Makeshift Civil War Hospitals: Twelve Corners Baptist Church, Benton Co., Ark.

The scale and scope of casualties during the American Civil War was something the country’s medical system and civilian and military caregivers were woefully unprepared to address. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died from combat, accident, starvation, and disease during the Civil War.

Lack of a Medical Care System

At the beginning of the war, and through much of the first two years, there was no standardized system of medical care. There were no ambulance corps to remove the dead and wounded from the battlefield. No military hospitals. No organized or trained medical providers, except for a few field doctors. No designated burial grounds or procedures for burying the dead. And, no place for the wounded to convalesce as they healed.  

Lacking hospitals and medical personnel, local homes, churches and other structures were quickly turned into field hospitals as the conflicts demanded.

The Minié Ball and Rifled Musket

Contributing to the carnage was a small, but deadly, bullet — the Minié ball, used in a new type of rifled musket. The minié ball was made of soft lead, had a conical shape, and had anywhere from two to four rings at the base. 

The old style smooth-bore musket had a limited range and fired a round ball of lead that usually broke the skin and fractured any bone it hit. 

The soft lead of the minié ball caused the ball to flatten out upon hitting the human body, the bullet shattered the victim’s bones and destroyed tissue in catastrophic ways. When a minié ball entered the body, it could carry with it bits of clothing and bacteria from the soiled uniform, which meant a greater risk of infection.

According to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, “The vast majority of wounds documented during the Civil War were caused by the Minié ball, while the rest were from grapeshot, canister or other exploding shells. Few men were treated for saber or bayonet wounds and even fewer for cannonball wounds.”

If a bone was badly damaged, Civil War surgeons understood that the best chance of their patient’s survival was amputation. A limb was lost, but the soldier risked less chance of developing life-threatening complications like gangrene. Minié ball-induced amputations represented three out of four operations performed at Civil War hospitals.

Twelve Corners Baptist Church, Converted to Makeshift Hospital

The original church bell at Twelve Corners Baptist Church

Twelve Corners Baptist Church, located in Benton county, Arkansas, was commandeered in March 1862 by Army officers to serve as a makeshift hospital following the Battle of Pea Ridge (also known as the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern).

On March 7–8, 1862, during the Civil War, the fields around Pea Ridge Mountain and Elkhorn Tavern in Arkansas were the site of the Battle of Pea Ridge.

As a seceded state, Arkansas officially supported the Confederacy, but the support was not unanimous in northwest Arkansas. Some families with roots in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio held Union sympathies.

The Battle of Pea Ridge raged between 16,000 Confederate troops led by General Earl Van Dorn and 10,500 Union troops led by General Samuel R. Curtis. This was the largest Civil War engagement west of the Mississippi River and is credited with securing Missouri for the Union and opened Arkansas to Union occupation.

Regiments making up the Union Army included soldiers from Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa; the Confederate Army of the West consisted of troops from Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, and the Creek, Cherokee and Choctaw tribes.

Image from the Civil War Battlefields, Library of Congress

As the brutal skirmishes ended, the injured were taken to the church. It was there citizen volunteers and the military coped with the onslaught of the wounded, and would bury the dead.

Until the second Battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863, the Battle of Pea Ridge was recorded as the bloodiest and most costly battle fought west of the Mississippi River.

General Curtis reported 203 killed, 980 wounded and 201 missing for a total of 1,384 Union casualties.  General Van Dorn reported Confederate losses as 800 killed and wounded, with between 200 and 300 prisoners. More recent estimates place the Confederate losses at approximately 2,500 casualties, including a large portion of its senior officers.  

Volunteers at the church were undoubtedly woefully unprepared, but they did the best that could be done. They were not trained medical providers or knowledgeable about the challenges posed by the wounds, infections and diseases. They were delivering care in the pre-antibiotic era, before sterile techniques and antisepsis were known. (The germ theory of disease would not be established until 1870.) 

There were few useful medications available, and clean dressings scarce. There were no cots, so the injured and sick would have laid on either the church floor or ground outside exposed to the elements; or if lucky, lying on a lice-infested camp blanket under a partial tent.   

The doctor must have labored for hours in the overcrowded, one-room church. He would have performed a variety of combat injury and postoperative wound infection procedures, using rudimentary instruments. It is estimated that three of four surgical procedures would have been amputations. Amputations were not carried out using sterile techniques and subsequent gangrene was common. A large percentage of patients with it died. 

