Six Days One Summer: The Confederate Attack on Fort Smith, 1864

Attack Across the Poteau
Attack From Across the Poteau River

Original Artwork by Michael Haynes

When Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, of 1861, Fort Smith was garrisoned by two companies of the 1st Cavalry under the command of Captain Samuel Sturgis. Fearing that Arkansas would secede and that his men would not be able to defend the post, Sturgis evacuated Fort Smith April 23, 1861. Within hours, state militia came up the Arkansas River from Little Rock and took control of Fort Smith. A month later Arkansas officially joined the Confederate States of America and the garrison at Fort Smith became a Confederate outpost. Confederate troops from Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, and even Indian Territory would assemble and drill at the newly acquired stronghold.

Fort Smith was a staging area for the Battles of Wilson's Creek in Missouri, as well as Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove in Arkansas. With the Confederate defeat at these two battles and Missouri firmly under Federal control, Rebel strategy changed in Northwest Arkansas. The Confederate Transmississippi Department would adopt a plan that included the disruption of communication, raids on supply trains, and general small unit actions that would shake Federal control in Missouri, Northwest Arkansas, and Indian Territory. This strategy was designed to draw much needed Federal personnel west, away from Vicksburg and the eastern campaigns.

1863 was a turning point in the war not only in the campaigns East of the Mississippi, but for Arkansas and Indian Territory as well. The Union victory at Honey Springs July 17, 1863 would allow the Federal troops to control Indian Territory and pave the way for Federal reoccupation of Fort Smith which occurred September 2nd. Union General James Blunt pursued the fleeing Confederate forces and caught them at Devils Backbone near Greenwood. The Confederate rear guard turned and made a stand on the ridge south of Fort Smith. The action bought valuable time for the rest of the Confederates moving towards Waldron.

With Fort Smith and Little Rock under Federal control, the Confederate strategy would become a means of survival for Rebel forces west of the Mississippi. Knowing the importance of Fort Smith, General Samuel Curtis ordered a fortification line to be built on the outskirts of the city. Local citizens and Federal troops worked February, through May 1864, digging rifle pits, trenches, and artillery emplacements. Two of these emplacements one the Texas road and the other on the Van Buren road were blockhouses, constructed with quarters for hundreds of men.

As early as March 1864, Cherokee Confederate Colonel Stand Watie, had his eye on Fort Smith as a possible target. Information obtained from a citizen loyal to the confederacy living in Fort Smith helped Watie to decide to eventually attack the post. Resident John Toothman, reported the following in May, "...2100 men and 6 pieces of artillery, they are still fortifying as fast as they can..."

By July, the time was right for the attack. Watie, now a General together with General Richard Gano, a distinguished officer who had been under John Hunt Morgan's command earlier in the war, began a series of attacks and demonstrations against Fort Smith on July 27th. The purpose of these actions was to determine the strength of the Union garrison with a view towards possible reoccupation.

The attack on Massard Prairie was part of a plan to lure Federal Cavalry units out of Fort Smith and defeat them south of the town. Approximately 600 men under the command of Col. S.N. Folsum routed the Federal camp on Massard Prairie and retreated south on the Fort Towson road where two other detachments awaited in ambush. The Federal horses where in bad shape due to the extreme heat and lack of good forage, as a result, the cavalrymen pursued only a short distance. On July 28, Watie, no doubt disappointed in the lack of Federal pursuit, was ordered to attack a Union camp across the Arkansas River. This attack would be covered by a diversionary action on the fortifications. On the 29th, Watie reported that the river was too high to cross and an alternative plan was developed. After retiring to Skullyville on the July 30, the entire Confederate column proceeded to move on Fort Smith. A detachment including Watie's son, Saladin, was sent up between the Arkansas and Poteau rivers. While this detachment fired into the garrison, Troops led personally by General Watie came up the Fort Towson road driving in the pickets. The Confederates helped themselves to a fine dinner prepared by the Federals. Once recovered from the attack, the Federals again showed themselves along the line of fortifications.

Two companies of the First Kansas Colored Infantry tangled with Watie's Confederates from the rifle pits which extended from the Towson road to the Poteau River. A Confederate light battery of mountain howitzers was brought up and was just gaining the upper hand when two sections of the 2nd Kansas Battery, armed with 10 pounder Parrot guns drove off the Rebel battery in 15 minutes of firing. Private Henry Strong, of Co A, 12th Kansas Volunteer Infantry described the action " The 2nd Kansas Battery were soon playing on them pretty lively and forced them to fall back...considerable firing with artillery".

The Confederate artillery fire had been effective, wounding Col. Judson of the 6th Kansas Cavalry but even more devastating was the fire of the larger Federal guns. One shell exploded among the Rebel battery horses, killing three and wounding several. One shot also decapitated a Confederate soldier in Gano's command. General Douglas Cooper's personal escort, under heavy fire, was successful in cutting the dead and wounded horses loose and dragging the much needed cannons away, preventing them from falling in enemy hands. By now, darkness was approaching and the Confederates retreated about two miles south and camped for the night.
At dawn on August 1st, the detachment of Confederates between the two rivers again shelled the garrison continuing to fire at intervals throughout the day. The Confederates maintained a cat and mouse game, shooting into the garrison and then moving to another position before the Federal guns could get a fix. No damage or casualties resulted from this action on either side.

By nightfall the Rebels had disappeared. August 2, Company K of the 12th Kansas Infantry including Private Henry Strong was sent across the Poteau to cut down the trees and clear a field of fire. The action of the previous six days seriously impacted the Federal garrison at Fort Smith. Large numbers of refugees made their way into the fortification line seeking protection and placing much burden on the outpost at Fort Smith.

Throughout the rest of war thousands of former slaves and those dispossessed by the fighting came to Fort smith seeking aid. In February 1865, local citizens, endorsed by the military authorities, petitioned President Lincoln for food and supplies to last until crops could be planted and trade resumed.

Tom Wing

Last updated: August 29, 2017

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