Monday, February 22, 2016

Archaeology at Pea Ridge: Looking beyond artifacts to show how crucial battle played out

Jami Lockhart collects magnetometry data (Credit:AAS)

Asa Payne came back to Pea Ridge some 49 years after the momentous Civil War battle. The beardless boy now was a gray-bearded man in his mid-60s, living a quieter life after fighting for Emperor Maximilian I in Mexico and seeing adventures on the Santa Fe Trail.

The real estate broker found the battlefield in northwest Arkansas to be little changed since he fought there. An apple orchard now grew near the famous Elkhorn Tavern.

"I stayed all night in that old tavern but all was quiet, the booming of cannon and the wails of the wounded were hushed forever,” Payne wrote for a newspaper in Carthage, Mo., where he lived. 

“I was lulled to sleep by the tinkling of cow bells in the nearby mountain and was awakened only by the hoot of owls which seemed to me were hooting their last long hoot in memory of the past."

A half century before, this farm land trembled, sustaining the largest cannonade in American history to that point. Green troops, led by men with untested tactics, clashed in a battle that proved to be a disaster for the Confederacy.

Sign at Ruddick's Field (Courtesy of Jami Lockhart)

Payne, who fought for the 3rd Missouri Infantry, wrote of the fierce scene on Benjamin Ruddick’s cornfield just south of the tavern. About 3,000 Confederates charged a Union position late on March 7, 1862. Union canister and shells and infantry fire ripped through the Rebel lines. It was over in 15 minutes, the survivors limping back toward Elkhorn Tavern.

As it was during Payne’s return trip, Ruddick’s Field – now part of Pea Ridge National Military Park – today lies quiet and undisturbed. But recent months have seen new activity as archaeologists have surveyed the field and prepared for excavations beginning in March, the first time digging has taken place on the site.

Experts have a battery of technological weapons they did not have 15 years ago, when metal detectors were used elsewhere on Pea Ridge. This is believed to be the first time large-scale remote sensing has been used on such a battlefield, experts tell the Picket.

The “super precise” technology, combined with GPS maps, is allowing archaeologists to do a complete study of a largely pristine battle area.

“You are looking on the screen while you are walking across the field and you know when you are standing on top” of an artifact, said Jami Lockhart, director of remote sensing for the Arkansas Archeological Survey.

Lockhart and his Survey colleagues, working with the National Park Service, are attempting to fine-tune the historical record of Pea Ridge – using data and mapping to pinpoint where infantry or artillery were positioned, to follow the trajectory of fire and see where bullets and artillery landed, often with devastating effect.

(Courtesy of Arkansas Archeological Survey)

“You get an idea of where the actual lines are as they move across. With artillery, you have aerial bursts above them. We are seeing where that is landing on the ground,” said Steven De Vore, a regional archaeologist with the NPS.

Thousands of “magnetic anomalies” – likely artillery shells and fragments, bullets, horse bridles, weapons parts or personal items associated with the battle -- have been detected within two feet of the surface at the cornfield site. Archaeologists plan to excavate a limited number for further study and possible display at the visitor center – all part of an ongoing effort to more fully interpret what happened here.

“The most important thing to come out of this kind of work, by developing a clear understanding of how that battle progressed … is to give us an opportunity to tell us (what) our ancestors endured and what their experience was and how that experience feeds into their later life and our collective memory,” said Carl Drexler, a battlefield archaeologist with the Survey.

'The war was won in Arkansas'

The March 6-9, 1862, Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern) has been called by some historians “the Gettysburg of the West.”

Forces under Union Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis defeated the men of Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, whose leadership has been faulted by historians. On March 7, the Rebels controlled Elkhorn Tavern, but the failed attack at Ruddick’s Field presaged the next day, in which consolidated Federal troops made a counterattack, sweeping Van Dorn’s brigades from the field.

The Union won control of Missouri and weakened the Confederate hold in Arkansas.

Field is shown in map of Federal counterattack (NPS)

“It is no exaggeration to say that the Pea Ridge campaign permanently altered the balance of power in the Trans-Mississippi. Few Civil War operations had such an impact on the course of events,” according to the National Park Service.

“The cascading effect or Pea Ridge not only locks up northwest Arkansas and Missouri, it allows St. Louis to be base of operations for Grant’s campaigns in Vicksburg,” said Drexler. “The war was won in Arkansas.”

Asa Payne wrote eloquently about his experiences at Pea Ridge while just a teen.

“I remember some of our boys would laugh and mock the shells and others were as pale as death, while still others had great drops of sweat on their faces.”

The soldier took part in the doomed Missouri assault on Federal troops under the command of Col. Eugene Carr at snow-covered Ruddick’s Field. The arrival of reinforcements and additional guns turned the tide against the Confederates led by Maj. Gen. Sterling Price.

Eugene Carr
"By this time it was almost dark," remembered Payne, "and we got so near the battery that the fire from the guns would pass in jetting streams through our lines."

The valiant but costly attack in Ruddick's Field late on March 7 was the high-water mark of the Confederate war effort west of the Mississippi River and the final instance in which Van Dorn held the initiative at Pea Ridge, said the NPS. “Henceforth, Curtis would control the course of the battle.

More than 150 years later, historians and scientists are delving into the past at Ruddick's field.

“We are seeing a massive overrepresentation of cannonball fragments to show how severe an event this was,” said Drexler.

