By Andy Ostmeyer
PEA RIDGE, Ark. — Nearly 50 years after two great armies collided here, Asa Payne, a veteran of the First Missouri Confederate Brigade, returned to the scene of so much slaughter he had witnessed in his youth. He wandered around the ridges and old fields, beneath a full moon he described as a “copper disk.”
He stayed that night on the old battlefield, and noted that it was eerily quiet, unlike in 1862. “The booming of the cannon and the wails of the wounded were hushed forever,” he wrote.
Still, Payne couldn’t help but remark on how little the place had changed when he returned in 1911, according to an account written by two historians of the battle, William Shea and Earl Hess.
Trees, like many a veteran, still carried the scars of musket balls and an artillery barrage that, up to that time, was the greatest ever seen on the continent, the historians wrote. Relic hunters regularly hit paydirt when scouring the field.
Returning today, Payne might be surprised at what he would recognize. Pea Ridge National Military Park is known today for being one of the most intact and authentic battlefields from the Civil War.
But, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the battle, there’s a new campaign under way — to complete as much as possible of the restoration of the site Payne and others couldn’t forget.
Using letters, diaries, military maps, land-office notes, surveys and other and records, park officials are cutting out trees that weren’t there in 1862, and replanting red and white oaks in areas that were forested.
“We got to remove a lot of cedar trees,” Chief Ranger Steve Black said last week of the 4,300-acre unit of the National Park Service. “We have 1,000 acres of cedar here.”
An apple orchard was planted last year near Elkhorn Tavern; records indicate an orchard was there in 1862. Hundreds of peach trees also have been planted on the old G.W. Ford farm; records indicate there were 1,500 peach trees on the farm in 1862.
Black said volunteers and others have put up more than 17 miles of “worm rail” fence to help mark the hardscrabble farms and houses that were there when the armies met in March of 1862 for one of the largest Civil War battles west of the Mississippi.
“This happened on people’s farms. People lived here. Civilians were affected by the battle,” said Black.
He also said the asphalt road that leads to a paved parking lot within sight of Elkhorn Tavern will be closed. Visitors in the future will walk down a dirt path a few hundred yards to reach the tavern when the restoration there is complete.
Plans also call for upgrades to the Visitor Center, which was built 46 years ago, Black said.
“The exhibits of 1963 were great for 1963, but they are woefully outdated (today),” he said. “It has not been good for children.”
“The new exhibits will be interactive. They will challenge the visitor,” he said, with an emphasis on learning more about the causes of the war and the reason that particular battle developed on the Missouri-Arkansas line.
“There will be things to move around, manipulate, ask questions,” Black said.
He said there also will be 3-D maps with lighted displays that will explain the two-day battle.
“The battle will be pointed out right in front of you,” said Black.
Originally, the plan was to have much of the work done this fall, but he said it will now be late winter or next spring before some of the work is complete.
“We want to enhance the experience of our visitors, let them see what it was like when thousands of soldiers fought and died on this ground,” Black said.
Andy Ostmeyer is the Globe’s metro editor. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
In March 1862, 10,500 Union troops, under the command of Gen. Samuel Curtis, fought about 16,000 Confederate troops, who were commanded by Gen. Earl Van Dorn. It was a Union victory critical to the North gaining control of Missouri. About 1,384 Union soldiers and about 2,000 Confederate soldiers were wounded or killed in the two-day battle.
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