Forty minutes west of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and a stone’s throw from Missouri sits Pea Ridge National Military Park, one of the best-preserved battlefields of the American Civil War. The sweeping fields cast against the peaks of Arkansas’s (I hate that this is the grammatically correct way to write this) mountains played host to one of the costliest Confederate blunders of the war and the beginning of the end of rebel operations in the west. For the Union, it provided control over Missouri and helped secure dominion over the Mississippi River.
I am, in no uncertain terms, a junkie of American Civil War history. My bookshelves pour over with Civil War volumes, my office is adorned in maps and memorabilia, and I own practically every Civil War computer game that’s ever been made. It comes as no surprise to Mrs. C&C when we end up at a battlefield. On the first major trip of our relationship, I dragged her out of bed before the sunrise and had her encased in the muddy fields of Gettysburg before breakfast. She has huddled in the trenches of Petersburg and peered down into the Crater made famous by Jude Law’s twangy speech in Cold Mountain. On our first trip to New Zealand, I actually managed to track down artifacts of the Civil War and had every intention of taking her to see them, but we ran out of time.
Pea Ridge was my first foray into battlefields of the western front, and it actually intermingles with markers for the Trail of Tears, so you get a double helping of history. My PawPaw (grandfather to non Okies) joined us on this adventure and, as a proud member of the Chickasaw tribe became visibly emotional with each Trail of Tears site we encountered. He’s the one who inspired my infatuation with history, dragging me to podunk Oklahoma towns because they had a small Civil War skirmish and frontier forts before I entered kindergarten, so it was deeply meaningful and memorable to share this with him. I have fond memories of climbing on cannons at Fort Washita and I’m probably one of ten people in the world familiar with the Battle of Honey Springs, a rather insignificant Civil War skirmish that played out in what’s now Oklahoma, thanks to him. I’m planning surprise trips to Yellowstone and Ireland for the two of us in the near future.
The Pea Ridge entrance fee is $7 per person or $15 per vehicle (it’s largely a self-guided driving tour that takes roughly 45 minutes to complete if you go at a quick pace), but the money goes directly to the National Parks Service and continued preservation of Pea Ridge, so it’s for a good cause. The visitor center houses a theater that provides a basic overview of the battle, a bookstore, and a small museum where you’ll find battle artifacts and some interactive exhibitions. Be sure to peek your head out of the back door and peer across the barren fields into the forests that helped screen troop movements.
From there, you’ll head west via car on a winding road with high bank turns and plenty of scenery, so it’s a fun drive. There are a couple of scenic overviews that allow you to scan the entire battlefield, but we encountered the largest crowds there and opted to explore other parts with more rigor. This is where it takes a certain mindset because you’re going to be looking at various fields with cannons in them – if you can’t empathize and imagine yourself in 1862, it’s not going to be nearly as enjoyable. I highly recommend listening to the incredibly nerdy Civil War music playlists you can find on Spotify. Nothing says commitment like listening to Bonnie Blue Flag and Ashokan Farewell while inspecting artillery pieces, though I don’t think Mrs. C&C appreciated my grandpa and I discussing the merits of various shell sizes and which hills would be ideal for cannon placement.
The pinnacle of Pea Ridge is Elkhorn Tavern, site of some of the most ferocious fighting of the battle (and the entire war according to many veteran accounts). You’ll note reenactors here who’ll give you a good play-by-play of the battle as it unfolded, so cozy up on the tavern’s front porch and have a listen.
While the battlefield is immaculately preserved, the real highlight of the visit was sharing the Trail of Tears locations with my grandpa, reveling in our shared heritage and renewing an old bond that, while dormant since I moved to Iowa, has never weakened. I enjoyed him regaling me with tales of his army days while convincing me he could build a cannon like the ones found out in the field, and debating with Mrs. C&C which one he thinks would be easier to hook up to the car. I can’t wait for our next adventures to Yellowstone and Ireland, and you can bet I’ll continue dragging Mrs. C&C to battlefields around the world. Hell, maybe someday she’ll even play a Civil War computer game with me.
If you’d like to continue preserving pieces of American history and battlefields around the country, check out the Civil War Trust.
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