Arkansas Listings in the National Register of Historic Places

By Cothren, Zackery A. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Arkansas Listings in the National Register of Historic Places


Cothren, Zackery A., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Arkansas's National Cemeteries

FROM THE EARLIEST BATTLES of the Revolutionary War to today's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, American soldiers have answered their country's call to service. Many of those brave soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice. During the Civil War, the huge numbers of casualties on the battlefield, in military hospitals, and at prison camps, together with the difficulties of nineteenth-century logistics, led to many soldiers being buried near where they had perished. On July 17, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation authorizing the creation of national cemeteries. It provided for government purchase of land to be used for interring soldiers killed in the service of their country. On November 19, 1863, during the dedication of one such cemetery, Lincoln delivered what we celebrate as the Gettysburg Address. By 1864, twenty-seven cemeteries bore the designation of National Cemetery.

At the close of the war, the government undertook a massive effort to relocate remains of soldiers from scattered graves and neglected battlefield burial sites to central locations that could be properly maintained. By the end of 1870, the designation of national cemetery had been bestowed on seventy such sites, many located in the southeastern United States. Authorities often established cemeteries near the bloodiest of Civil War battlefields and large military prison camps. In other cases, preexisting cemeteries associated with forts or military hospitals were brought under the umbrella of the national cemetery program. This was the case with the Fort Smith National Cemetery.

The first military post near present-day Fort Smith was established in 1817, just below the junction of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers. Post surgeon Thomas Russell, who died in August 1819, may have been the first person buried there. During the summer of 1823, disease cost the post nearly one-fourth of the approximately 200 men stationed there. Although a cemetery may have been established at the post as early as 1819, there definitely would have been some kind of burial ground in place by the end of that deadly summer. In 1824, the fort was abandoned, chiefly because of unhealthy conditions. Although the army had pulled out of Fort Smith, some of the fort's soldiers who had left the army and remained in the area would be buried there. These included the post's first commander, Maj. William Bradford, who died of yellow fever in 1826.

In 1838, the Army reestablished a post at Fort Smith. It built a new fort and quarters but, rather than establish a new cemetery, enlarged and rehabilitated the existing one. The Army evacuated the fort in April 1861. Confederates occupied the fort until Union soldiers retook Fort Smith on September 1, 1863. During the Confederate occupation, over 400 rebel soldiers were buried at the cemetery, most notably Gen. Alexander Steen, who died at the battle of Prairie Grove, and Generals Benjamin McCulloch and James M. McIntosh, killed within minutes of one another during the battle of Pea Ridge. (McCulloch's remains were later moved to Austin, Texas.) Richard Gatlin, a Confederate general who served as commander of the Military Department of North Carolina and moved to Arkansas after the war, is also buried in the cemetery.

In 1871, a new law provided for the disposal of "useless" military posts. Title would be transferred from the War Department to the Department of the Interior, which would in turn sell the property. Fort Smith was one of these posts. In May of that year, the secretary of war was advised that a national military cemetery had been established at the fort and was asked to provide for its protection. After a cooperative effort on the part of the Department of the Interior and the War Department, President Ulysses Grant excluded the cemetery grounds from the sale.

After the closing of the fort, the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas, which had been based for twenty years in Van Buren, was moved to the old military barracks at Fort Smith. …

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Arkansas Listings in the National Register of Historic Places
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