Article

Civil War at Our Doorstep: Remembering Prairie Grove (Teach It!)

A woman standing in front of a house
Nancy Morton Staples, c. 1913. Courtesy Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.

Introduction

"Women's History to Teach Year-Round" provides manageable, interesting lessons that showcase women’s stories behind important historic sites. In this lesson, students explore the experiences of two girls and one woman who lived through the Battle of Prairie Grove in Prairie Grove, Arkansas. This lesson is adapted from the Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan, “The Battle of Prairie Grove: Civilian Recollections of the Civil War.”

A cannon on a field
Photograph by Don Montgomery, May 1994.

Background

The Battle of Prairie Grove was fought in December 1962, relatively early in the American Civil War. Prairie Grove is in northwest Arkansas. The U.S. troops won the battle, preventing the Confederate army from invading northwest Arkansas and Missouri.

As with all battles, soldiers were killed and wounded in gruesome ways. The people who lived near the battlefield witnessed these horrors and faced danger themselves. The following accounts are recollections from three white women who lived in Confederate territory and experienced the Battle of Prairie Grove. Personal accounts like these can help historians identify the facts of what happened, as well as the opinions and beliefs that people at the time had.

United States History Standards for Grades 5-12

Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)

  • Standard 2A - The student understands how the resources of the Union and Confederacy affected the course of the war.
  • Standard 2B - The student understands the social experience of the war on the battlefield and homefront.

Document 1: Julia West Pyeatt’s Memoir

As a 14-year-old girl, Julia West Pyeatt witnessed the Battle of Prairie Grove from her family home, the Robert West House, on the northwest side of the battlefield. Document 1 was excerpted from a memoir of Julia West Pyeatt to her daughter (date unknown). Courtesy of Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.

Note: Julia uses the term “Federal” to refer to U.S. soldiers.


December the 7th, 1862, will long be remembered especially by those of us who lived here and witnessed the Battle at Prairie Grove. It was a beautiful, cold, frosty Sunday morning.... About 10 o'clock the cannonading began and about noon war began in earnest. When it seemed everyone would be killed.... You can never know the horrors of a battle unless you have seen or been in one. The fighting was constant.... Families hunted safety in the cellars. Our home being on the north side, we felt we were comparatively safe and our greatest anxiety was for our relatives, neighbors, and friends so we stood out and watched until dark. The fighting continued as long as the soldiers could see.

All the houses were filled with wounded men. Our house was also filled with [Union] General [James G.] Blunt's men. The General himself sleeping in mother's baby crib with his feet hanging over. During the night when dispatches came he would arise up, read it, write answers, or give orders. Men stood and sat around all night with their guns in their hands talking about the fight.... All available beds and bedding was used for the wounded except one bed they left for mother and the children but very few of us slept any....

We were left with hundreds of wounded and dead. For days, people hunted the battle ground for some of their missing people. On Monday [December 8, 1862], we saw four houses burn to the ground that was set on fire by the Federal troops. The homes belonged to Dr. Rogers, William Rogers, Arch Borden, and the White Taylor home. We lived in the house with the wounded for six weeks.

Discussion Questions

  1. What was Julia most scared about during the battle?

  2. Why do you think Julia West slept very little the night of the battle?

  3. Julia’s recollection is a written source, not the transcript of an interview. How would writing out your memories be different than telling them to someone in an interview? Do you think that the format of Julia's recollection makes it more reliable, less reliable, or equally reliable compared to an oral history interview?

Document 2: An Interview with Caldonia Ann Borden Brandenburg

Caldonia Ann Borden Brandenburg was nine years old when the Battle of Prairie Grove occurred around her family's home. Document 2 was excerpted from an oral history of Caldonia Ann Borden Brandenburg compiled in 1982 by Eve Brandenburg Acuff from notes and conversations from 1937 until Caldonia's death on November 29, 1943. Courtesy of Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.

Note: Caldonia uses the term “Yankee” to refer to U.S. soldiers and “Rebel” to refer to Confederate soldiers.


