Civil War Nevada: Commemorating The Fight For The Far West

Civil War Nevada
When we think of the Civil War, Nevada isn’t the first state that generally comes to mind, yet the conflict between North and South had as much of an impact there as it did in Pennsylvania or Virginia.

At the start of the war Nevada was a territory and its sentiments mostly for the Union. Its main contribution to the war effort was the plentiful supply of silver from its mines, but some 1,200 of its men volunteered for the Union. In May, 1863, they formed the 1st Battalion Nevada Volunteer Cavalry. The next summer, the 1st Battalion Nevada Volunteer Infantry was formed.

There were no battles between blue and gray in the territory. Instead the men guarded outposts and stagecoach routes, fought Native American tribes, and freed up other troops to fight the war to the east. Some men decided they wanted to see more of the action and headed east to join the Union or Confederate army.

President Lincoln, eager to get more votes in the difficult 1864 election, granted Nevada statehood that year even though it was well below the population requirements. As he predicted, Nevada voted for Lincoln.

The 150th Anniversary of the formation of the 1st Battalion, Nevada Volunteer Cavalry, will be commemorated in Virginia City, Nevada, May 25-27. A reenactor camp and battle will be staged, along with other living history demonstrations and a special temporary museum exhibit dedicated to the history of Civil War Nevada.

For more information see the Civil War Nevada Sesquicentennial Page.

[Photo courtesy Suzette Eder]

Civil War Battle of Pea Ridge to be reenacted

Battle of Pea Ridge
One of the most important Civil War battles west of the Mississippi is going to be reenacted next month.

The Battle of Pea Ridge was fought from March 6-8, 1862, in northwestern Arkansas. In the first year of the war, Union forces had pushed most rebel forces out of Missouri. Now they moved into Arkansas and slammed right into a Confederate army on its way north to try to regain their losses. In a bloody battle involving some 26,000 soldiers, more than 3,000 men were killed or injured, including three Confederate generals killed. The Union army decisively defeated the rebels. This ended any serious chance for the rebels to take Missouri and was the first step toward the Union capture of Little Rock the following year.

One interesting aspect of the battle was the multiethnic nature of the two sides. Half the Union soldiers were German immigrants, some of whom didn’t speak English. The Confederate side included about 800 Native American troops from various tribes.

The Battle of Pea Ridge’s 150th Anniversary will be held on the weekend of March 9-11 and will include a mock cavalry fight, a concert of period music, guided hikes of the battlefield, lectures, artillery and rifle fire demonstrations, and encampments where you can see how the soldiers of both sides lived. Events will take place both at the Pea Ridge National Military Park and in the nearby town of Bentonville.

Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Oklahoma’s largest Civil War battlefield may become National Park

Civil War, Honey Springs
The Honey Springs Battlefield Park in Oklahoma may become a new addition to the National Park Service, the Tulsa World reports.

The U.S. Department of the Interior said in a report that there’s “potential action” for “support designation of Honey Springs as a National Battlefield Park.” Now Oklahoma history buffs are scratching their heads over just what that means. The Tulsa World couldn’t get an answer. Hopefully that government-speak translates into real action. The Battle of Honey Springs was the largest Civil War battle in Oklahoma, which was the Indian Territory back then. The battle was notable in that white soldiers were a minority on both sides.

On July 17, 1863, a Confederate army was gathering at Honey Springs in order to attack the Union position at Fort Gibson. About four or five thousand rebels had assembled, mostly Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw. More reinforcements were coming, so the Union troops at Fort Gibson, which only numbered 2,800, decided to attack before it was too late. The Union side was mostly black and Indian troops, some from the same tribes as the rebels.

After a night march, the Union army attacked the Confederate position in a pouring rain. The rain ruined much of the rebel gunpowder, and this helped decide the battle. Nonetheless there was enough powder left for the rebels to put up a hard resistance. After a few hours they were forced to retreat, having to burn part of their wagon train to keep it out of Union hands.

The Confederates lost 150 men killed, 400 wounded, and 77 taken prisoner. The Union lost only 17 killed and 60 wounded. The rebels lost control of the Indian Territory north of the Arkansas River. This helped open up Arkansas for invasion and led to a Union army capturing Little Rock that September.

Prominent in the fight on the Union side was the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, a black unit of mostly escaped slaves that was the first American black regiment to see combat when they defeated a larger force of rebel guerrillas at the Battle of Island Mound in Missouri on October 29, 1862. The victory made headlines across the country and helped dispel a widespread belief that black soldiers wouldn’t fight.

The First Kansas Colored Volunteers fought in several engagements in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas yet they aren’t very well known. The justly famous 54th Massachusetts has inspired books, a monument, a movie, even a rap video, but the First Kansas remains largely forgotten. I’ve been sending a book proposal on the regiment around to publishers for a few years now, and despite being an established Civil War author I keep getting told there’s an “insufficient market” for the subject. Apparently the American public can only deal with one group of black heroes at a time.

Here’s hoping the Honey Springs battlefield will become a National Park and the First Kansas will get some of the recognition they deserve. Thanks to Jane Johansson over at the The Trans-Mississippian blog for bringing this to my attention. Jane blogs about all aspects of the Civil War west of the Mississippi and is worth reading.

Photo courtesy farmalldanzil via flickr.

Reenacting the Civil War’s first important battle

Civil War, Missouri, Trans-Mississippi Civil War
The Civil War started early in Missouri. In 1854 fighting flared up over whether the neighboring Kansas Territory would become a slave state. Pro-slavery Missourians raided Kansas to kill and intimidate abolitionists, and Kansans raided Missouri, killing slave owners and liberating slaves.