Surgical Instruments M1999-2145 U.S. Sanitary Commission Collection Record Group ANRC Records of the American National Red Cross

The scene at the church would have been frightful, men bloodied and crying out, amputated limbs, and arrival of carts transporting the injured and corpses. 

The stench of putrefying infectious flesh wafting through the hospital camp, combined with the burying of the corpses, would have been unimaginable.

It has been documented that there were too many dead and no time and resources to bury them individually; so trenches were dug behind the church and the soldiers buried in mass graves. Their remains would later be exhumed and re-interned in the National Cemetery.

History of Twelve Corners

The area of Twelve Corners was pivotal to Arkansas’ history. Located three and a half miles northeast of Pea Ridge, Twelve Corners was notable for its location on the Bentonville Detour, the former bypass from Telegraph Road in Missouri to the county seat. It was also located close to the Arkansas–Missouri state line, the Pea Ridge Plateau, and Elkhorn Tavern, which made it a significant area for a Confederate camp during the Battle of Pea Ridge. 

The site of the battle is preserved as the Pea Ridge National Military Park, created by the United States Congress in 1956 and dedicated in 1963. The town’s downtown business district is on the National Register of Historic Places.  

Settlement in the northwest corner of Arkansas Territory began around 1828. About 1840, some of the earliest homesteaders in the area formed the Baptist Society of Benton County in an upper room of pioneer William Ruddick’s log cabin at the southeast end of Big Mountain, now called Elkhorn Mountain (where the famous Elkhorn Tavern now stands). Ruddick, a miller from Illinois, had arrived with his family around 1830. With the help of Samuel Burks—husband of his oldest daughter, Julia—he built one of the first homes in the area.

After the Baptist Society outgrew Ruddick’s home, members sought a permanent church location. John Buttry, and his wife, Margaret (Martin) Buttry, donated land near their home for establishment of Twelve Corners church, school, and cemetery. John, Margaret, their relatives, and friends came from a Baptist church in eastern Tennessee also called Twelve Corners. Twelve Corners is significant because it relates to the 12 corners on a cross. [John Buttry was the brother of this author’s 3rd great-grandfather, Robert.]

The log structure church followed the Tennessee design, with twelve corners formed by a shallow entrance annex facing south. A similar extension was on the opposite end of the main room. The interior was simply finished, with log benches and four glazed windows. Wood stoves heated the building. 

The church building, being the center of the community, resulted in the area’s unique name.

The original log strewn church was built in 1840, but burned in 1841. A new oak-framed building with “shiplap siding” was built in 1842 on the same land. 

In 1845 the Southern Baptist Convention was formed. As soon as word got back to Arkansas, Twelve Corners declared themselves a Southern Baptist Church. The church claims it is the oldest protestant church in the state of Arkansas and possibly west of the Mississippi River, yet some historians disagree.

On March 26, 1954, a tornado hit the Twelve Corners area. When rebuilding the community, residents covered the church’s wood exterior with a sandstone veneer.  

Twelve Corners Baptist Church’s membership has thrived and waned through its many years of existence. It remained a one-room church into the early 1990s, then over subsequent years a new worship center, classrooms, a pavilion and several acres of land were added to the church property. Even today, anytime the church wants to build, they must notify officials from Fort Leonard Wood and take precautions to not inadvertently or carelessly dig up the remains of a buried soldier.

Regular services are still held in the church, and the building and historic site may be seen on Twelve Corners Road, which is off of Highway 72 going toward Pea Ridge.

References

Civil War-Era Hospitals, essay series by Stanley B. Burns, MD; Confederate Soldiers of Benton county, Arkansas (roster, obituaries and death notices, Benton county’s history in the Civil War); History of Arkansas, 1889, Goodspeeds’s Publishing Company; Wounds, Ammunition and Amputation, National Museum of Civil War Medicine; Twelve Corners’ rich past feted, Pea Ridge Times, Oct. 1, 2014; Pea Ridge, Elkhorn Tavern, American Battlefield Trust

Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West, by authors William L. Shea and earl J. Hess
The Battle of Pea Ridge: The Civil War Fight for the Ozarks, by James R. Knight, Illustrated
A History of the Ozarks, Volume 2: The Conflicted Ozarks, by Brooks Blevins

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