PRAIRIE GROVE -- An archeological survey is underway to find Civil War artifacts from the Battle of Prairie Grove in an area that has been untouched for decades.
Matt Mulheran, park interpreter with Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, said the archeological dig has been planned for some time, but first the park had to clean out all the underbrush from about 6 acres along the hillside in front of the Borden House and toward the eastern end of the ridge.
Two of the main reasons for clearing the land, Mulheran said, was to remove invasive plant species and restore this area to how it appeared during the actual Dec. 7, 1862, battle. More than 2,500 soldiers died in the intense battle between Confederate and Union armies.
During the battle, the hill coming down from the Borden House was very open, not dense with trees or underbrush, Mulheran said.
"We want people to have a war-time experience at the park and help them understand what it was like at the time of the battle," he added.
Once the land was cleared, archeologists with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, University of Arkansas, were able to come on site and start surveying the land to learn more about the movement of troops during the battle.
The survey started in late February but had to stop after two weeks when the University of Arkansas closed its campus and sent students home for online classes. Archeologists returned to the battlefield May 13 to continue their work.
Michael Evans, assistant archeologist with the UA station, said archeologists have found about 350 battle artifacts so far. He said he hopes they will discover 400-500 artifacts by the time the project is finished this time around.
"We're getting enough artifacts to paint a picture," Evans said. "This area is really rich."
Archeologists are being discriminate about what they keep, Evans said, and removing items that aren't battle related.
The biggest hurdle are items found from multiple Civil War reenactments over the years, said Jared Pebworth, also an assistant archeologist with the station.
"Reenactors dropped everything from bullets (not real ones) to buttons," Pebworth. "We have to figure out what's old and what's new."
They've found items from "The Blue and Gray" mini-series that aired during 1982. Part of the series was filmed at the Battlefield State Park. They also are finding "historic trash," which Evans described as trash from farming activities, farming artifacts and farming debris.
Battle-related artifacts include fired bullets, dropped bullets, artillery shells and fragments, and harness hardware.
As soldiers crossed through the area, they dropped bullets, lost buttons and other historic items.
"They leave these behind and we pick up the pieces and we get a feel for how people traveled." Evans said.
Bullets and artillery shells help archeologists discern where certain troops were during the battle, Evans said, noting, "We can tie them into specific groups because we know one group had those types of rifles and others didn't. This allows us to see more about their movement."
Union solders, for example, used the James shell in their artillery. Confederate guns had more of the round, traditional cannon ball.
Mulheran said some items discovered have brought new light to the Battle of Prairie Grove and "concrete evidence" about the battle. Based on the artifacts found, Mulheran said troop positions may have to be altered for where they were during the battle.
As an example, archeologists found bullets tied to the 37th Illinois in one section along the hillside, Pebworth said. This is new information and lets archeologists know where those soldiers were during the battle.
Pebworth said finding artifacts is important but what's most useful to archeologists is if arctifacts can be tied to specific groups and offer information about the movement of that unit during the battle.
Evans said the Fayetteville research station will take the artifacts, clean them, study them and compare them to what archeologists already know about the battle. They will take photos of the objects with descriptions and provide an interpretive report and a map to show where all items were found.
"There's a lot of records we can draw from, that's what is nice about the Civil War," Evans said.
Archeologists have worked on a lot of Civil War sites in Northwest Arkansas, such as the Battle of Pea Ridge, and this information will help with the latest survey.
"This is a good opportunity to collect those objects scientifically so we're able to study them in the future and it helps us interpret other sites," Evans said.
He also said areas will be reworked in the future. When archeologists returned in May, they returned to some of the sections and found more artifacts.
Mulheran said he will be interested in seeing the final report.
"I'm looking forward to how it may rewrite the narrative of the battle," Mulheran said.
NW News on 05/31/2020