On the sixth of December [1862], the first Yankee was in our home, then two more came and started to tear up things. They turned up the foot of the bed and found Pa's saddle bags which had two handles. Ma got hold of one and the Yankee the other. He dragged her all over the room and the baby got scared and screamed so loud that Ma had to turn loose.

One early morning [December 7, 1862] Pa told us to move out as there was to be a battle very soon on our hill. We went to a neighbor's a mile away, taking what we could carry and some food. The battle started on the hill where our house was. We could hear the cannons and see their heads rise up to fire. We hadn't had any breakfast, we were too excited to be hungry. About one o'clock in the afternoon the noise got louder and closer. It occurred to Pa that we were in danger so he rushed us to the cellar just before the shooting started around the [Morton] house where we were. In the cellar there were barrels of kraut, cider and cider vinegar, apples and potatoes, four men, seven women, and eight children.

After dark, it got quiet and we came out of the cellar. There was a dead man across the cellar door, wounded and dying men all around. I can still hear them calling "help - help - help." The men worked through the night helping the wounded. Yankees and Rebels all got the same care. Four died that night. One soldier's leg was just hanging by the skin and the doctor cut it off and threw it outside. It sure was scary and pitiful. Some of us got sick.

Pa sneaked back up the hill and found that our beautiful two-story house that was painted light yellow with green trim, the home that we all loved so much, had been burned to the ground after the Yankees plundered the inside.... We never got a thing out of our home, not even a change of clothes. They killed and ate our cattle, hogs, sheep and chickens and used what we had stored in our cellar.... They took everything they could use, then set the house on fire. We had 60 bushels of wheat stored upstairs and it slowly burned for three weeks in the rubble.

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.... 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]. We made bedding out of the cloth we salvaged after cleaning it. The Yankees took our good horses and a beautiful big bay mare, a fine pacer, our work horses and saddle horses and left us only an old oxen and an old blind mare, but she was still a good plow horse and we bred her to a good stallion and got a fine colt.

When the Yankees burned our house, they burned Uncle Ed's and Uncle Will's houses the same evening. The officers took Grandma's house for headquarters so it was saved.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where did the Borden family go once the battle began? Why?
  2. In general, whom does Caldonia blame for the suffering of her family and their neighbors?
  3. How old was Caldonia when these events occurred? Do you think that her age affected the reliability of her account?

Document 3: An Interview Nancy Morton Staples

Nancy Morton Staples was 31 years old and living on the southwest side of the Prairie Grove Battlefield at the time of the conflict. Document 3 was excerpted from a manuscript written by Nancy Morton Staples. Courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives.

On the 7th day of December, 1862, the advance guard met south of the grove, killing one man. Early in the day the battle commenced on the Borden farm east of the grove, lasting until sunset, winding up on the Morton farm one mile west. The families were ordered west to the first cellar, which was Morton's. Those in the cellar during the battle were N. J. and J. M. Morton, William Morton, William D. Rogers, wife and three children, A. Borden, wife and five children, Eliza Borden, Dr. Rogers, wife and two children. We all remained in the cellar till dark, but I went into the house several times to get victuals [food supplies] and some bedclothes and wraps for the children. They fought through and around the house, the shots flying like hail in every direction, only a few cannon balls striking close. Mrs. Borden's pony stood hitched close to the cookroom, saddled, and was not hurt, and after the firing ceased, she with her...children mounted the pony, passed the guards and rode to Mrs. Mock's in safety.

...the day after the battle we did all we could to relieve the wounded and dying. Such pitiful wails and cries that came from those poor men. We made them tea from herbs and did all we could for their comfort.... After the battle Will[iam] Rogers went south, leaving his wife and...children with us. The oldest and youngest were taken sick, the oldest dying one day after the battle, the other the next day....

