Pea Ridge: A Restored Battlefield

Yesterday I closed saying Pea Ridge was a well restored and maintained battlefield.   Yes restored.

When established in 1956, Pea Ridge National Battlefield Park included over 4,000 acres of the core battlefield area.  Unlike many other fields, Pea Ridge’s bounds included nearly all the contested ground.  But that area included several dozen structures – homes, barns, cribs – none of which dated to the war.  Farmers cleared much of the wartime forests for fields in the years after the war.   The effect of agricultural activity on the battlefield is clear in this 1940’s aerial photograph.

1940's Aerial Photo of Pea Ridge (see note)

With a patchwork of fields across the core battlefield area, only the familiar Big Mountain along with traces of the road network stand out.   I’ve traced placed some notations on the photo in the view below.

1940s Map with Fields, Roads and Points Noted. (Click to enlarge.)

Yellow lines show the existing road network.  In particular notice the Telegraph and Leetown Roads, which were still in full use at that time.   On the left, County Road 700 would become the western boundary of the park.  I don’t think the US highways were designated in the 1940s, but have labeled them as such here for reference.  Green boxes indicate the important fields that existed during the battle.  And I’ve added some red stars for notable reference points for discussion.

In stark contrast to the forest with a few patches of fields, in 1940 only a few stands of trees stood on what was otherwise an expanse of farmer’s fields.  Numerous buildings appear in those fields.

On the left, notice the Leetown battlefield.  The wood line where McCulloch and McInstosh fell was not there in 1940.   Morgan’s Woods, where combatants fought a bitter close-quarters contest, were also gone save a small stand of trees.   Little Mountain retained its wooded slopes, but stood surrounded by open, clear fields.

Looking to the eastern part of the field, at Welfley’s Knoll shadows of several buildings lay in what is an enlarged Cox’s Field.  Big Mountain, while still wooded, had several open fields on top.  A new structure stood at the site of Elkhorn Tavern.  And the wood lines around Ruddick’s and Clemon’s fields were gone.  The wide intersections near the tavern imply that the Telegraph Road, Ford Road, and Huntsville Road were in use.

Compare to a Google Earth view today, with the same points indicated.

Modern View of Pea Ridge Battlefield

(You may wish to browse the Google Map I prepared this from for reference also.)

Most apparent are the restored wood lines.  But look close.  Practically no buildings (Elkhorn Tavern, the visitor center, and some park maintenance areas).  Where did they go?  In a visit to the battlefield in the  early 1980s, I recall seeing debris piles and remains off to the sides of the display areas.  At that time park rangers indicated those were structures leveled for landscape restoration.   (During my recent visit, a volunteer at the park further elaborated that in the 1960s, many structures were simply leveled in place as the park lacked funds.  Those were cleaned up over time.)

So can you “restore” a battlefield?  Perhaps.  In the case of Pea Ridge, the National Park Service worked for more than half a century to restore wood lines and clear non-wartime structures.  Sure, no shopping complexes or apartments were leveled, but the starting point in 1956 was far from the 1862 appearance.  The change is remarkable, but is not the whole story.  The overhead views do not provide details of fence lines, artillery pieces, and a reconstructed Elkhorn Tavern.   For those touches, organizations outside the park aided the efforts (and rightfully should be covered in another post).

pea ridge 250
Elkhorn Tavern from the old Huntsville Road Trace

Pea Ridge was not exactly a pristine battlefield which the park service simply had to maintain.  When created in 1956, the field was a diamond in the rough that has taken well to fifty plus years of polishing.


NOTE:   Source for the aerial photo is “The Battle Raged…With Terrible Fury:” Battlefield Archeology of Pea Ridge National Military Park, Midwest Archeological Center Technical Report No. 112, by Carl G. Carlson-Drexler, Douglas D. Scott, and Harold Roeker.   Lincoln, Nebraska:  United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Midwest Archeological Center, 2008, page 7.   I recommend this very detailed study of the field’s artifacts for those interested in the battlefield.


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