecticut.