Civil War battlefields are some of the most popular tourist destinations in the U.S. The most famous battlefields, such as Gettysburg and Shiloh, attract hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. But there are many other battlefields that are just as interesting but little-known outside their local area. Here are four that any history buff will enjoy. You’ll notice all of them are west of the Mississippi River. After the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, the Union gained control of the Mississippi, cutting the Confederacy in half. From then on the fight in the West was practically a separate war. It gets little press in comparison to the war in the East, but it’s just as interesting.
Lexington (September 13-20, 1861): September 1861 was a hopeful time for the Confederacy. General Sterling Price had defeated a large Union force at Wilson’s Creek in southwest Missouri and now marched through central Missouri gathering recruits. At the river town of Lexington he found a Union force under Col. James Mulligan defending the stone building of the Masonic College on a hill overlooking town. Mulligan had built earthworks all around the hill. Price’s inexperienced troops had trouble taking this tough position until they hit on the idea of lining up bales of hemp, the local cash crop, and rolling them uphill as a mobile wall. Bales of weed are apparently bulletproof and as the fort became hemmed in Mulligan had no choice but to surrender. This early rebel victory proved short lived, and soon Price had to retreat to Arkansas in the face of superior forces.
The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site has a good museum and remnants of the original earthworks. The town has many interesting old buildings. The courthouse has a cannonball lodged in one of its pillars!
Fort Davidson (September 27, 1864): By the autumn of 1864 the war was going badly for the Confederacy, especially in the West. Other than some raids and constant guerrilla activity, the rebels had been pushed out of Missouri and northern Arkansas. General Sterling Price hit upon a bold plan to march north out of Arkansas and take St. Louis just before the presidential election. This, he hoped, would make Lincoln lose, or at least take pressure off the beleaguered Confederates east of the Mississippi.
His first stop was Fort Davidson in the Arcadia Valley in southern Missouri. While some of his officers recommended bypassing the fort, Price wanted to give his troops an early boost in morale and capture supplies. The rebels charged across an open plain into withering musket fire and blasts of grapeshot. By the end of the day almost a thousand men lay dead around the fort, and the Union troops still held their ground. That night the defenders snuck out under cover of darkness, blew up the fort’s magazine, and slipped away into the night. This disastrous defeat so weakened and delayed Price’s army that he gave up trying to take St. Louis. His invasion became just another raid as he made a long loop through the state, ending in defeat at the Battle of Westport near Kansas City. Price’s invasion was the last major Confederate campaign west of the Mississippi.
Fort Davidson State Historic Site preserves the fort’s earthen ramparts and has an excellent museum about Price’s Raid.
Glorieta Pass (March 26-28, 1862): Throughout the war the Confederacy suffered from a naval blockade. The rebel army in Texas hoped that if they could take the sparsely defended Southwest they could march all the way to California. There they could exploit California’s gold mines and trade with the world with little interference from the Union. An army of about 2,500 hardy Texans and New Mexicans headed out. At first all went well and they captured several Union forts and towns, but waiting for them at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico was a determined force of local Unionists and soldiers from Colorado. The pass was narrow and restricted on both sides by steep slopes. The fighting raged over rugged terrain and the Confederates looked like they were going to finally force their way through the pass when they discovered all of their supply wagons and horses had been destroyed by some Colorado troops who had climbed over the mountains and snuck behind the rebel position. The Confederates had no choice but to retreat in a grueling, thirsty slog back to Texas. The dreams of a Confederacy stretching from sea to shining sea died at the “Gettysburg of the West.”
The battlefield is part of the Pecos National Historical Park and can only be visited as part of a park ranger guided tour. That’s a good thing, because the rangers really know their stuff and will point all the important spots.
Picacho Pass (April 15, 1862): During the Confederate campaign in New Mexico a small detachment of 54 Texans rode to Tucson and claimed it for the Confederacy. A Union column of 2,350 cavalry set out from California to take it back along with the rest of the Southwest. As they approached Tucson, a dozen cavalrymen and a scout ranged ahead to see what the rebels were doing. Fifty miles northwest of town they came across ten rebels camped at Picacho Pass, a towering mesa overlooking the northwestern approach to Tucson. There was a brief firefight in which three Union soldiers were killed and three wounded. Three rebels were captured and two were wounded. Considering the small size of the forces involved, in terms of percentages this was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War! The rebels hurried back to Tucson to tell their commander that the Union army was on the way, and they retreated to Texas. The Battle of Picacho Pass is considered by many to be the westernmost battle of the Civil War.
Picacho Peak State Park is a fun day trip from Tucson or Phoenix. There’s nothing to see from the actual battle, but you can clamber up the peak and look out over a sweeping view of the Arizona desert, marred by the nearby Central Arizona Project and Interstate 10. The park has an annual reenactment.
Do you have a favorite, lesser-known battlefield? Tell us about it in the comments section!