The artillery duel involving 40 Federal and 30 Rebel guns speaks to the psychological and morale toll of artillery. “The smoke and the explosion of the cannonballs created such an overwhelming assault on the senses that the cumulative effect … was often greater than just what the bodily destruction was,” Drexler said.

Archaeologists and historians over the years have benefited from the park’s remote location. That generally means fewer postwar ground disturbances and relic hunting, though officials remain sensitive about the latter.

Annual visitation to Pea Ridge’s 4,300 rolling hills and fields is about 120,000, said Superintendent Kevin Eads. “That is the beauty of the park. It is extremely well-preserved.”

The Arkansas Archeological Survey, a part of the University of Arkansas system, expects the four-year Pea Ridge project to study up to nine areas on the federal property. Officials hope to operate a field school at Leetown, which contains foundations of buildings at a hamlet that existed during the battle.

“I think this project will give us some amazing information,” Eads told the Picket.

Pea Ridge's Elkhorn Tavern (NPS)

High-tech gadgets take to the field

The Survey is “very cutting edge in high-tech technology,” said Jamie Brandon, a regional archaeologist on the team.

Excavations at Pea Ridge in 2003 and earlier used traditional methods, including metal detectors and cordoned strips.

“This is the first time we will use these high-tech ways of looking at the ground before we dig, Brandon said.

Visitors to Pea Ridge in recent months have seen archaeologists using H-shaped magnetometers to peer beneath the surface of the cornfield’s 22 acres.

Researchers have employed five remote-sensing technologies for this project: Gradiometers, electrical resistance, electromagnetic conductivity, magnetic susceptibility and ground-penetrating radar. The effort will be supplemented by the traditional metal detector during small, pinpoint excavations this spring.

Earl Van Dorn
“Each senses a different physical property in the soil,” said Lockhart, the technology guru of the team. “We are trying to determine, because we can sense big concentrations of metal … where troops were shooting from and to.”

He and others speak of what makes this project particularly interesting. Rather than sifting through pottery sherds, shed foundations or wall fragments, they are “tracking” thousands of pieces of metal in a moving battle. Brandon likens it to the power of Doppler radar.

De Vore, with the National Park Service, said the benefit of this type of field survey is clear: Metal detectors leave gaps. “The advantage right now with doing the magnetic survey in large, open area is we can cover the ground with really good coverage. We are not missing a lot.”

“Plus, it gives you a map of display of where things are located,” he said. “You get a pattern of what is going on.”

Researchers, for example, can better see the radial patterns of shell bursts. “You will have dropped bullets. You can find how lines are progressing,” said De Vore. “You can find out where other infantry is firing on, where the bullets landed.”

Filling in personal stories

Eads, the superintendent, said discoveries at Ruddick’s Field and elsewhere at the park will help the NPS make management decisions and tweak interpretation of the battle, if necessary.

“The Officials Records may say one thing and we find something that is inconsistent or dead-on.”

The visitor center was redone a few years ago, complemented by some new exhibits. But officials hope many recovered artifacts will go on display.

“We have a few items from the field, but not very many,” said Eads. “Most are reproduction. We hope to bring in more of these artifacts on a rotational basis.”

Autumn scene at Pea Ridge (NPS)

Make no mistake: Archaeology can help shape the telling of history.

More than decade ago, Drexler worked with NPS archaeologist Douglas Scott at Little Bighorn, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong, a Civil War hero, and much of the 7th Cavalry met their doom in 1876. Scott’s research showed movement of the regiment’s companies and the breakdown of command and control during the Indian attack.

“Soldiers are trained to behave in a certain way on the battlefield,” said Drexler. From well-ordered lines “you can see points where those lines become jumbled, erratic movement that is indicative of when the men start to panic, run in ways inconsistent with their training.”

Drexler said remote sensing can show “disturbance” features, including possibly burial areas or shell depressions in Ruddick’s Field. The shape of a crater can show the location of the battery that fired a round.

“You are going to find things. A metal detector will key on artifacts,” he said. “It will not show a disturbance of soil that may be a result of human impact, such as a furrow from shell impact.”

The archaeologist gave examples of previous discoveries:

-- Experts found evidence of a Colt revolving rifle used at Leetown.

-- At Wilson’s Creek battlefield in Missouri, archaeologists did not find civilian ammunition, despite a widespread belief that Confederates grabbed rifles off the fireplace mantle in order to shoot Yankees.

 -- Experts proved that an artillery battery with a 24-pound howitzer was in fact at Pea Ridge. And they determined the Federal army salvaged parts of Enfield and Springfield rifles, rather than obsolete weapons.

(Courtesy of Arkansas Archeological Survey)

Of course, until the first shovel turns earth at Ruddick’s Field, no one knows for sure whether any part of Pea Ridge’s story will be rewritten.

“There probably is going to be a fair number of bullets. I expect there to be literally buckets of shell fragments given the artillery duel focused on the north edge of the field," said Drexler. "Possibly a few weapons parts and personal items.” If human remains are found, there could pieces of equipment – such as buttons -- that came off over time.

Drexler spoke of battle descendants who have conducted genealogical research. “Their connections are strong and emotional.”

“By helping the park present the battle accurately, when people will come with a personal story, they can sense this landscape is important and (possibly the location) of the final act of that ancestor’s life.”

1 comment:

  1. My g-grandfather was with the 1st AR Mounted Rifles and was injured at Elkhorn Tavern.

    I visited there many years ago. Such a beautiful place for such an ugly battle.