Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park Helps Visitors Understand Civil War

Article follows the photos:
Re-enactors at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park
Re-enactors at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park
Re-enactors at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park
Re-enactors at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park
November 21, 2000


Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park
Helps Visitors Understand Civil War

*****
By Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

"The once peaceful valley, now a field of carnage, was swept with shot, shell, grape, and canister. The shriek of the wounded and the groan of the dying often rose above the din of battle. The Borden Orchard...was the storm center around which the battle raged furiously. Charge after charge across the valley and up the hill on which was Borden's house was made by the gallant boys in blue, only as often to be repulsed by the boys in gray," wrote Charles W. Walker, 34th Ark. Infantry about the 1862 Battle of Prairie Grove.

Markers displaying words such as Walker's dot the one-mile paved walking trail at the Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park. Today, the park is a beautiful and serene setting, a stark contrast to the events that took place there. Emotions easily surface as one takes a historical tour of the area, looking out over the land, envisioning the struggle, the heroes, the wounded, the dead.

"Our mission is to help people understand the war and the battle of Prairie Grove," explains Park Superintendent Ed Smith.

The Battle of Prairie Grove was the last time two armies of almost equal strength faced each other for supremacy in northwest Arkansas. When the Confederate Army withdrew from the bloody battlefield at Prairie Grove on the night of December 7, it was clear Missouri and northwest Arkansas would remain in Federal hands.

The battle was actually named after the Prairie Grove Church, which was used as a hospital by both sides during the war. "There was no town by that name," explains Don Montgomery, historical interpreter for the park. "The town was named after the battle."

While the park exists to help visitors understand the war, Smith says it does not focus on battle maneuverings only. It distinguishes itself from other Civil War parks because it shows, through use of a pioneer village on the grounds, how war affected civilian life and Ozark culture.

"I think that is so important," explains Smith, "because today most people have forgotten about war on our own soil. We think war happens somewhere else, in other countries."

The Civil War came quickly to Arkansas, especially the northwest region with its wheat, corn, barley, cattle, sheep and pigs. Most of the rest of the state grew cotton. Troops either took food for their side or destroyed it to prevent the other side from having it. Many families were left struggling to survive.

Before the war, the 1860 census showed Washington County with a population of 15,600. At the end of the war, a special census taken showed the county with only 5,800 people. Montgomery says most residents moved to avoid the grim situation.

"It was a horrible time for everyone in the Ozarks," explains Montgomery.

Despite the horrors of the war, the land where the Battle of Prairie Grove took place has been revered through its use as a reunion ground since the 1870s.

"It was a real big deal for the area," says Smith, explaining that people stayed several days. The reunions were in a carnival setting with races, contests, and treats such as watermelon.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy felt there should always be a place of remembrance for the Civil War, and bought nine acres of battle ground for that purpose in 1908.

As the era of the Civil War became history and the men who fought in it began to die, so ended the regular reunions on the grounds. Americans became distracted with their first World War and then their second.

After World War II, leaders of Prairie Grove decided it was time to reintroduce reunions on the Civil War grounds. As a project, the Prairie Grove Lion's Club cleaned up the grounds.

The Prairie Grove Clothesline Fair was started in 1951 as a way to revive the reunions' carnival-like atmosphere. The fair takes place annually over Labor Day weekend. The traditional craft show with over 200 booths offers a large variety of handmade items for sale. Visitors can also examine antique farming equipment, walk through historic buildings, see original Civil War artifacts, and observe living history programs.

Highlighting the fair are square dancing demonstrations and contest. "Almost every kid in Prairie Grove square dances," says Smith. "For local folks it's a unique and big deal." Next year will be the fair's 50th anniversary.

Seven years after the revival of the reunions, money from the state legislature became available and the Prairie Grove Battlefield Commission was appointed. The commission immediately purchased 50 additional acres.

Except for a small speaker stand, the acreage contained no structures. But that also changed in 1958 with the creation of an Ozark Pioneer Village made up of historic homes of the area -- the Morrow House, Latta House, smokestack from nearby Rheas Mills. Even the rock wall on the property was built from historic structures from the area.

In 1971, the state purchased the land from the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the commission handed over control. Now containing 65 acres, the property became Arkansas's 27th state park.

"Since that time I think we've made quite a bit of slow improvement," says Smith. The park now contains 500 acres and provides even more than a reunion grounds for veteran's of war.

"We have a whole lot of family reunions here," explains Smith. Company picnics are common as well. Some people use the park for recreation, walking for exercise along the foot path or riding bikes.

A yearly Memorial Day Tribute takes on a picnic atmosphere with Civil War era games and music, political addresses and a family concert by well-known musicians, like Trout Fishing in America.

One of the most moving experiences at the park is the reenactment of the Battle of Prairie Grove. It only occurs on even-numbered years. The two day schedule of events includes historic home tours, guided camp tours, audio visual programs, a ladies' tea and program on fashion for the Christmas season and a battle demonstration each afternoon. Reenactors come from all over the country to take part in the event.

Aside from special events, the park has a self-guided walking tour and a self-guided driving tour. There is a nominal fee to enter the museum and take a guided tour of the historic homes and structures of the pioneer village. Two videos can be viewed in the park's audio visual room. One produced by the History Channel offers an overview of the Civil War and the other, written and directed by Montgomery, is specific to the Battle of Prairie Grove. The visitor's center has a gift shop and bookstore. The park also contains pavilions, a picnic area and a playground.

Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park closes one hour after sundown and the park museum is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Smith adds that there are plenty of hotels, antique stores and other historic interests nearby.

"If you're in the area, we're a good place to spend the day," he says.

The park is located on U.S. 62 in Prairie Grove. For more information, visit ArkansasStateParks.com or call 501-846-2990.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"