Fort Smith National Cemetery
President Abraham Lincoln authorized the establishment national cemeteries by signing the "... for the soldiers who die in the service of the country." Congress saw fit to provide in Section 18 of the Act provided: “That the President of the United States shall have power, whenever in his opinion it shall be expedient, to purchase cemetery grounds and cause them to be securely enclosed, to be used as a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country.” After signature of the Act of 1862, fourteen cemeteries were established. Four were redesignated as National Cemeteries at:
Washington, D.C. (The Old Soldiers Home)
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
Fort Scott, Kansas
Seven other cemeteries were established at troop locations at:
New Albany, Indiana
Camp Butler, Illinois
Loudon Park, Maryland
Another was opened at Cypress Hills, New York, established due to fatalities of both Confederate Prisoners and Union Solders, who died due to a train wreck. Others were established at particularly deadly battlefield:
- Antietam – Sharpsburg, Maryland
- Mill Springs, Kentucky.
Throughout the Civil War, the number of national cemeteries continued to increase. In 1863, the perhaps the most notorious opened after the Battle of Gettysburg.
After the conclusion of the American Civil War many more national cemeteries opened. In 1867, seventeen national cemeteries were established, including this one at Fort Smith, Arkansas. A large part of opening this and other western cemeteries was due to the increasing presence of the United States Army on the Frontier of the plains.
Fort Smith was named after General Thomas Adams Smith (1781 – 1844), who commanded the U.S. Army Rifle Regiment headquartered in St. Louis. In 1817, General Thomas Smith tasked Major William Bradford was tasked with keeping the peace in western Arkansas, from lawlessness of the area and particularly between the Cherokee and Osage tribes. Tensions between the two tribes were growing as they were being pushed westward. In order to combat these problems, Fort Smith was located on the Arkansas River. Seven short years later, the fort was abandoned and operations moved 80 miles west to Fort Gibson.
In 1838, after Arkansas entered the Union as a state, Congress authorized a second Fort Smith for protection along the border with the Indian Territory, or present day Oklahoma. The proposed fort was designed with massive fortification walls. The Army was very reluctant to proceed with this not seeing the necessity. The new trend with modern forts was to build no walls or minimal fortifications. Over the next few years, labor difficulties and budget overruns plagued the construction of this new garrison.
Eight years later, the fortification was complete, but not quite to the specifications as intended. Less than half the buildings were constructed. The fortification walls ended up being constructed with varying heights of six to twelve feet tall, from an intended twelve feet. The walls were to be constructed in triangle, with cannon platforms in each corner. These were never completed and eventually the space was turned into warehouse space.
During the 1850’s, the posts turned its mission into one of supplying the forts to the west and the Indian tribes. The war with Mexico in 1848, showed the necessity of moving supplies westward, which Fort Smith played a pivotal role.
With the onset of the American Civil War in 1861, Union troops abandoned the post and Confederate troops the garrison. A major battle was missed as Union troops slipped out under the cover of darkness just hours prior to a planned attack by Arkansas state militia. The fort remained in the hands of Confederate troops until September 1, 1863, when Federal troops returned to reclaim the garrison.
The “new” National Cemetery at Fort Smith was established at the “old” post cemetery. Many soldiers bodies had been recovered from throughout the area’s battlefields, and reburied here.
The most infamous burial at Fort Smith National Cemetery is that of Judge Isaac C. Parker. Judge Parker lent his hand to perhaps the most notorious portion of Fort Smith’s legend and history. He was known as the “hanging judge.” In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Parker the U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas. This district was largely over the “Indian Territory,” now known as Oklahoma. The Indian Territory had become a hideout for outlaws. During Parker’s 21 year tenure as Judge, he sentenced 151 men to death, with 83 actually executed. Two months after Judge Parker’s removal from office, he died, and was buried at the cemetery.
Many Confederate soldiers are buried at Fort Smith, around 400 in number. There is also a memorial to the Unknown Confederate Dead.
Today, over 13,000 people are buried here. The cemetery consists of 31.3 acres, only 0.4 acres smaller than Little Rock National Cemetery, the state’s largest cemetery.