CARTHAGE, Mo. —
According to his family’s oral history, the great-great-great-uncle of Paul Lewis, of Carl Junction, fought in the 1861 Battle of Carthage.
At the time, the family lived just southeast of Carthage, Lewis said, and his relative had joined a volunteer militia to aid the Union troops against the Confederate army.
“I just feel a little tied to it,” Lewis said Monday as he surveyed the Battle of Carthage State Historic Site. “I feel a draw to it. He sacrificed and he volunteered to (fight) to protect the area of the home.”
Lewis was among a handful of residents who attended Monday’s Civil War vespers service at the battle site to honor the Union and Confederate soldiers who fought there. This year marks the 149th anniversary of the conflict recognized as the first major land battle of the Civil War.
Lewis, who said other ancestors fought for both sides during the Civil War, said the battle is often overlooked by most people.
“We need to keep our history alive,” he said, invoking the common saying that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
The battle began July 5, 1861, as roughly 6,000 members of the Missouri State Guard — which had Confederate sympathies — marched toward Southwest Missouri for training. A force of 1,100 Union troops led by Col. Franz Sigel already had arrived to cut them off, according to author and historian Steve Cottrell, who spoke at Monday’s service.
Like Lewis, Cottrell said the battle, though one of the Civil War’s lesser-known battles, is just as important.
“I guarantee you the men who fell here at the Battle of Carthage, they sacrificed just as much as any who fell at Gettysburg or Shiloh,” he said.
Cottrell said the battle paved the way for the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield, one month later and also influenced events that led up to the Battle of Pea Ridge in Northwest Arkansas in March 1862 — a battle that established Union control of Missouri.
Its significance cannot be overlooked, he said. If the Carthage battle had played out differently, “the whole story of the war out here west of the Mississippi would have been different,” he said.
The soldiers of the battle weren’t the only individuals honored Monday. Carthage historian Marvin VanGilder, who for years organized the service, was recognized for his work. Cottrell said this was the first year that VanGilder, whom he called the “modern-day champion of the Battle of Carthage,” had to miss the service because of his health.
In VanGilder’s absence, the service was led by members of the Carthage Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee. Committee members also are planning for a July 2011 service and commemorative festival that will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle, as well as a re-enactment of the battle scheduled for May 2011.
The battle began about nine miles north of Carthage and eventually swept southward, with the Union forces finally retreating to Sarcoxie. About 50 men died and 150 were wounded, and the battle made the front pages of newspapers across the country, with both sides proclaiming a victory, according to local historian Steve Cottrell.