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Battlefield Archaeology at Wilsons Creek and Pea Ridge

The January 2005 meeting of the Round Table was a treat. We were entertained by the acknowledged "grandfather" of US battlefield archaeology, Doug Scott. Doug first set the strategic scene for us. At the start of the war Missouri had divided loyalties. There were some slaves and sentiments were with the South. A recent wave of German immigration particularly around St Louis meant the North had some representation as well. The legislature split into 2 and there was a pro-north and pro-south governor. At the heart of it all lay St Louis and whichever side controlled it, controlled the river trade.

It was the Union that acted first. Lyons secured the main arsenal with over 10 million rounds of ammunition. Anxious to maintain the initiative and drive the rebels out of Missouri, Lyons strikes south and the battle of Wilsons Creek occurs on August 10th 1861. Both sides were manoeuvring for position and despite being outnumbered 2:1, Lyons attacks and surprises the rebels at Bloody Hill. The Union forces were divided with Col Sigel undertaking a pincer from the south. But things didn't go to plan and Sigel was seen off. Lyons was killed leading a charge, and Sturgis takes command but was unable to hold the initiative and retreated under pressure from McCulloch and Price.

Wilsons Creek was a significant Union defeat. But due to the failure of Price to follow it up, the South does not get the strategic victory they should have. Much needed men and materials destined for the Eastern theatre were diverted to St Louis. Despite political wheeling and dealing (Missouri was admitted to the Confederacy on August 19th), the rebels withdraw into Arkansas, effectively handing the state over.

After the winter lull, Van Dorn, the new commander was sanctioned to reinvade Missouri with the ultimate goal of taking St Louis. His troops numbered 16,000, consisting of the division of Price and McCulloch plus some Indian regiments. Standing in his way was the 11,000 strong army of Samuel Curtis. On March 7th 1862, Curtis dug in at Sugar Creek to await an attack. Van Dorn divided his troops and attacked from the rear. The Unions forces detected the advance and about faced. In the attack both McCulloch and his second in command were killed. Meanwhile Van Dorn hit Carr hard. The battle raged but Van Dorn ultimate gave way as he began to run out of ammunition, they were hungry after the forced marching and the weather cold, wet and snowy made the troops less inclined to force the battle home. On the 8th Sigel's division launches a text book charge and routs the rebels. The Union have won a strategic victory and complete control of the area.

Having whetted our appetites Doug set out his role in the recent past in trying to unravel the two stories. His teams approach all sites in a similar fashion. They "walk" the fields looking for material. Each "find" is noted and marked using GPS technology. You find what you expect to find-Musket balls and minie balls. Less than 1% of the finds were from shotguns and country rifles suggesting the rest were from standard army issue. But discovering the items were one thing, putting the pieces together takes a greater degree of skill.

At Wilsons Creek, battlefield orientation was a problem. The site of the Edwards cabin was lost (burnt 1880) but through geophysics a site was identified complete with rubbish dump. Bullet finds enabled the possible trajectory lines to be plotted.

So it was possible to estimate with some precision the position of regiments as they fired and advanced. Cannon shot proved a challenge. At Wilsons Creek all the cannon shot was US made suggesting that the rebels were using captured ammunition and pieces. As the foliage has changed, GPS was used to determine possible battery positions when line-of-sight was dubious.

Through their work, Doug and his team where able to correct some of the post-war inaccuracies. Both McCulloch and Sigel claimed that Wilsons Creek was "hotly contested". Doug agrees that there was a large artillery duel, but there was little evidence of large small arms fire and after all, both sides ran away!

At Pea Ridge the story was similar. The finds included an 1816 Flintlock and an intact artillery shell. They also managed to trace a bullet to a rifle through microscopic analysis.

Doug was pleased that this work enables the parks to accurately position artillery and units, enabling visitors to understand and appreciate the battles better.

Our Q&A session covered a variety of topics, some of them not related to the Civil War!

  • At Shiloh there is the Cherokee Mound Excavation; evidence of early settlement has been found at Wilsons Creek and Pea Ridge-there was good water and good soil. Early farmsteads have been discovered.

  • It was possible to match bullets with their guns. We have pinpointed the positions of the 16th Arkansas meeting the 36th Illinois.

  • The tactics used were from the Mexican War rulebooks, but it appears some experimentation was taking place, some loose order skirmishing was happening. The researchers are using the battlefield data to verify or contradict the oral and written evidence, particularly the reports of Sigel and McCulloch.

  • Some work was being carried out outside of the park boundaries with the permission and cooperation of the landowners. But work has been hampered by lack of resources.

  • The number of visitors each year is around 240,000 for Wilsons Creek and 10,000 for Pea Ridge

  • There were Native Americans at Pea Ridge, but they used mainly knives and bows and arrows. They were castigated for scalping Union dead, and Van Dorn later apologised but countered with claims of German troop atrocities.

  • There has been no evidence of "grape" and the phrases used in the narratives are more literal than factual.

  • Doug Scott said he would like to examine Glorieta of Holly Springs if asked.

  • There was evidence of a loss of command and control at many stages, particularly at Wilsons Creek where there were raw troops and commanders.

  • Wilsons Creek and Pea Ridge are major battles but they are not acknowledged due to the lack of "superstars".

  • The trans-Mississippi west is largely ignored by Eastern historians, but these two battles saved Missouri for the Union,

  • Turning to the Little Big Horn, Doug acknowledged that the Indian version was likely to be correct but oral storytelling was difficult to follow.


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