In a series of e-mails dated January 6, 2003, Karen Lawless, descendant of Peter B Irvine, quizzed Ranger Eric Leonard of the Arkansas Post National Memorial. Ranger Eric has a great deal of knowledge of the events and circumstances surrounding the Battle of Arkansas Post, and of the history of the battlefield.
Ft. Hindman, at Arkansas Post, Arkansas, was a Confederate fortress built for the purpose of interrupting Union shipping on the Mississippi River during the early days of the Civil War.
Following are the questions, with Mr. Leonards replies. These contain valuable information concerning the location of the rifle pits, the significance of indentations in the ground visible to park visitor, and the location of burials, both of men who died of disease in the months leading up to the battle and in the battle itself.
What can you tell me about the rifle pits? Are they still visible or under the river? We looked for them behind the cannon and were not sure about what we were looking at. I would appreciate if you could explain to me if they are still visible or not and, if they are visible, approximately where in relation to the cannon and sign about the rifle pits are they located. Thanks so much for your help!!
You bring up a common problem with many surviving Civil War earthworks, as it is not unusual for the smaller ones to escape the casual observer.
At Arkansas Post, the final Confederate defense line stretched from Fort Hindman directly to the west to Post Bayou, approximately one mile in length. From US maps made following the battle and written accounts, it appears that the defense line became more and more primitive in nature as it went westward. The portions closest to the Fort itself were likely finished breastworks. From the center of the line (near the present-day rifle pits exhibit) to Post Bayou, the rifle pits were little more than a pile of logs and brush hastily thrown together. In the day or two leading up to the main assault of January 11, the Confederate forces desperately tried to augment the defense line, and used the cabins of an Arkansas regiment's winter quarters (immediately to the north of the present-day rifle pit exhibit) as raw materials.
Following the battle, the Fort was rendered non-serviceable by the US forces. It appears that little was done to the rifle pits, and they were most likely just left to naturally decay. The next reference to them comes in 1926, when a Little Rock newspaper reports that the local postmaster paid a man to plow under the remaining rifle pits in the area closest to the site of Fort Hindman. In one of history's great ironies, the elderly black man paid to do the work had been one of the slaves sixty years earlier forced to construct them. By 1900 the remains of Fort Hindman itself were gone, a victim of constant river erosion.
Today, there is a remnant of the defense line faintly visible about ten feet to the left (south) of the rifle pits exhibit and cannon. To the untrained eye it appears to be a shallow ditch. Also, from the location of the exhibit, the men of the 24th Texas would have been about 150 feet to the east.
Thanks so much for your reply regarding the location of the rifle pits.
I noticed two ditch-like area behind the cannon by the rifle pits exhibit sign. The first was very faint indentations in the ground that I think is where you are describing the rifle pits locations. The other area was much further back and was an actual DITCH, I think. Is this correct?
You are correct. The faint indentations are the remnants of the defenseline. The larger ditch scar in the area is the remains of a 1930s roadcut that led to the park.
Where were the men buried? The family story handed down in my family is that Peter Irvine's wife sent a servant with a wagon to try and retrieve Peter's remains and bring them home to Texas. Part of the story is that Capt. Wooldridge told Peter's wife that he had "buried Peter's body on the battlefield," which of course could mean "in a mass grave" on the battlefield (which encompasses a pretty large area, right?)
The servant was "unable to locate his body as it had been buried in a mass grave." If there was a mass grave, where would that location be now? And, were some of the men buried in the rifle pits as I have heard "through the grapevine?
You are bringing up one of the big unanswered questions relating to the Battle of Arkansas Post. Following the surrender, US forces stayed in the area of the Post for three days or so, processing the prisoners, taking apart Fort Hindman, burying the US dead, and inventorying the recaptured ordinance and supplies. Within Confederate accounts of the battle it is stated that the captured Confederates were not allowed to bury their dead.
Either the US forces buried the Confederate dead in a mass grave (most likely) or locals did it after US forces departed the area. In any event, it is apparent from available documentation that the Confederate burials were not done in as nice and neat a fashion. Early 20th century account all refer to a nearby mass grave of the Confederate dead, but are not particularly specific as to where it is located in relation to the town site.
The location of such a grave is unknown today, and it is probably anyone's guess as to whether or not the grave site might be another casualty of river erosion or is simply unmarked and undistinguished today.
It's a frustration to me that there is just not a whole lot of documentation on the subject.
One more question: There were at least five men from Co. B, 24th Regiment that died BEFORE the battle on Jan 11 as follows:
Thomas J. Hoskins, Oct. 29, 1862
James Norsworthy, Nov. 11, 1862
John Smith, Dec. 13, 1862
William Walker, Nov. 11, 1862
Tom Wilson, Nov. 19, 1862
Do you know of any documentation on those burials?
This is related to the battlefield burials in a roundabout way, as the conclusion of both issues is the same with the site of these graves undocumented, lost to history, or lost to the river. The hospital complex used by the forces garrisoning Fort Hindman was located behind the lines and about a quarter of a mile to the east in the old town site area.
In the fall and winter months at the end of 1862, sickness raged among the men camped in the area of Fort Hindman. The historical record is unclear a to where the dead during this time were buried. Among the possibilities could have been the first Scull cemetery, located along the river in the town site area. The cemetery site is today washed away, and it is not clear whether or not it was still present or in use in 1863 (I would consider this the most likely scenario, even though the cemetery does not appear on battlefield maps made by the US army - no cemeteries were marked on the maps, including US burial sites).
The current Scull cemetery site, a mile to the north is too small to have been used for the purpose, and is problematic for a number of other reasons. Finally, the Confederate dead from before the battle may have been buried in any number of semi-formal burial places now lost to time, memory, and possibly the river. Like the problem of the battlefield dead, this is a huge unresolved question.
Eric Leonard, Park Ranger
Arkansas Post National Memorial
1741 Old Post Road
Gillett, AR 72055
Arkansas Post National Memorial
E-mail Karen at: Karen Lawless
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