Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Colt revolving rifle bullets fired by Illinois troops among hundreds of artifacts recovered at Arkansas' Prairie Grove battlefield park

Recovered round from Colt revolving rifle (Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park)
Colt revolving rifle (center) -- Hmagg, Wikipedia
Removal of underbrush at the epicenter of a ferocious battle in northwest Arkansas has allowed archaeologists to recover about 400 Civil War artifacts, including spent bullets fired from innovative Colt revolving rifles.

The Colt Model 1855 was used by two flanking companies of the 37th Illinois Infantry at the Battle of Prairie Grove on Dec. 7, 1862. The design was similar to Colt revolvers – with a rotating cylinder – and the weapon became a repeating rifle by adding a stock and barrel. 

While it had mixed success during the war, the rare rifle was largely effective at Prairie Grove and two other prominent battles.

Experts said the location of seven recently recovered Colt bullets may alter maps of the precise position where the regiment fought during a Federal charge on Confederate artillery and infantry at the Archibald Borden house. Its commander, Lt. Col. John Black, would receive a Medal of Honor for his leadership during the battle.

(Arkansas Archeological Survey)
Staff with the Fayetteville office of the Arkansas Archeological Survey conducted the survey at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in late February and the first two weeks of March. The coronavirus pandemic has halted the work and analysis of the artifacts. (June 7 update: Work recently resumed)

The four acres being studied in front of the Borden house are believed to never have been touched by metal detectors before. Mike Evans, station assistant with the survey, said he has worked many sites, but never with this many concentrated artifacts. “This area was wooded and fairly inaccessible. We wanted to take a look at the heart of the battle.”

“This is as central to that battle as you can get,” he told the Picket this week. The slope in front of the house, an orchard and other parts of the farm were the scene of two assaults each by Federal and Confederate troops.

The survey found numerous bullets, artillery shell fragments, friction primers, casings and canister. Interestingly, few personal items, such as buttons or insignia, were recovered.

“It is rich. It looks pretty thick,” Evans said of the artifacts, which he expects to number 1,000 when the crew eventually can return to the park to complete the survey. “And you are seeing little clusters. You are seeing a hot spot down the hill.”

(Note: Officials with the park and survey, which are partnering in the survey, emphasize that metal detecting and removal of artifacts from Prairie Grove by the public is prohibited.)

Confederate troops under Maj. Gen. Thomas Hindman squared off against the men of Union Brig. Gens. James Blunt and Francis Herron at Prairie Grove. While the fighting ended in somewhat of a draw, the Rebels withdrew from the field, giving the Union a strategic victory. Northwest Arkansas and Missouri would remain under Federal control for the rest of the conflict.

Casualties totaled about 2,700.

Park wanted terrain to look like 1862

Sampling of items from Prairie Grove (Arkansas Archeological Survey/AAS)
Bormann fuse for artillery (Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park)

The clearing of underbrush and thinning of trees below the Borden hill and along a foot trail was the impetus for the archaeological work, said Matt Mulheran, park interpreter at Prairie Grove since autumn 2018.

The growth “had not allowed anyone to get in there with a metal detector. All of those artifacts were there in pristine condition waiting to tell a story,” he said. The park for years had wanted to do the clearing project, and the interpreter got the ball rolling last year.

Official reports and soldier accounts showed the modern terrain was not accurate to the battle.

“That hillside was very open and the Borden family had taken a lot of time clearing the underbrush,” said Mulheran. “We wanted to get back to that landscape.”

Minie ball with impact damage, dropped.58-caliber and Enfield round (Prairie Grove BSP)
The Bordens lived on a large farm and were not aware of what was to come on the morning of Dec. 7, 1862. "A Confederate officer knocks on their door and tells them they have to flee.”

They rushed to a neighbor’s resident, where the families huddled in a cellar. The Bordens emerged after the fighting to find their home burned by Federal troops. Caldonia Borden Brandenburg years later spoke of the loss of livestock and stored food.

“All of the kinfolks and neighbors gave us food, clothing and bedding and household goods that they could spare, to help us get started again,” she said. “As soon as it was safe for us kids to go on the battle fields, we went and picked up clothes, canteens, blankets and anything we found to use. We had to put everything in boiling water to kill the “grey backs” [body lice] …”

Around 1870, the Borden family rebuilt the distinctive yellow home on the same site. They eventually moved west, Mulheran said, and others farmed the land until the 1940s or 1950s. The house eventually fell into disrepair. “There were trees growing out of the porch.”

Borden house in 1976 (Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park)
The property was acquired by the state in 1979 and rehabilitated.

Volunteers and a Bobcat with a mulching attachment have removed the undergrowth and the park will continue tree thinning and grooming this summer.

“It has come a long way in the time I have been here,” said Mulheran. “People can (now) see it just as the soldiers saw it.”

Some items came from filming of miniseries

Complicating the archaeological dig has been the presence of artillery and long gun components associated with Civil War reenactors who took part in events at the state park over the years.

Officials believe some of the recovered items date back to the filming of the 1982 television miniseries, “The Blue and the Gray,” which starred Stacy Keach and Gregory Peck and was based on Bruce Catton’s book.

Co-producer Harry Thomason spoke with The New York Times about why filming was done in the region.

