Sunday, April 8, 2018

Where cannon roared: Pea Ridge excavation yields a trove of artillery, other artifacts

Bucket of artifacts, marker flags (Courtesy of Arkansas Archeological Survey)
Canister round (Courtesy AAS)
Students, volunteers, park staffers and archaeology hobbyists recently recorded and recovered about 1,000 artifacts – most of them related to a ferocious artillery fire exchange – at Pea Ridge National Military Park in northwest Arkansas.

The spring break dig comes in the third of four years that the Arkansas Archeological Survey is working with the National Park Service to better understand the battle and civilian life in the area. The March 6-9, 1862, Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern) has been called by some historians “the Gettysburg of the West.” The Union won control of Missouri and weakened the Confederate hold in Arkansas.

The Picket spoke with AAS station archaeologist Carl Drexler, who headed up the dig in mid-March, and a Pea Ridge park ranger. Students got important field experience and mapping crews used GPS technology to mark precise locations of the artifacts. The finds will now be cleaned and curated. AAS archaeologist Jamie Brandon assisted. The effort had help from about 30 people a day over six days.

Belches of flame on the ridge tops

(Photo courtesy of Arkansas Archeological Survey)

Drexler (right) and NPS staffer
The dig primarily focused on the hilly terrain north of Elkhorn Tavern. The Confederacy’s Missouri State Guard placed 21 guns hub-to-hub on Broad Ridge on the first day of the battle, exchanging fire with the plucky, if smaller 1st Iowa Battery. 

The Iowans' four guns were trying to slow the Rebel push and were about only a quarter mile away. “They were firing mostly canister back and forth at each other,” Drexler said. “They were trying to kill off the gunners.”

The excavation worked in an area where the Federal artillery fire landed, so most of artifacts were fired by those artillerymen, who eventually had to give way. The tree cover is denser today than at the time of the battle.

The volunteers also worked the area of a smaller artillery action to the south of Broad Ridge.

Bullet is encrusted with soil (Courtesy of AA)

What kind of artillery projectiles, pieces were found during the dig?

Most were related to canister – rounds packed with bullets, pieces of metal or other material – designed to cut through infantry or artillery crews. Whole balls, pieces of explosive case, .69-caliber Minie balls and .58-caliber bullets also were among the finds. Some were likely case shot balls, Drexler said.

(Courtesy of Arkansas Archeological Survey)

A trio of cool finds last month

The shoulder armor scale (above) was often worn by artillerymen. “The idea was if you were getting overrun by cavalrymen swinging sabers, it gave a little defense as they rode past,” according to Drexler. By the Civil War, sometimes they were used on dress uniforms.

The second item is a musket hammer lock (left) and the third (below) is part of a pistol handle frame.

Where were the Confederate guns?

While historians knew the general area from which the Iowans fired, the National Park Service has been interested in determining the precise location for the Missouri State Guard.

Troy Banzhaf, chief of interpretation at Pea Ridge, told the Picket that he was able to firm that up after the dig and by studying first-hand accounts, previous survey work where the Iowans were located, the short distance between the foes and the only geographical spot on Broad Ridge possible to put 21 guns.

(Courtesy of AAS)
It is the only explanation for the large concentration of artillery fragments and canister that you would find from two hours of artillery engagement. On the map, the distance between the two is around 500 yards, well within canister range,” Banzhaf said.

“Although used at close range against massed troops, canister can still travel well over 800 yards, it just loses its tight spread pattern over a greater distance and thus limits it effectiveness. However, since guns are spread out. too, canister can work effectively when fired at an enemy battery.”

How was the archaeological work done?

Drexler would place flagging tape along corridors through the words. Metal detector operators then swept the ground. “We are trying to get the general distribution of artifacts in the area.”

The finds were plentiful, most between 6 inches and 12 inches below the surface. Rock in the Ozarks generally prevents artifacts from sinking further, Drexler said. (Note: It is against the law for individuals to remove relics from a national battlefield.)

(Courtesy of Arkansas Archeological Survey)

“We weren’t specifically trying to find hot spots. We were trying to cover areas the park service knew had never been archaeologically covered before,” Drexler said.

After items were recovered, GPS would note the items within a half meter of the discovery. The items will be curated at a research facility and used for educational purposes or display.

“I was really quite astounded about how it went, how many artifacts were discovered, how many people volunteered,” Drexler said of the dig.

Other Picket Pea Ridge articles:

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