The Beale Wagon Road Bridge across The Poteau River west of Ft. Smith was reportedly burned by Federal cavalry troops evacuating Ft. Smith at the very start of the Civil War. According to Lt. Averell*, he had just left Ft. Smith on April 27, 1861 and tried to cross the Poteau on his famous ride west into Indian Territory. Lt. Averell had come from Washington, D. C. with an order to deliver an important message to Col. W. H. Emory, commander of all Federal forces in Indian Territory at the time. Lt. Averell wrote: "The Poteau River was 100 yards wide, was bank full and the bridge destroyed." Obviously, Averell thought the Beale (Whipple) bridge would be operational. Why did the best bridge on the most important road (to the Federal Army, at least) in Indian Territory suddenly get destroyed?
It is very likely that Federal Capt. S. D. Sturgis, com. of Ft. Smith and its 4 cavalry companies, burned the Poteau River Bridge (on the Beale Wagon Road+Butterfield Trail+California Trail to Skullyville) as Capt. Sturgis hastily evacuated Ft. Smith on April 23, 1861 on his way west to join up with Col. Emory and the rest of Emory's Federal command who were still posted at Fts. Washita, Arbuckle and Cobb in southwestern Indian Territory. Col. Emory surely didn't burn the bridge with his meager staff on his initial journey west on April 13, 1861, while leaving behind his highest ranking subordinate commander, Capt. Sturgis, still commanding Ft. Smith. Ten days later, Capt. Sturgis got a report that a large Confederate force from Little Rock was about to arrive by steamboat and attack Ft. Smith with a 1,000 men and several cannon. Sturgis immediately abandoned Ft. Smith on April 23, 1861 and rode west on the Beale Wagon Road with about 4 companies of cavalry. With hostile Confederate forces hot on his heels, why wouldn't Capt. Sturgis burn the only bridge Confederate forces could use to cross the Poteau behind him on the only good road headed west out of Ft. Smith? Sturgis surely did!
* See Page 7 of "Lieutenant Averell’s Ride at the Outbreak of the Civil War" by Muriel H. Wright. Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 39, No. 1, 1961, pp. 2-14.