Civil War Battles
State War Records
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The Battle of Massard Prairie was described as a “brilliant and dashing affair” in Confederate reports. Led by Brig. Gen. R.M. Gano, a former member of Confederate “Thunderbolt” Col. John Hunt Morgan’s corps of officers, some 600 Confederate soldiers – both white and Native American – swept down on the camp of the 6th Kansas Cavalry. When the intense fight was done, Gano and his men had achieved a telling victory. But there is more to the story of Massard Prairie than the simple tale of a small, albeit highly successful, Confederate victory.
The chain of events leading to the battle developed quickly in late July 1864. A significant body of Confederate troops was then operating in Indian Territory just west of the Arkansas border garrison town of Fort Smith. The commander of this force, Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Cooper, learned from scouts that several bodies were camped in isolated positions around Fort Smith. Deciding to launch an immediate attack, Cooper ordered Gano and 500 of his men to be ready to move by 3:00 P.M. on the afternoon of July 26.
Cooper’s original plan was much more elaborate than that actually undertaken. Expecting to be reinforced by strong bodies of Native American troops, he hoped that Col. S.N. Folsom with the 1st and 2nd Choctaw Regiments would attack a Union camp south of Fort Smith at Caldwell’s on the Jenny Lind Road. If pursued by reinforcements coming from Fort Smith or a second camp on Massard Prairie, Folsom was to retreat back down the Fort Towson road to the western end of Devil’s Backbone, a rugged east-west mountain ridge visible in the distance from Fort Smith.
There, Cooper ordered another body of Choctaws, under Lt. Col. Jack McCurtain, to prepare an ambush and wait for Folsom’s retreat. If the Federals pursued that far, Folsom would join forces with McCurtain and surprise them along the rocky slopes of the ridge. Meanwhile, a third Confederate force, Gano’s 500 men, would come in behind the Federals from a hidden position and attack them from the rear.
It was an inspired plan, but the Choctaw units failed to show with as many men as expected. Taking advantage of a discretionary section of his orders, Gano changed Cooper’s plan and decided upon a sudden descent on the unsuspecting Union camp on Massard Prairie. This Union camp, occupied by 4 companies of the 6th Kansas Cavalry, lay in an open grove of trees along a small stream. The camp was arranged by company around a central parade ground and mess area. They had evidently picked the position because it offered access to water and tree shade adjacent to the extensive prairie where they were grazing a herd of horses.
The Confederates, led in person by Gano, moved into position during the night of July 26 and swept down on the Union camp at sunrise on July 27. The Union soldiers, according to 1st Lt. Jacob Morehead of the 6th Kansas, were going about their normal routine when the Confederate cavalry swept into sight:
" …As soon as the alarm was given that the enemy was in the prairie, which was about 6 a.m., I sent immediately for the herd, which had been out grazing since daylight, and was about three quarters of a mile southwest of camp. I formed my men on the right of camp to protect my herd as it came in and until it could be secured, but before the horses could be brought up the enemy charged on us, which stampeded the herd and left the men on foot to fight as best they could."
Gano’s strategy worked perfectly. Driving directly for the Union camp from the southwest with one wing of his force, he moved a second body of his men around to the right to launch another attack. The result was that as the attack got underway, the Union soldiers were forced to fight as individual companies and units against larger bodies of charging Confederates. Various Union officers described how they formed the men immediately around them and made individual stands as they heard the firing erupt along the picket line. Perhaps the best fight of the morning was put up by the men of Company B, 6th Kansas, who repulsed “three distinct charges” against the right flank of the Union line before giving way.
The company’s commander, Morehead, reported that after finding he would be unable to protect the herd, he ordered his men to fall back until they could form on the right of the other 3 companies. Once he had taken this position, the Confederates continued to come at him and he and his men fought bravely until they realized that the rest of the Union line had collapsed and was falling back across the prairie.
Without any orders and no other course of action available, Morehead and his men began to fall back as well. The fight, which had not gone well for the Union force since the start, now turned into chaos. Driven for some 2 1/2 miles across the prairie, the Union soldiers began to either surrender or were surrounded and captured. Of the 200 Union soldiers in camp when the battle began, 10 were killed, 17 wounded, and 117 men were captured. The Confederates reported the capture of 200 Sharps rifles, 400 six-shooter pistols, horses, sutler’s stores, camp equipment, and more.
One of the Confederates killed was the Choctaw minister Tiok-homma or Red Pine. He was praised for his courage in Cooper’s highly unique report of the affair.
Tiok-homma’s body, along with those of the other Confederate dead, was left on the ground at the battlefield. An eyewitness to the battle later described watching Union Cherokee reinforcements arrive at the scene of the battle and scalp the Confederate dead, probably including Tiok-homma. The bodies were then buried in a trench on the battlefield, the location of which has since been lost.
The Confederates withdrew quickly after the battle and although the Federals reported that they made a pursuit, it could not have been too enthusiastic because they turned back before running into Cooper’s planned ambush at Devil’s Backbone.
For a small battle, the engagement at Massard Prairie was significant for a number of reasons. First, it was a clear Confederate victory and most of the recorded skirmishes and battles fought in western Arkansas were not. Second, although Pea Ridge is usually remembered for the participation of Native American troops, they played a much more significant role in the Battle of Massard Prairie. Third, the Confederate reports of Massard Prairie are unique for their mention and high praise of the Choctaw minister Tiok-homma. And fourth, Massard stands out because it offers one of the very few accounts of actual scalpings in a Civil War battle.