When the first official shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861, Missouri was already prepared for an all-out fight, yet nobody knew which side it would take. While Missouri’s legislature and much of its population supported the South, its large German-American population and many of its cities and towns were Unionist.

The Confederates made the first move. The secessionist State Guard camped on the edge of St. Louis, supposedly for their annual drill but really planning on taking the Federal arsenal. The local Federal commander, a hotheaded professional soldier named Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, gathered several units of soldiers, surrounded the State Guard camp, and forced them to surrender. The move caused a riot in the city in which one soldier and 27 civilians died. It looked like the war was on.

%Gallery-124755%Then everyone hesitated. Leaders from both sides met in St. Louis to try to salvage the situation. Heading the rebel delegation was Sterling Price, commander of the State Guard, and Claiborne Fox Jackson, Missouri’s governor. The Union delegation made the mistake of bringing Lyon along. The devoted abolitionist had no illusions about the possibility of peace. He shouted at the Confederates that he’d rather kill every man, woman, and child in Missouri rather than have the state dictate terms to the Federal government.

That was that. Price and Jackson took a train from St. Louis west to the state capital at Jefferson City in the center of the state, but decided there were too many abolitionist German immigrants in town for comfort. They decided to gather their forces at Boonville, a prosperous, and secessionist, town 50 miles west on the Missouri river. Soon state militiamen and excited farm boys were rallying to the cause in Boonville, ready to fight the Yankees.

Lyon and 2,000 troops arrived at Jefferson City on June 15 to find the rebellious state government had fled to Boonville. They set out to meet them in a flotilla of steamboats.

While the rebels should have been led by Sterling Price, he came down with a bout of cholera and was home stinking up the outhouse. Command fell to Col. John Sappington Marmaduke, Governor Jackson’s nephew, who had resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in order to throw his lot in with the Confederacy. Marmaduke didn’t want to fight. His “army” numbered about 1,500. Few had any training and only about a third of them were armed. Yet Governor Jackson insisted they make a stand. He feared a retreat would lead to the disintegration of their nascent army.

On the morning of June 17, Lyon landed about seven miles east of Boonville with 1,500 men. Marmaduke, alerted to the danger, marched about 500 of his men to the top of a long ridge four miles east of Boonville. The terrain was good, with a wheat field to hide his inferior numbers, and a house to hide sharpshooters in.

Lyon’s professional troops, accompanied by a battery of cannon, marched along the river road towards town. Soon rebel pickets fired at them, then quickly withdrew in the face of such a large force. The Union troops soon found themselves facing the long, low hill atop which Marmaduke and his men waited. Lyon ordered the cannon unlimbered and the battery sent shot after shot onto the ridge as the Union infantry slowly advanced.

Gritting their teeth and trying to ignore the cannonballs whirring through the air around them, the rebels shot at the advancing troops. Their untrained fire proved inaccurate, and the Union ranks moved resolutely forward. Their artillery knocked two holes into the wall of the house, forcing the rebels inside to run. Marmaduke ordered a general retreat.

A few Confederates made a second line on the top of another hill. Once again the two sides poured fire at each other, and once again Union discipline and marksmanship took their toll. The rebels retreated once more, this time in complete disarray. Accounts vary, but it seems that there were about a dozen casualties on either side.

The first Union victory in Missouri had taken only twenty minutes. The Confederates ran so fast both sides ended up calling it the “Boonville Races.”

The Battle of Boonville had a significance far out of proportion to its size. The Union now controlled the Missouri River, which cut from west to east through the center of the state. The northern counties never got to organize in support of the Confederacy. The river also kept open a vital Federal supply line to Kansas. If the Confederates had been able to hold onto it, Kansas and the loyal territories to the west would have been nearly cut off. While the Confederates continued to fight for Missouri, the prosperous state with its industry and agriculture was never under any serious threat of falling into their hands.

Although there were a few little skirmishes before this like those at Philippi, West Virginia, and Bethel Church, Virginia, the Battle of Boonville was the first battle to have an effect on the outcome of the war.

Now to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Battle of Boonville will be refought. from June 17-19 there will be reenactments, talks, and living history demonstrations. I’ve been to several reenactments in Missouri and the folks that do them really know their history and put on a great show. If you’re in the area, be sure to mark your calendar.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Robert E. Lee’s sword to go on display at Appomattox

Robert E. Lee, Civil WarOn 9 April 1865, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met at Appomattox, Virginia, so that Lee could surrender his Army of Northern Virginia.

This momentous event effectively ended the American Civil War. With Lee and his army gone, the Confederate cause lost hope. General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the Army of Tennessee on April 26, and in Louisiana General Kirby Smith surrendered his Trans-Mississippi Confederate forces on May 26. The last Confederate general to surrender was the Cherokee Brigadier General Stand Watie in the Indian Territory on June 23.

Now a new museum will open at Appomattox dedicated to the war and its conclusion. A centerpiece of the display will be Robert E. Lee’s golden ceremonial sword. Owned by the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, the sword will grace a branch museum it’s building at Appomattox. The museum is also building branches at the important Civil War sites of Fredericksburg and Hampton Roads. The Appomattox museum will open next spring.

The sword was the same worn by Lee during the surrender. Lee famously showed up in full dress uniform with his French-made golden sword at his side. Grant showed up unkempt and wearing a muddy uniform.

The sword has recently been restored with a new layer of gilt that has restored its original luster.

[Image of Robert E. Lee courtesy Wikimedia Commons]