Sunday, September 29, 2013

Civil War Sunday - In Your Former Back Yard

In the United States, when we think of the Civil War, we think of soldiers, North vs. South, epic battles, brother against brother, guns, cannons, and national parks.

But we rarely stop to realize just, exactly, what the lasting effect of our American Civil War was.  In many ways, 150 years later, we are still recovering, in ways we don't fully realize.

Take Arkansas, a former Confederate state, for example.  And a small town in Northwest Arkansas,in particular.

At this time last month, I was visiting the Northwest corner of Arkansas.  As my regular readers know, I lived in that area some 30 years ago. 

A little background, first.

Arkansas was one of the last states to join the Confederate States of America.  They did not secede until after the first battle of the Civil War in April of 1861.   Arkansas, which was a slave state, borders a state that stayed in the Union, Missouri.  The story of border states is special, and Arkansas is no exception.

Arkansas, in 1861, was still very much on the frontier.  But there were many bright spots pointing to a prosperous future.   One bright spot in particular was a community called Cane Hill. 

It was the first community settled by Europeans in Washington County (home of Fayetteville, and the Arkansas Razorbacks). It was a community on the cutting edge of progress.  Cane Hill was the home of Arkansas' first public school, first library, and first Sunday school.  

It had a newspaper, banks, hotels, a Masonic Lodge.

The Cane Hill school, in particular, has a fascinating history. 

At Cane Hill mills were built to grind wheat and corn. The community thrived. In 1852, the Cane Hill school was chartered as Arkansas' third college.  Its future seemed assured.  In fact, Fayetteville, another college town some 20 miles away, currently has a population of over 75,000. people.

You'd think Cane Hill, today, would be similar.

But for Cane Hill, history would not smile on it as broadly.

Fast forward to 2013.
The community, in 1901, was renamed Canehill but there is still enough usage of the old "Cane Hill" name. (I prefer Cane Hill myself). It has one main street, Arkansas Highway 45.  It has approximately 1400 residents, and a post office.  This is basically a rural farming community.

When I lived near here, the meat processing plant we used for our chickens was in Canehill.  In the early 1980's a convenience store with gas pumps was built.  Neither seem to be there any more.  The post office is still there.  A historical marker telling of a fight connected to the Civil War was near the convenience store, but that seems to be gone (or moved) now.

But, if you know where to look, some scars of Cane Hill's past remain.  In the 1980's, I saw these twice a day in commuting too and from work in Fayetteville, but I didn't know what I was looking at.  Now, thanks to some history minded people and the Internet, I know  Somewhat.

In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, Cane Hill College lost its student body as they joined the Confederate army.  The college closed. 

On November 25,1862, war came to Cane Hill in the form of a skirmish.  Today, there is no state or national park on the site, but there are now some attempts to place historical markers at important sections of the skirmish.  Three days later, there was a battle at Prairie Grove, about four miles away, commemorated by a well-thought out state park. (I will blog about Prairie Grove, too.)

Even before Cane Hill and Prairie Grove, groups called "partisan rangers" operated within Northwest Arkansas.  Law and order started to break down.  Whatever the partisan rangers were called (there are other names) they were basically guerrilla fighters.

The not-told-enough truth of battles and their aftermath is:  the civilians in the way of the troops suffer. Their farms are trampled, their livestock are run off, their crops ruined.  If they didn't have time to replant, they faced starvation come winter. It took years to recover.  Meantime, law and order continued to break down.  All over Northwest Arkansas, not just in Cane Hill, the guerrillas brought terror and death to the people, more than the actual battles ever did.

In some ways, say historians (keeping in mind I'm just an interested layperson), this guerrilla war was the true war in Arkansas.  It turned Northwest Arkansas, literally, into a barren wasteland of burned houses and deserted farms with overgrown field.  The people who could, fled.

In 1864, Union troops burned Cane Hill and the college.  Only one building survived, which was used by the Union troops as a field hospital.
This is that building today, along Highway 45.

After the war? Well, Cane Hill did rebuild but it would never live up to its former urban promise.  Cane Hill College did survive - for a while,  It ended up being rebuilt, but history, again, did not favor it continuing in Cane Hill.  It moved and still exists today, in Clarksville, AR, as the University of the Ozarks.  (Before it moved, though, it made history again - being the first college in Arkansas to admit women, in 1875.)

These are the ruins of Kidds Mill, which was here during the Civil War.  These walls are rebuilt a lot more recently.  (I have to admit some confusion about the actual name of this structure - if anyone can help this New York Yankee out, I'd appreciate it.)

This wheel (which you can see almost in the center of the wall photo) is also post-Civil War. However, the Confederates did camp here, before the skirmish at Cane Hill.

When I lived here, this was mainly a "rest area" with a parking space and a garbage dumpster.  The dumpster is gone and it is obvious there are some attempts to restore the structure.

In the early 1980's, I had absolutely no idea of the history of Cane Hill.  I am fortunate that my interest in the Civil War (and the existence of the Internet) led me to a story rich in drama.

Canehill, today, celebrates its history through an annual festival in late September. I am hoping that, if I am through the region again, I can visit several of the structures here that are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Later this year, I will blog about the skirmish at Cane Hill and the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas.  And, perhaps, even a little more about Cane Hill College.

Funny what you can find in your own back yard - or former back yard.  Even a former back yard 1400 miles from where you live now.

Have you ever found out about the history of an area years after you left?


  1. Growing up in Northern Virginia, local history was inescapable. We learned about it in school, and there were historical sites. Actually I lived on land that was once owned by George Washington. We shopped in Alexandria, and my dad worked in Washington, DC. And we enjoyed visiting Manassas Battlefield, with its cannons and statues. So I was steeped in history, although I am still learning more all the time.

    1. I've been to Manassas (both the city and the battlefield) and I enjoyed both. We stayed in Centerville, and I enjoyed the ethnic diversity of the area, too and the influence on local food stores. I hope to return one day.

  2. It is amazing that the field hospital is still there. I suppose the guerrillas were Union sympathizers? or just self-interested folk? Great reminder that there is much in one's own back yard - regardless of where you are living!


Your comments sustain me, as long as they are civil, are on topic, and do not contain profanity, advertising of any kind, links or spam. Any messages not meeting these criteria will immediately be composted, and my flowers will enjoy their contents.