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Civil War Archaeology

Since the late twentieth century, Civil War archaeology has been a thriving research area. Arkansas has been a location of much interest and continues to attract attention for work being done around the state. Federal and state agencies, along with private firms, have been part of this process. Their work focuses on several types of sites, including battlefields, camps, and civilian locations.

Battlefields
Battlefields get the most attention, as they are the Civil War sites people think of most commonly. For many years, archaeologists thought it was impossible to study battlefields because of their large size and the thin scattering of artifacts. Then, in 1983, a brush fire burned across the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, exposing the ground surface and many battle-related artifacts. Archaeologists developed a method for locating and mapping these artifacts, using metal detectors and surveying equipment. This led to the recovery of many finds and the reconstruction of the battle.

In Arkansas, these same techniques have been used on several battlefields, including the location of the Battle of Pea Ridge. The Pea Ridge survey, conducted by the Midwest Archeological Center of the National Park Service, located 2,700 battle-related artifacts, showing the disposition of troops, cannon, fence lines, and many other aspects of the battle.

Beyond that, archaeologists learned several new things about the battle. First, archaeologists recovered parts of many weapons, but only kinds that would have been considered obsolete or derelict. Nothing from the newer, more advanced weapons available at the time and used during the battle was found. This tells researchers that the battlefield was carefully cleaned after the fighting and that anything salvageable was picked up and reused. Operating on the frontier made such parts extremely valuable to both sides.

Artillery ammunition told its own stories. An unexploded shell was found to have never been filled with powder, suggesting that the manufacturer was saving money at the expense of the men at the front. The recovery of twenty-four-pounder howitzer ammunition indicated that Landis’s Missouri Battery, a unit previously believed to have missed the battle, was actually present. Finally, analyses of artillery ammunition showed greater regularity and uniformity in Union ammunition than in Confederate.

Camps
Though research focuses heavily on battlefields, most of a soldier’s life was spent in camps. These included short-term camps occupied during a campaign and long-term camps lived in over the course of a winter or a siege—camps that may have been fitted out with cabins, shops, and numerous other buildings. Civil War armies were frequently the largest communities in the state during the war, representing a whole city in motion.

In Arkansas, several short-term camps used by both sides have been documented. Such camps typically have light scatters of artifacts, sometimes clustered around a line of campfire pits that once formed the “company street.” Other camps are known only by report from local relic hunters who have pointed out their locations to archaeologists.

In northwestern Arkansas, the former site of Camp Benjamin, in Cross Hollows near present-day Lowell (Benton County), was documented by the Arkansas Archeological Survey in the early 2000s. Though much of the site lies under Beaver Lake, rifle pits, a cannon emplacement, and a satellite camp remain, revealing how the area around Camp Benjamin was defended. Artifacts from these sites—including forks and plates, gun parts, and personal items—show the personal lives of the men who camped there. A small pelican button found in one camp revealed that the camp was probably the former home of a detachment from the Third Louisiana Infantry.

Civilian Locations
While battles and campaigns are conducted by soldiers, wars are fought by entire nations—and nations include more than just soldiers. As well as experiencing the war in their day-to-day lives, civilians produce the weapons, uniforms, ammunition, food, and other essentials that sustain soldiers on the battlefield.

Ongoing research at the site of Dooley’s Ferry in southwestern Arkansas focuses on civilians during the conflict. Research there has identified a church and a number of homes that were still not occupied long after the war. Either the disruption of the war itself or the resultant economic difficulties that followed led to their abandonment. Historical research on the site has allowed investigators to locate people from Minnesota to Texas who are connected to the site and whose lives were significantly shaped by the war as it occurred at Dooley’s Ferry.

The Benefits of Civil War Archaeology
One of the ways in which people maintain a society is through keeping ties to a collective past. Archaeology allows people to identify and interpret the places where the key moments in history took place, and artifacts provide uniquely tangible bridges to those moments. This archaeology is difficult and time-consuming work, yet there are many benefits to it. These benefits are why archaeologists continue to research the Civil War, and why such research remains a necessary task for the public good.

While many believe that the history books tell the whole story, archaeology has routinely shown that this is not the case. Historical documents focus on soldiers (particularly Union ones) and often neglect or lack information for African Americans, women, children, Confederates, guerrillas, and a host of other sections of society, all of whom were also bound up in the war. Archaeology, being a more democratic kind of inquiry, helps tell these stories.

Finally, Civil War archaeology is part of a wider effort to better understand conflict in the modern world. Sociologists, historians, soldiers, and many other scholars continue to learn about how wars are fought and the ways in which wars affect people, both in the short term and in the long term. It is a massive undertaking, but archaeologists have a unique and important role to play in that effort.

For additional information:
Drexler, Carl G. “Dooley’s Ferry: The Archaeology of a Civilian Community in Wartime.” PhD diss., College of William and Mary, 2013.

Carlson-Drexler, Carl G., Scott D. Douglas, and Harold Roeker. “The Battle Raged...With Terrible Fury”: Battlefield Archaeology of Pea Ridge National Military Park. Technical Report No. 112. Lincoln, NE: USDI/NPS Midwest Archeological Center, 2008.

Geier, Clarence R., David Gerald Orr, and Matthew Reeves, eds. Huts and History: The Historical Archaeology of Military Encampment during the American Civil War. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

Hilliard, Jerry E., Mike Evans, Jared Pebworth, and Carl G. Carlson-Drexler. “A Confederate Encampment at Cross Hollow, Benton County, Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 67 (Winter 2008): 359–374.

Carl G. Drexler
Arkansas Archeological Survey

Last Updated 2/25/2017

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