Pea Ridge National Military Park preserves Civil War history
in northwest Arkansas.
By Lee Stroh
On the morning we visited Pea Ridge National Military Park, a small group of Union re-enactors’ was demonstrating how to fire a cannon just under a large oak tree. They explained how a cannon was set up, aimed, loaded, and fired. The sound, smoke, and smell of gunpowder brought us a little closer to the experience of the Battle of Pea Ridge, which raged for two days in March, 1862. The battle’s sesquicentennial recently was commemorated with a re-enactment.
Top and in title: Pea Ridge was the site of one of the largest Civil War battles west of the Mississippi River. The park offers self-guided tours and a museum. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photos
Battlefields at Pea Ridge now sprout wildflowers. Lee Stroh photo
The community of Leetown witnessed this historical event, and was a casualty of a decisive battle for Missouri. Today’s visitor to Pea Ridge National Military Park in northwest Arkansas, just across the Missouri border, will see little evidence of the town. Nature has healed the scars left on the land with peaceful fields of colorful flowers. Memories, however, linger amid the blossoms and butterflies.
Leetown Before the Battle
Pea Ridge National Military Park is on U.S. Highway 62, about 20 minutes north of Bentonville. The park is the largest intact, non-commercialized battleground in the nation. When you enter, stop at the visitor center for information, including a map for a self-guided, seven-mile auto tour. The second stop on the tour is Leetown.
Access an audio portion of the tour via your cell phone; the center can give you a number to call. Or purchase a CD that explains much of the military history for $13. There also is a museum, bookstore, and a theater that presents a film about the battle.
Leetown was one of the earliest settlements in northwest Arkansas. John W. Lee, a farmer from Kentucky, founded the town in the 1840s. Leetown was located on a broad wooded plateau with Big Sugar Creek to the north and Little Sugar Creek to the south.
The town had a few homes, a church, and a handful of businesses, including Pratt’s General Store, which was used as the Federal Army’s headquarters. A few rows of the stone foundation can be seen on the tour’s first stop. More than 100 homesteads dotted the countryside surrounding Leetown.
Then came the war.
Battle of Pea Ridge
For two days, 26,000 soldiers fought one of the most decisive Civil War battles west of the Mississippi River. The battle decided the fate of Missouri and which side would control the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers. Control of these waterways and their resources gave control of the West to the Union.
As the Confederate line broke down on the second day, the Union soldiers–about 10,000 of them–were ordered to charge. In the end, the Federals lost 1,384 men and the Confederates approximately 2,000 soldiers.
Leetown After the Battle
Leetown was forever changed by the Battle of Pea Ridge. The fields and woods were filled with bodies and the wreckage of war. Some of the families who left during the battle returned to Leetown to rebuild their homes and farms.
However, in 1881, the Saint Louis and San Francisco Railroad built a branch through Arkansas passing through the town of Rogers that is located 10 miles to the south on Highway 62. Remaining Leetown families moved to Rogers for the opportunities that the railroad offered, or relocated to the town of Pea Ridge. Leetown soon became just a memory.
Today, the only thing remaining of the original town is a cemetery with a few graves, including the burial site of a 2-year-old boy, Robert Braden, born in 1864, died in 1866.
Other sights within the park include a re-constructed Elkhorn Tavern, used by Confederates and Federals as a hospital, and portions of the Telegraph Road that stretched from Springfield, Mo., to Fayetteville, Ark. In 1838, thousands of Cherokee Indians moved through what is Pea Ridge National Military Park during their forced march known as the Trail of Tears. The Butterfield Stage rolled by in the 1850s, and thousands of soldiers marched along the road on their way to war. Visitors can see a portion of this historical road in front of the Elkhorn Tavern.
As we photographed the landscape of split-rail fences and flowering fields, we thought about the miracle of time. In 1862, this site was the scene of a fierce Civil War battle that solidified Missouri as part of the Union. Today, Pea Ridge National Military Park is a place for historical reflection.
Lee Stroh is a contributor from Olathe, Kan.
May/jun 2012 Issue
Plan to Explore Nearby Civil War History
Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, located about an hour south of Pea Ridge on Highway 62, interprets the Battle of Prairie Grove that took place on Dec. 7, 1862. It was the last major Civil War battle in northwest Arkansas, and after the Confederate Army withdrew, it was clear Missouri would remain in Federal hands.
Today, historical buildings are located in the 838-acre Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, which has self-guided walking (one mile) and driving (five miles) tours. The Morrow House was a Confederate headquarters prior to the Battle of Prairie Grove. There’s a $5 fee for touring the buildings.
The park’s visitors’ center, Hindman Hall, has a gift shop, museum, and bookstore. Pavilions, a picnic area, and a playground also are at the park.
Special events at this park include monthly spinning and lace-making demonstrations from June–August. The 61st Annual Clothesline Fair will be Sept. 1–3. Explore craft booths with artisans demonstrating and selling their wares. Living history, musical entertainment, refreshments, and square dancing are all important parts of this celebration. The fair is presented by the Arts Center of the Ozarks.
For more information, call the park office at (479) 846-2990 or visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com/prairiegrovebattlefield.
While visiting Prairie Grove Battlefield, tour some of the historical buildings in the Ozark village. The state park also offers self-guided walking and driving tours. Arkansas Parks & Tourism photo