Battle of Fort Smith
This view looks from the
heights where the Union
fortifications stood south
down Towson Avenue (the old
Fort Towson Road). - Battle of Fort Smith, Arkansas - Battle of Fort Smith, Arkansas
Battle of Fort Smith
A small section of rifle pits is all that remains of
Fort Number Four, which played a key role in
the Battle of Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Fort Towson Road
This view looks south from
downtown Fort Smith to the
ridge where the Union
defenses once stood.
Union Rifle Pits at Fort Smith
Weathered fortifications are
still visible in one small area
near where Fort Number Four
was located.
Fort Smith, Arkansas
The brick building seen here
was the barracks of the old
fort. The enclosure in the
foreground marks the outline
of one of Fort Smith's stone
The Battle of Fort Smith - Fort Smith, Arkansas
Cooper's Attack on Fort Smith
The success of Brigadier General R.M.
Gano's attack on the 6th Kansas Cavalry at
Battle of Massard Prairie on July 27,
1864, inspired Gano's commander to try a
second such effort just a few days later. The
demonstration in force by the Confederate
troops of Brigadier General Douglas H.
Cooper is remembered today as the Battle of
Fort Smith, Arkansas.

During the summer of 1864,
Fort Smith was
the key position of Union troops occupying
the western frontier of Arkansas. In addition
to the main garrison which gave the town its
name, Federal engineers had enclosed the
entire community within a strong line of forts,
batteries and rifle pits. Although Gano's
attack at Massard Prairie had been highly
successful, Cooper knew he could not take
Fort Smith itself without sustaining great

Viewing the situation from his headquarters
at the Old Choctaw Agency in what is now
eastern Oklahoma, the Southern general
came up with a way of attacking that would
not expose his men to the fire of entrenched
Union soldiers. Instead of trying to storm the
fortifications of Fort Smith, Cooper instead
decided to attempt a powerful demonstration
against them. By doing so, he hoped to snap
up other isolated Federal units outside the
town's defenses, to collect horses and beef
cattle being grazed on the prairies around
Fort Smith, and to create a screen behind
which pro-Confederate families in the area
could evacuate.

The plan called for a four pronged effort.
Gano would lead one force back over the
ridge of today's Fianna Hills neighborhood to
Massard Prairie. A second small party would
move up the west bank of the Poteau River
into the narrow point of land formed by the
confluence of that stream with the Arkansas
River. These men would be able to create a
diversion by firing into the main garrison.
Cooper would then move the main body
forward in two columns up the Fort Towson
(today's Towson Avenue) and Line Roads
that led directly into town.

Brigadier General Stand Watie, the famed
Cherokee soldier who became the only
Native American to rise to the rank of general
in the service of the Confederacy, was
selected to lead the main thrust. The forces
moved into place on the night of July 30,
1864, and the Battle of Fort Smith began at
daybreak the next morning.

Gano struck first, sweeping over the ridge
and onto Massard Prairie. The Federal units
previously camped in exposed positions
there had been withdrawn, but he did capture
a few isolated soldiers and a herd of cattle.
His mission complete, he turned west to join
forces with Cooper's main body.

General Watie, meanwhile pushed his
columns forward via the parallel Fort Towson
and State Line roads, overrunning a Union
outpost several miles outside of town and
driving up rapidly to within view of the
earthworks of Battery or Fort Number Four,
which stood on the height then called "Negro
Hill." The fort stood between today's Towson
and Wheeler Avenues along Dodson Avenue.

The hard-driving attack caught the Federals
by surprise on the morning of July 31, 1864,
and they withdrew hastily back to their
earthworks at Fort Number Four. Cooper
ordered his field artillery forward to support
Watie's soldiers.
It did not take long for the Union troops to
rally. Pushing forward they formed a line of
battle between today's Towson and Wheeler
Avenues and brought up a battery of stronger
artillery that quickly suppressed the fire of
Cooper's guns. The worst casualties of the
day were sustained in the barrages
exchanged by the gunners of the two sides.

His mission accomplished, Cooper now
ordered his men to withdraw. They did so
leisurely, leaving Native American snipers
hidden in the brush to engage any Union
troops brave enough to move forward from
their battle line. The ploy worked and the
Confederates easily ended their attack and
withdrew from the battlefield.

With them they took $130,000 worth of Union
arms and supplies.

The last shots of the battle were not fired until
General Cooper and most of his command
were already crossing back into the Choctaw
Nation (today's Oklahoma). In the distance
they heard heavy artillery fire coming from
Fort Smith. They soon learned that the small
party sent into the peninsula formed by the
Poteau and Arkansas Rivers had opened fire
on the fort itself, prompting the garrison to roll
out their cannon in an attempt to suppress
the sniping. The skirmishers simply shifted
position and fired again, causing the Union
gunners to reposition their cannon and try
again. No casualties were reported in the
noisy exchange.

Casualties in the battle were fairly light. The
Confederates lost 2 killed and 4 wounded.
The Federals lost 1 killed and 10 wounded.

The site of the Battle of Fort Smith was
heavily industrialized and commercialized
after the war and only a small section of rifle
pits has been preserved. The general area of
the fighting, however, can be seen between
Towson and Wheeler Avenues, south of
Dodson and north of Fresno. To learn more,
please consider
The Battle of Massard
Prairie: The 1864 Confederate Attacks on
Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Battle of Massard Prairie
The Battle of Fort Smith was
inspired by the Confederate
success at Massard Prairie a
few days earlier.
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Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
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