Battle of Massard Prairie
This monument provides brief
details of the Battle of
Massard Prairie.
Massard Prairie Battlefield
This park in Fort Smith
preserves much of the site of
the camp of the 6th Kansas
Cavalry and the scene of
heavy fighting.
The Battle of Massard Prairie: In Depth
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - The Battle of Massard Prairie, Arkansas
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - The Battle of Massard Prairie, Arkansas
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 described as 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 fight was done, 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 bodies were camped in isolated positions around Fort Smith.
Deciding to launch an immediate attack, General Cooper ordered General Gano
and 500 of his men to be ready 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 to be reinforced by 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 position 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 adjacent to the extensive prairie where they were grazing a
herd of horses.

The Confederates, led in person by Gano, moved into position 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 were forced to fight as individual companies and
units against 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. Perhaps the
best fight of the morning was put up by the men of Company B, Sixth Kansas, who
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 were killed, 17 wounded and 117 (including two officers) were captured.

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 was praised for his courage in General Cooper’s highly 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, the location of which has
since been lost.

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 Pea Ridge is usually remembered for the participation of Native
American troops, they played a much more significant role 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 site of the battle was protected by its relative
isolation from the growing city of Fort Smith.  By the late 20th Century, however, the
city had grown to the area of the battlefield. A residential neighborhood now covers
a small portion of the field and the rest of the site was in danger, but a wide-
ranging community coalition – including developers, industrial interests,
concerned citizens and the city of Fort Smith – came together to save the site and
today the central core of the battlefield has been preserved 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, a walking trail and much of the
scene of the battle.
by Dale Cox
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Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
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