In the southeast quadrant of Fort Smith, Arkansas, sandwiched between a residential neighborhood and one of the city’s key industrial areas, a small city-owned park preserves the core site of a small but highly unique Civil War battle.
The Battle of Massard Prairie was called a “brilliant and dashing affair” in Confederate reports. Led by Brigadier General R.M. Gano, a former member of Confederate “Thunderbolt” John Hunt Morgan’s corps of officers, some 600 Southern soldiers – both white and Native American – swept down on the camp of the Sixth Kansas Cavalry. When the intense fighting ended, Gano and his men had achieved a telling victory. But there is more to the story of Massard Prairie than the simple tale of a small, albeit highly successful, Confederate victory.
The chain of events leading to the battle developed quickly in late July of 1864. A significant body of Confederate troops was then operating in Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma) just west of the Arkansas border garrison town of Fort Smith. The commander of this force, Brigadier General Douglas H. Cooper, learned from scouts that several Union companies were in isolated positions around Fort Smith.
Deciding to launch an immediate attack, General Cooper ordered General Gano and 500 of his men to to move by 3 p.m. on the afternoon of the 26th of July.
Cooper’s original plan was much more elaborate than that actually undertaken. Expecting reinforcements from strong bodies of Native American troops, he hoped that Colonel S.N. Folsom with the 1st and 2nd Choctaw Regiments would attack a Federal camp south of Fort Smith at Caldwell’s on the Jenny Lind Road. If pursued by reinforcements coming from Fort Smith or a second camp on Massard Prairie, Folsom was to retreat back down the Fort Towson road to the western end of Devil’s Backbone, a rugged east-west mountain ridge visible in the distance from Fort Smith. There, Cooper ordered another body of Choctaws, under Lieutenant Colonel Jack McCurtain, to prepare an ambush and wait for Folsom’s retreat. If the Federals pursued that far, Folsom would join forces with McCurtain and surprise them along the rocky slopes of the ridge. Meanwhile, a third Confederate force – Gano’s 500 men – would come in behind the Federals from a hidden place and attack them from the rear.
It was an inspired plan, but the Choctaw units failed to show with as many men as expected. Taking advantage of a discretionary section of his orders, Gano changed Cooper’s plan and decided upon a sudden descent on the unsuspecting Federal camp on Massard Prairie.
This camp, occupied by four companies (about 200 men in all) of the Sixth Kansas Cavalry, lay in an open grove of trees along a small stream or branch. The Federal camp was arranged by company around a central parade ground and mess area. They had evidently picked the position because it offered access to water and tree shade next to the extensive prairie where they were grazing a herd of horses.
The Confederates, led in person by Gano, moved into place during the night of the 26th and swept down on the Federal camp at sunrise on the 27th. The Union soldiers, according to 1st Lieutenant Jacob Morehead of the Sixth Kansas, were going about their normal routine when the Southern cavalry swept into sight:
…As soon as the alarm was given that the enemy was in the prairie, which was about 6 a.m., I sent immediately for the herd, which had been out grazing since daylight, and was about three-quarters of a mile southwest of camp. I formed my men on the right of camp to protect my herd as it came in and until it could be secured, but before the horses could be brought up the enemy charged on us, which stampeded the herd and left the men on foot to fight as best they could.
Gano’s strategy worked perfectly. Driving directly for the Federal camp from the southwest with one wing of his force, he moved a second body of his men around to the right (east) to launch another attack. The result was that as the attack got underway, the Union soldiers fought as individual companies and units against much larger bodies of charging Confederates. Various Union officers described how they formed the men immediately around them and made individual stands as they heard the firing erupt along the picket line. Company B, Sixth Kansas repulsed “three distinct charges” against the right flank of the Federal line before giving way. The company’s commander, Lieutenant Morehead, reported that after finding he would be unable to protect the herd, he ordered his men to fall back until they could form on the right of the other three companies. Once he had taken this position, the Confederates continued to come at him and he and his men fought bravely until they realized that the rest of the Federal line had collapsed and was falling back across the prairie.
With no orders and no other course of action available, Morehead and his men began to fall back as well. The fight, which had not gone well for the Federals from the beginning, now turned into chaos. Driven for some two and one-half miles across the prairie, the Union soldiers began to either surrender or were surrounded and captured. Of the 200 Federal soldiers in camp when the battle began, 10 died, 17 were wounded and 117 (including two officers) became prisoners of war.
The Confederates, meanwhile, reported losses of 7 killed, 26 wounded and one missing. They also reported the capture of 200 Sharps rifles, 400 six-shooters, horses, sutler’s stores, camp equipment and more.
Among the Confederates killed was the Choctaw minister Tiok-homma or Red Pine. He drew praise in General Cooper’s unique report of the affair:
I desire in closing this part of my report to pay a passing tribute to the memory of the Rev. Tiok-homma (or Red Pine, a Choctaw, known among the whites as William Cass), who fell mortally wounded while leading the advance. This brave warrior and Christian had on every occasion displayed the highest order of courage. He served as chaplain in my old regiment, and continued in the same position through every trail, and was also distinguished as a warrior in every battle in which his regiment was engaged until he received his death wound.
Tiok-homma’s body, along with those of the other Confederate dead, was apparently left on the ground at the battlefield. An eyewitness to the battle later described watching Union Cherokee reinforcements arrive at the scene of the battle and scalp the Confederate dead, probably including Tiok-homma. The bodies were then buried in a trench on the battlefield. Its location has been lost to time.
The Confederates withdrew quickly after the battle and although the Federals reported that they made a pursuit, it could not have been too enthusiastic because they turned back before running into Cooper’s planned ambush at Devil’s Backbone.
For a small battle, the engagement at Massard Prairie was significant for a number of reasons. First, it was a clear Confederate victory and most of the recorded skirmishes and battles fought in western Arkansas were not. Second, although the role of Native American troops at Pea Ridge is usually remembered, they played a greater part in the Battle of Massard Prairie. Third, the Confederate reports of Massard Prairie are unique for their mention and high praise of the Choctaw minister Tiok-homma. And fourth, Massard stands out because it offers one of the very few accounts of actual scalpings in a Civil War battle.
For many years after the war, the battlefield’s relative isolation protected it from the expanding development of Fort Smith. By the late 20th Century, however, the city had grown to the area where the battle took place. A residential neighborhood now covers a small part of the field. The core of the site was in danger but a wide-ranging community coalition of developers, industrial interests, concerned citizens and the City of Fort Smith came together to save it. Massard Prairie Battlefield Park will survive for future generations.
The park is still a work in progress, but includes a monument, signs marking the locations of various parts of the Union camp and a walking trail that winds through much of the scene of the battle. Areas of natural prairie are preserved as is the “grove” where the main camp was located.
You can learn more about the “right gallant little affair” at Massard Prairie and the related Battle of Fort Smith by reading the book The Battle of Massard Prairie: The 1864 Confederate Attacks on Fort Smith, Arkansas.
If you would like to visit the battlefield, this map will help you find it: