Saturday, September 25, 2010

Hard Times near Fort Smith, Arkansas

Today the “tour” of dangerous, disease ridden places in the trans-Mississippi continues. I can’t help but notice that the topic of disease is not often discussed in blogs, and yet many Civil War soldiers had more days of sickness than days spent in combat.

I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m picking on Arkansas in this series, but a place in Arkansas is again the topic. While Confederate soldiers suffered at Camp Nelson in the latter part of 1862, southerners also experienced a biological disaster in encampments near Fort Smith. Dr. William L. Shea in his award-winning, Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (2009) details conditions in an area where soldiers from Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas camped. Shea quotes a Texan named John C. Williams who wrote that his encampment near Fort Smith “was the ‘unhealthiest camp we were placed in during the war’” (p. 83). Men died of typhoid, dysentery, and various camp illnesses in the Arkansas River Valley. Shea estimates that as a result of disease at these encampments “the loss of manpower could not have been less than a brigade” (p. 84).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Confederate Monument in Kansas

While recently visiting the Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site near Pleasanton, Kansas, I saw the “first and only Confederate monument in the state of Kansas” according to the interpretive walking trail brochure. According to the brochure the monument was dedicated in 2004 by the “Kansas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.” Here is a photograph of the monument:

In 2005, the “Kansas Division of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War” funded and constructed the Benteen Footbridge which allows visitors walking on the interpretive trail to reach the main ford across Mine Creek.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

“…the spectacle is probably without a parallel in the war.”

Cavalryman William Forse Scott of the 4th Iowa Veteran Volunteer Cavalry wrote that in reference to the great charge by Union troopers at the Battle of Mine Creek on 25 October 1864. This battle (also known as the Battle of the Osage, or the Battle of the Marais des Cygnes, or the Battle of Little Osage) was fought in Kansas near the conclusion of General Sterling Price’s raid into Missouri. It is considered to be one of the largest cavalry battles of the conflict, and certainly it ranks as a battle with one of the most lopsided outcomes.

On Labor Day weekend, my mom and I went on a day trip to the Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site which is near Pleasanton, Kansas. A small visitor’s center is on the battle site, and I spent a pleasant hour or so walking an interpretive trail. According to their website, the Mine Creek Battlefield Foundation has been successful in acquiring an additional 210 acres of battlefield property.

Two brigades of well armed Union troopers managed to catch two John F. Fagan’s and John S. Marmaduke’s cavalry divisions as they attempted to guard a ford being used by a supply train crossing Mine Creek. Union cavalrymen, according to Scott, charged across “ground [that] was entirely open and covered with prairie grass” (p. 332). The sight must have indeed been a “spectacle” as reported by Scott. Here is a photograph of the open field looking from the Confederate position toward the Union lines:

It is not difficult to imagine a cavalry charge across that field!

According to the interpretive walking trail brochure, the Confederate force suffered approximately 1,160 casualties (260 estimated killed, 300 estimated wounded, and 600 estimated captured) out of about 7,000 men present. Some Confederate prisoners were executed by Union troopers because they were wearing Union uniforms. The Union force numbered about 2,800 men and suffered a grand total of 90 casualties (8 killed, 80 wounded, and 2 missing).

The main source for this battle remains Lumir F. Buresh’s book, October 25th and The Battle Of Mine Creek, first published in 1977 and reprinted by the Mine Creek Battlefield Foundation in 2000.

Note: The quotes from William Forse Scott are from his book, The Story Of A Cavalry Regiment: The Career Of The Fourth Iowa Veteran Volunteers: From Kansas to Georgia, 1861-1865 (1893; reprinted Iowa City: Camp Pope Bookshop, 1992).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Disease and Helena, Arkansas

If Camp Nelson was one of the worst places for Confederate soldiers in the trans-Mississippi, then Helena, Arkansas, must have been close to the equivalent for Union soldiers. One of my favorite Union memoirs is Leander Stillwell’s, The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (1920). Stillwell spent some time at Helena, and here are some of his comments about conditions there:

“We [the 61st Illinois Infantry] arrived at Helena, Arkansas, on July 31st [1863], debarked and went into camp near the bank of the river, about two miles below the town. There were no trees in our camp except a few cottonwoods; the ground on which we walked, sat, and slept, was, in the main, just a mass of hot sand, and we got water for drinking and cooking purposes from the Mississippi river….I never understood why we were not allowed to camp in the woods west of the town. There was plenty of high, well-shaded space there, and we soon could have sunk wells that would have furnished cool, palatable water. But this was not done, and the regiment remained for about two weeks camped on the river bank, in the conditions above described. A natural result was that numbers of the men were prostrated by malarial fever, and this time I happened to be one of them (p. 150).” Stillwell then wrote about his severe illness and concluded “…the situation in those Helena hospitals was unusual and abnormal. The water was bad, our food was no good and very unsatisfactory, and the conditions generally were simply wretched. I am not blaming the military authorities. They doubtless did the best they could” (p. 154).

Andrew McIlwaine Bell in Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course Of The American Civil War notes that two Union regiments in particular had a rough time at Helena. The 6th Minnesota Infantry left Cairo, Illinois, in June 1864 with “900 healthy soldiers” but “by September only 144 men were fit enough to fight” (p. 93). The men were afflicted mostly by malaria as well as dysentery as they wasted away in Helena. Altogether 165 of the 6th Minnesota died of disease, but I do not know how many of these men perished at Helena; by contrast, 12 men of the 6th Minnesota died as a result of combat. But the most appalling record of deaths by disease regards the 56th U. S. Colored Infantry. This regiment was organized in the spring of 1864 and spent most of their career in the Helena area. Altogether 649 soldiers of the 56th U. S. Colored Infantry died of disease and 25 died as a result of combat. These are shocking numbers—it would be interesting to know why officials did not pull these units out of the area.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Latest Threat at Gettysburg

Rarely do I get on the proverbial soapbox or drift from the main theme of this blog, but I am concerned about a developer’s plans to construct a casino only one-half mile from the Gettysburg National Military Park. The battlefield is truly one of the most hallowed places in American history for a number of reasons; earlier this year I was one of 278 American historians who signed onto a letter sent by the Civil War Preservation Trust to Gregory Fajt, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, urging the rejection of the casino proposal. The Civil War Preservation Trust has an excellent nine minute video about the casino threat on their website. This film, with its all-star "cast," does not just focus on Gettysburg but also explains the rationale for preserving our nation’s historic places.