The Civil War Comes To Van Buren

Historic Downtown Van Buren is full 
of small stores now.
Arkansas' 19th largest city is Van Buren. Unless you are from Van Buren, or perhaps Sherwood, the state's 18th largest city, or Cabot, number 20, you probably didn't know that. And now that I've got the educational piece of this blog entry out of the way, I'll get on to more interesting stuff about Van Buren.

First settled in 1818 and known as Phillips Landing (Phillips being the last name of brothers who established a lumber yard in the area), the town acquired a post office and changed its name to Van Buren (after the Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren) in 1831. The town was incorporated on Christmas Eve, 1842. Almost exactly 20 years later, downtown Van Buren became the site of a rather strange Civil War battle.

Many of the buildings survive from the 1800's.
Three weeks before the Battle of Van Buren was fought, The Confederates suffered a loss in the battle of Prairie Grove, north of the town. Outnumbered 2 - 1, demoralized by the lack of adequate equipment, food, medicine, and clothes and having not been paid in many months, the Rebels retreated to the northern outskirts of Van Buren. Many of the men were without shoes and a large number had to sleep under makeshift lean-to's constructed of sticks in the woods due to a severe lack of tents. Winter weather set in and with the lack of proper shelter, warm clothing, medicine, and not enough food, almost half of the 4,000 troops soon fell ill. When the weather cleared enough for travel, over 7,000 Federals traversed a mountain pass over the Ozarks and ran into a small detachment of Texas cavalry. The Texans put up a fight, but were soon overwhelmed. The surviving few retreated toward the rest of the Confederate troops in the town, but those men were in no condition to put up an effective defense and the fighting withdrawal soon became a full-on retreat right down Main Street.

The battle raged straight down Main Street.
What made this battle unusual is that in the majority of fights in other towns, the citizens were warned beforehand by one side or the other or they were aware of a battle that was coming their way hours or even days before it got there. The Battle of Van Buren happened so quickly that the citizens were caught completely by surprise. As the troops rode and ran through town, shooting at each other and engaging in mortal hand-to-hand combat, civilian men were caught sitting on benches trading news in front of stores, women in their bonnets were caught shopping and children stopped playing in the streets to stare at the fighting soldiers. Amazingly, not one civilian was seriously hurt during the running fight through the town.

The Confederates made their way to the river where they jumped on board a ferry and a number of steam boats. The Yankees got to the river as the last few boats were starting to pull away from the pier. The Rebels set 2 of the boats on fire to keep them from being captured. One boat was stranded on a sand bar and when musket fire and artillery disabled another one, exactly 100 southern troops were captured.

Over 500 Confederate soldiers are 
buried in Fairview Cemetery.
A 2-hour cannon duel commenced when from a hill in Fairview Cemetery, Union cannons fired across the river at the Confederates who had made it safely across and the southerners who brought up their own cannon, fired about 100 shells at the Yanks. Only 1 Northern soldier was killed and five were wounded in the shelling, but a number of houses around the cemetery were damaged, a civilian was killed and several more wounded. As night fell, the Yanks gathered up their wounded and dead and both sides withdrew from the battle. Left to repair itself and bury the Confederate dead was a now stunned and very quiet Van Buren.

Over 500 Southern soldiers are buried in a large corner of Fairview Cemetery. In a sad statement to the way of that awful war, over 400 of the headstones are marked simply, "Unknown Confederate Soldier."