From August 9-11, I had the opportunity to attend a terrific conference at the University of Arkansas’ Global Campus, which is located in the heart of downtown Fayetteville. The conference, titled “An Empire in Extent,” examined the too-often neglected Trans-Mississippi theatre of the Civil War. The gathering of scholars and history buffs featured many fine speakers, among them Civil War household names such as William C. Davis, Steven Woodworth, and Daniel Sutherland.
The talks covered such diverse topics as the Confederacy’s doomed invasion of the New Mexico territory, African Americans and emancipation in the West, Hispanics in the antebellum period, Native Americans in the Rebel war effort, guerrilla warfare, Reconstruction, and the role Missouri played in the conflict. I’m sure I left other things out.
The conference included a National Park Service tour on Friday at the Pea Ridge (also known as Elkhorn Tavern) battlefield, roughly 40 minutes north of Fayetteville by car. I was impressed by the sheer size of the battlefield, which seemed to me as big as Gettysburg, though the battle at Pea Ridge involved far fewer men and casualties. Luckily, Pea Ridge has not faced the problem of urban sprawl as have many battlefields in Virginia. Nor is it, as is Gettysburg, cluttered with monuments.
The last battlefield I visited, Gaines’ Mill, which is just outside Richmond, took only about twenty minutes to walk through. To walk the entire Pea Ridge battlefield, however, would involve a hike of several miles. Instead, on Friday, we traveled by bus. At one point in the tour, we had a spectacular view of the battlefield from a rotunda, just above an outcropping of rocks, where Confederates had taken cover from the Yankee artillery during the battle (only to be torn apart by splintering rocks as well as shrapnel). We didn’t see any explosions, though we did see some deer.
Pea Ridge was one of the most important battles west of the Mississippi. On 7-8 March 1862, the Federals defeated a larger Confederate force (one of the myths of the war is that Confederates were always outnumbered; fact is, though the Confederacy had less than half the North’s population, its armies on average were 2/3 the size of northern ones). To over simplify the battle, Yankees under Gen. Samuel R. Curtis (one of the war’s more underrated generals) took advantage of their superior artillery to smash the Confederate positions.
The Rebels under the aggressive but sloppy Earl Van Dorn somehow had left their artillery behind. Despite valiant fighting on both sides, the Union committed nearly all its troops, and the Yankees were able to drive the Confederates from the field on the second day. The Rebels not only lost more men, they suffered the death of the popular general Ben McCulloch, who was killed by an Illinois sharpshooter on the first day of battle. Generals had a better chance of dying in the Civil War than privates did. And McCulloch was dressed in a black suit rather than a uniform, though many of the men at that point in the war were not properly uniformed.
The battle was the first major two-day fight of the war. And the Federal victory virtually sealed control of Missouri for the Union. Gen. Sterling Price, who fought at Pea Ridge, would invade Missouri, his home state, in the fall of 1864. But he was no more successful than previous Confederates had been in trying to conquer that vital Border State.
In his key-note concluding address, William C. Davis–who has written more books than most people have read–restated how important the Trans-Mississippi was during the war. It’s been considered by many what Confederate private Sam Watkins might have called “a sideshow of the big show.” The battles west of the Mississippi were not on the scale of some battles in Tennessee, Georgia, and Virginia. But for those living in the Trans-Mississippi, professor Davis reminded us, it was the only war they knew. It was a war that at times was more savage than anything happening in the East. Guerrillas such as William Quantrill and his “band of psychopaths” as Davis put it, made war on civilians in a way that makes William Sherman’s actions in Georgia and the Carolinas seem tame. As the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, by Confederate bushwhackers showed, Quantrill apparently had no problem murdering civilians, something Sherman never did.
The war in the far west extended as far as Colorado and the New Mexico territory, and the fighting there is full of colorful events and characters. Professor Jerry Thompson told an amusing anecdote about Yankees trying to kill Confederates by packing explosives on two mules and sending them toward the Rebel lines, only to see the mules follow them back to their lines when they lit the fuses and ran for cover. The Yankees made it to safety. The mules, unfortunately, were not so luckily: they were blown sky-high. No Confederates, however, were harmed.
The Trans-Mississippi will probably never have the name recognition of the war in the more heavily-studied East. However, the “Empire in Extent” conference showed how examining the Trans-Mississippi can greatly expand our knowledge of the war and American history in general.