''We are being extremely accurate in the spirit of this production,'' he told the newspaper. ''If purists want to say we should have filmed this picture exactly where the actual events happened, they have not visited many of those places lately. Some don't even exist anymore, and many have been overrun with commercialism. Most of the actual battlefields are covered with monuments and statues. We had 21 critical location scenes for this picture. We looked all over the country, and this 90-mile strip of western Arkansas met our requirements better than anywhere else.''

Evans, with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, says some of the artillery friction primers may be associated with reenactors.

But numerous items come from the period: Minie balls, grapeshot, Bormann fuses, exploded artillery, .69-caliber round balls, the tip of a bayonet scabbard and a piece of brass sash buckle, among them.

Much of the recovered debris is from Union guns fired from the valley toward Confederate artillery. “The hill was catching all that stuff,” Evans told the Picket.

Reenactors advance upon Borden home (Arkansas State Parks)
37th Illinois locked in fierce fighting

The ridge where the Borden home sat was the highest terrain on the battle and was an obvious place for the Confederates to place a large part of their artillery, as was done by Capt. William Blocher’s Arkansas battery. It provided a good view of a wide valley and Fayetteville-Cane Hill Road below. Gunners trained their weapons on a ford on the Illinois River.

Federal guns opened up below the Borden house, allowing for the Federal assaults. The 37th Illinois – the only veteran unit in the assaults -- took part in the second wave.

Lt. Col. John Black
Commanding them was Lt. Col. Black, who was still recovering from a wound he suffered in the right arm at the Battle of Pea Ridge (about 40 miles north, ninth months before). Black rode in to battle on horseback, his disabled arm in a sling, and led his men up the slope to the orchard. Gunfire wounded his left arm during the pitched struggle.

Although the regiment became surrounded, Mulheran told the Picket, their experience and the five-shot Colt revolving rifle somewhat evened the circumstances. Eventually, they were forced to withdraw to the valley, where they fought off a determined Confederate counterattack and protected artillery.

Decades later, Black received the Medal Honor for extraordinary heroism: “Lieutenant Colonel Black gallantly charged the position of the enemy at the head of his regiment, after two other regiments had been repulsed and driven down the hill, and captured a battery; was severely wounded,” read the citation.

Black and his brother, Capt. William Black (for heroism at Pea Ridge), were among the few siblings to receive the Medal of Honor.

The 37th had about 15% of its men killed or wounded at Prairie Grove.

A flawed weapon had its moments

The Colt revolving rifles did find success, and when used by experienced troops, they could result in a higher rate of fire.

Enfield bullet, blank from miniseries, fired Minie ball (AAS)
“They were a superior weapon but they did have a lot of trouble with them,” said Evans.

Carl Drexler, assistant research professor and station archeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, said the 37th Illinois was issued about 200 of the revolving rifles prior to Pea Ridge (about 18,000 were manufactured until 1862).

Companies A and K had them, as did several Confederate regiments. But those Southern units went east of the Mississippi River before Prairie Grove.

Drexler provided this summary of the weapon by email:

As far as their efficacy and importance, it was a bit of a mixed bag. The idea behind them was to increase the individual firepower of a common soldier. The .56-caliber version (most often carried in the West) used a 5-shot cylinder that could be swapped out when empty, which made any unit armed with them a formidable opponent. Also, unlike other multi-shot weapons of the period, they did not use metallic cartridges, meaning they were usable by Confederates or anyone with a bullet mold. That was the good.

Jessica Kowalski at work (Ark. Archeological Survey)
“The bad was, well, pretty crippling to the use of the weapon. If you’ve ever fired a cap-and-ball revolver you know that you have to seal the chambers very well to prevent loose powder being exposed, because flash and hot gasses from one chamber firing can ignite exposed powder in other cylinders, causing what is called ‘chain fire.’ Given the orientation of the cylinder to the barrel, this means you’re basically shooting bullets into the frame of the gun, which usually destroys it. It also means that you have bits of lead and gun frame flying sideways. That’s startling if you’re holding a pistol out in front of you, but if you’re firing a long arm, you’re expected to be aiming with your left hand resting on the fore stock… in front of the cylinder. You now have lead, iron, brass, and flame flying at your left forearm and hand, and many soldiers wound up maimed for life as a result.

“I think around 5,000 such weapons were ordered by the U.S. Army for the war, and the above flaws kept them from being ordered in larger numbers and made them very unpopular with the troops. They are known to have been crucial in several situations, though. The 37th Illinois used them to good effect at Pea Ridge, and the 21st Ohio defended Horseshoe Ridge at the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, with them in the early fall of 1864. They were an interesting and fairly logical idea (turn a functioning pistol design into a shoulder arm), but I would prefer to have had a Spencer.”

More work and research lie ahead

Mulheran and Evans say the discovery of the Colt rounds may put the regiment in a slightly different position than believed, perhaps a couple hundred yards away.

“By tracing where these bullets landed we can document the movement of this regiment,” Mulheran said.

Borden house is at right center (Arkansas State Parks)
Finds during the survey indicate a possible location for a Confederate battery.

More excavations and analysis are required for any new conclusions to be made.

A Facebook post from Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park summarizes what can be gleaned by such research.

Battlefield archaeology is an important science that allows researchers to gain a better understanding of what happened during the Battle of Prairie Grove. The evidence can provide new details on how we interpret the battle and completely change the current perception of events. We look forward to seeing the results of this survey.”
Before and after of hillside (Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park

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