Another shocking affair was my helping to bury Mr. Borden, a brother of A[rchibald] Borden, who was brutally killed in the Pittman lane. He had lain there all night when Eliza and Mary Borden, Martha Butler and myself got there. Two old men who had previously dug the grave helped us carry him to it and being afraid of scouts they left us to fill the grave. All the implements we had were an old hoe and pieces of boards. We blistered our hands and were worn out when we got home, as we had to walk.

...Another trying hour on us was the robbers [who] came and burned my father's feet to make him give up his money. At first they pretended to be friends and mother and I went to the cellar and got them apples. They talked, enjoyed the apples and were great southern men, of course. My father had gone to bed. After a while one of them went up to the bed and said, "Old man, it's not your politics I care for, it's your money, and we're going to have it."

I cannot express my feelings when they pulled him out and tied him, taking four of them to do it. They heated two shovels, for the night was cold and we had a big fire, and they began burning the bottoms of his feet. I threw water on the shovels with one of them pointing a pistol in my face and striking me over the back and arms until I was black and blue. I then threw water on the fire putting it out. One of them threw a shovel of hot coals on his body, but having on heavy all-wool underwear he was not burned. Then they took him out to hang him, as they had not succeeded in getting him to tell where he had money. They choked my mother for screaming and abused us for looking out of the window. After compelling him to tell them what they wanted to know, they brought him back into the house and ransacked everything in the house, carrying off what paper money he had and destroying some notes. We all then went to bed shivering with cold, afraid to make a fire or light.... There was nothing but sorrow, trouble, and worry till peace was declared....

Discussion Questions

  1. What events were particularly vivid in Nancy's memory?
  2. How did Nancy care for the wounded soldiers and the people in her own community?
  3. How old was Nancy when these events occurred? How do you think that adults experienced the battle differently than children did? Do you think her age at the time of the battle makes her account more reliable, less reliable, or equally reliable compared to the other accounts?

Activity 1: Synthesizing Primary Sources

Have students discuss the following questions, either in small groups or as a class.

  1. How would you compare the tone of the three accounts? In particular, how did each react to what happened, and who did each blame?

  1. In all, which of the three accounts is the most reliable? Why? (You might consider each speaker’s age during the war, when their accounts were written, whether they were oral or written accounts, the level of detail they gave, and the degree to which the speaker seems to take a particular side).

  1. All three accounts are from white women. Why do you think there are there no accounts from African-American women, either free or enslaved, who witnessed the battle?

Activity 2: Collecting Oral History

Every community and family has its "war stories"--whether or not they were directly engaged in combat. Though many of these stories have never been written down, they have become a part of family or community oral history. Oral histories are a powerful way to experience the past: they are crowded with colorful details and the emotions of their authors, and often contain valuable clues to cultural traditions and attitudes. At the same time, oral histories are not textbooks, and should not be used as exact timelines of events.

Have students choose an important or controversial event that involved local residents. They should research the event through online sources, text books, newspapers, or other resources at a library or local historical society. Then have them record an interview with a relative or neighbor who was involved in some way with this event. Students should prepare ahead of time a list of questions for the interview. The questions should elicit information that will help them discover what this event meant to the person. Typical questions might include: In what way was this person involved? Who else was involved and what were their roles? What does the person remember about the circumstances leading up to the event? Where was the person when it ended? What was his or her reaction? Remind students that when they are holding their interview, they should let the person they are interviewing speak and try not to cut them off.

Students should take notes during their interview, or if possible, record the audio of their interview so they can refer back to it. After the interview, students should answer the following questions:

  1. Who did you interview? What event did your interviewee describe? What was your interviewee’s connection to the event?

  1. What are three things your interviewee said about the event that you did not find in your research? This may include opinions, details about the event, or personal memories.

  1. What are two things you know from your research that your interviewee misremembered or did not mention?

Once students have completed their individual work, hold a class discussion of the following questions: How are oral histories a useful tool for understanding an event? What are the limitations of oral histories? Encourage students to share examples from their individual work.

Last updated: August 25, 2020