The Departing, Burning and Rescue of Fayetteville, Arkansas

February 23, 1862 (Sunday)

The Union Army of the Southwest was doing its job very well. After being hastily assembled in Rolla, Missouri, its commander, General Samuel Curtis, a West Point graduate with surprisingly little military experience, had General Sterling Price’s Rebel army on the run.

On the 12th, Price abandoned Springfield and Curtis followed without missing a beat, pushing the Confederates south into Arkansas. Once over the border, the Rebels were joined with General Ben McCulloch’s force, slowly bringing together General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederate Army of the West.

After a bit of a skirmish on the 17th, Curtis’ troops encamped for a much needed rest and resupply at Cross Hollow, roughly twenty miles north of Fayetteville.1

Before too long, the Rebels arrived in Fayetteville, putting as many miles between themselves and their Union foes as they could. They would not, however, be staying long. Fayetteville was the point of supply for McCullough’s force. He had no reason to believe that the Union troops would stop short of the town and prepared to evacuate it. Rather than have it fall into Union hands, McCullough literally threw open the cupboard doors and allowed his and Price’s retreating troops to take what they could get.

The town took to panic as the fear that anything that was not nailed down or taken would fall into Union hands and be destroyed. Plunder, thievery and looting, by soldiers and citizenry alike, was the rule rather than the exception.2

After Fayetteville was abandoned by the Rebels, General McCulloch sent his Louisiana cavalry back to set the town ablaze. They started first with the military buildings, still glutted with supplies. Then came the stables and flour mill.

Since the war had started, the former Female College had been used as an arsenal. This, too, was put to the torch. When faulty, but still volatile artillery shells began to explode, the dwellings nearby began to burn out of control. Some of the citizens tried to douse the fire, but it was too late.

In the act of trying to save their homes, several Confederate troopers rode into town and asked why the place was on fire. An irate and resentful householder raged upon them, cursing McCulloch and his pointless destruction. “God has rained down fire from heaven upon better men than those that did this!” screamed the now homeless man, left with little but ashes and a plot of blackened ground. Unsure of what to say, the soldiers left and rejoined the army.3

Price and McCulloch’s armies, combined to a total of 16,000 men, had moved to Boston Mountains, fifteen or so miles south of Fayetteville. They were, however, barely on speaking terms.

Meanwhile, back at the Union camp, two escaped slaves informed General Curtis about Fayetteville and the new location of the Rebel army. Though it was against his nature, Curtis decided not to give chase. They were 200 miles away from their base of supply in Rolla, and the surrounding lands had been picked clean by hungry Rebels.4

The entire Army of the Southwest needed to be refitted. Curtis ordered 800 horses for the artillery, 400 harnesses for the horses, and 10,000 pairs of trousers for the men, nearly a pair for every man in his army. That was also a concern. Curtis had too few men and too few guns. He requested 7,000 more of infantry, 3,000 additional cavalry, and four more batteries of artillery.

Though Curtis’ main body was staying put, he decided to send cavalry, under General Alexander Asboth, to Fayetteville. After taking the town, he was to select defensible high ground. Asboth was also to take control of the local printer, explaining that it would be needed to print orders when the rest of the army joined the cavalry.

After issuing the orders to Asboth, Curtis received a wire from General Halleck, his departmental commander in St. Louis. Halleck was basically fine with the cavalry occupying Fayetteville, but ordered that the bulk of the army should be in Bentonville. While Bentonville was northwest of his position at Cross Hollow, he fanned out his army to cover all the roads leading north from Fayetteville to Cross Hollow and Bentonville.5

On this date6, General Asboth’s cavalry entered the blackened remains of Fayetteville. They were first greeted by Rebel skirmishers who held the town, but were not too eager to keep it. The Union cavalry charged through the streets, as the Rebels scurried south for safer ground. A detachment pursued the Rebels, each side taking shots at the other, sometimes with bloody results. Union pickets patrolled the fords across the White River, seven miles south of town.

Asboth was convinced that, if reinforced with a couple infantry regiments, he could hold the town, imploring Curtis to allow him to do so. As for the printing office, it was destroyed, but they found a portable printing press that would do just as well.7

After things settled down a bit, Asboth met with Judge Jonas Tebbetts, a strident Union man. After a parlay, Tebbetts invited the General to dinner. Asboth graciously accepted the offer, only on the condition that York be allowed to dine with them at the table and share his food. York was not a teamster or body servant, but an incredibly huge St. Bernard who traveled with the cavalry.

The residents of Fayetteville were largely Unionist, and welcomed the Federal soldiers. Mrs. Tebbetts, though herself a Unionist, seemed less than amused by the commanding officer. Before they departed, several days later, General Asboth finished off her last jar of jelly without so much as offering anyone else a taste, except, perhaps, York.8

  1. Pea Ridge by William L. Shea & Earl J. Hess. []
  2. Borderland Rebellion by Elmo Ingenthron. []
  3. Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove: or, Scenes and Incidents of the War in Arkansas by William Baxter, Poe & Hitchcock, 1864. Mr. Baxter was living in Fayetteville when it was torched. []
  4. Pea Ridge by William L. Shea & Earl J. Hess. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p562-563. []
  6. Yes, I was playing a sneaky little game of “let’s catch you up on stuff happening near Pea Ridge.” []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p69-70. []
  8. Pea Ridge by William L. Shea & Earl J. Hess. []
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The Departing, Burning and Rescue of Fayetteville, Arkansas by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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