By Dr. Curtis Varnell
The enclave was surrounded to the west and south by factories and industrial sites. To get there, I had wondered off the major highway and through several housing districts before arriving at the small parking area reserved for visitors. One other individual was there, walking her dog through the meadow and underbrush. One little realizes as you walk across the peaceful hillside that the site was once the location of a fierce skirmish between opposing forces during the civil war.
Fort Smith fell to union forces during the summer of 1863 but their hold on the river valley was tenuous at best. Most of the southern part of the state was still in the hands of the confederacy and guerilla and bushwhacker troops roamed the countryside making life miserable for all inhabitants. Many of these men owed loyalty to neither side and were no better than thieves and outlaws. Adding to that, Confederate forces made forays through the valley, collecting food, horses, and harassing the small groups of union solders that were stationed at Dardanelle, Clarksville, Roseville, and Van Buren. Union sympathizers collected around the Fort and ventured out only with protection.
Over 200 cavalrymen of the Sixth Kansas Cavalry were stationed in Fort Smith and their animals required large amounts of forage. As a result, men and animals were sent out into the surrounding countryside to feed the stock and to collect hay. Massard Prairie, although a part of Fort Smith today, was eight miles out of the town in 1864 and was a great site to graze the animals. Several springs existed in the area, the land was relatively free of underbrush and trees, and had enough tall grass to harvest for forage.
On July 27, 1867, Confederate General Richard Gano, having heard of the forage party, rounded up 600 Confederate and Indian troop and attacked the encampment. With their horses out-grazing, the Union troops under Major David Mefford were forced to fight on foot. They fell back to the small hill that is the center of today’s battlefield park. The mounted and much more mobile Confederates soon overwhelmed the Union troops, chasing and capturing them as the fled back toward the city.
Eventually, seventeen men lay dead on the battlefield and more than forty suffered injuries. One hundred and twenty-seven Union troops were captured. As I wander across the hill, I reflect on the life and death of these men. In the big scheme of things, the battle was insignificant. Not even large enough to be called a battle, it goes down in history as a skirmish; a term given to small, violent and bloody clashes of the opposing forces. On the other hand, the men are just as dead, their families just a bereft, and a small piece of our world has disappeared as if it didn’t exist.
What is our history but a chance and an opportunity to look at the past and ask what might have been? What can we learn from their accomplishments and, in many cases, their failures?
A park in the middle of a city? What better place exists to reflect upon our past? We must know where we came from in order to determine direction for the journey we take into the future.