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Prairie Grove

PRAIRIE GROVE BATTLEFIELD STATE PARK
P.O. Box 306, Prairie Grove, AR 72753, (479) 846-2990
Email: prairiegrove@arkansas.com 

Description: The Battle of Prairie Grove was fought on December 7, 1862, between Confederate General Thomas C. Hindman's Army of the Trans-Mississippi and the Union General James Blunt's Army of the Frontier. It was the last major Civil War battle in northwest Arkansas and the Confederate defeat here paved the way for control of the region by the Federal army. Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park includes much of the area where the heaviest fighting occurred, and interprets the site and the battle through a modern museum, visitor center, and a driving tour. Active efforts are underway to protect the Prairie Grove battlefield through acquisition of additional land and conservation easements. 

Prairie Grove is recognized nationally as one of America's most intact Civil War battle-fields. The park protects the battle site and interprets the Battle of Prairie Grove, where on December 7, 1862, the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi clashed with the Union Army of the Frontier resulting in about 2,700 casualties
 in a day of fierce fighting. 

Regularly Scheduled Events: May.- Memorial Day Tribute; Labor Day weekend: Clothesline Fair. First weekend in Dec. in even-numbered years.- Battle reenactment.

Admission Fees: Park: Free; Museum: Adults: $2.50; Children (6-12): $1.50, 
$6.00 family (plus Tax)

Open to Public: Park: Daily: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Museum: Daily: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Visitor Services: Civil War Explorer; trails; museum; gift shop; information; rest rooms; handicapped access.

Directions: From I-40 near Alma, AR: turn north on U.S. 540 for 40 miles to Fayetteville; then turn west on U.S. 62 for 10 miles to Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park. 

What Happened...

The Battle of Prairie Grove, December 7, 1862

From Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas;
Courtesy of the Department of Arkansas Heritage

Since the beginning of 1862, the Confederates had only reacted to Federal moves, but Hindman was greatly encouraged by what he saw as his success in forcing Curtis away from Little Rock. He convinced Holmes to allow him to seize the strategic initiative in northwestern Arkansas and southwestern Missouri. At Fort Smith Hindman struggled to train and equip the recruits and unwilling conscripts that made up the First Corps. Progress was excruciatingly slow because arms, ammunition, clothing, equipment, wagons, draft animals, and food were in short supply. Hindman grew impatient and led a small force into southwestern Missouri. He had barely established his headquarters in Pineville, Missouri, before Holmes called him to Little Rock for a conference. In mid-September Hindman reluctantly returned to Arkansas and left Brig. Gen. James S. Rains in command in Missouri.

As luck would have it, Holmes recalled Hindman at the worst possible moment. On September 19 Curtis, now a major general, succeeded Halleck as commander of the Department of the Missouri; Steele in turn succeeded Curtis as commander of the Federal garrison at Helena. In surveying the situation from his new headquarters in St. Louis, Curtis immediately noted Hindman's presence in the state. Curtis had swept Price's army out of southwestern Missouri eight months earlier, and he was absolutely determined to prevent the Confederates from reestablishing themselves in that region. He directed his principal subordinate, Brig. Gen. John M. Schofield, to clean the Rebels out of Missouri once and for all. In effect, Curtis gave Schofield the same task Halleck had assigned Curtis the previous December. The primary difference was that after Pea Ridge the focus of the war in the TransMississippi had shifted eastward to the banks of the Mississippi River, where the titanic struggle for Vicksburg was underway. The resources available to both sides to carry out major military operations on the frontier were smaller than at the beginning of the year. Another difference was that Schofield had much less military ability than Curtis. 

Schofield hastily gathered together a composite force that he called the Army of the Frontier. After several weeks of confused campaigning during which both Schofield and Rains demonstrated their incapacity for independent command, the Federals finally pushed the scattered Confederate detachments back into Arkansas and the Indian Territory. The Army of the Frontier entered northwestern Arkansas on October 18 and briefly occupied Fayetteville, Bentonville, and Cross Hollows. The only engagement of note in or near Arkansas occurred just west of Maysville on October 22 when Brig. Gen. James G. Blunt's Federal division attacked and routed a small force of Confederate Indians commanded by Col. Douglas H. Cooper. 

Early in November Schofield fell back to Springfield with two of his three divisions, but left Blunt's division in the northwestern corner of Arkansas. On November 20 Schofield became ill and returned to St. Louis. Command of the scattered Army of the Frontier passed to Blunt, a self-confident and aggressive amateur soldier from Kansas. Emboldened by his success at Maysville, Blunt led his division south down the Military Road that ran along the border between Arkansas and the Indian Territory. The other two Federal divisions, commanded by Brig. Gen. Francis J. Herron of Pea Ridge fame, remained near Springfield. By the end of November, the main components of the Army of the Frontier were dangerously far apart. 

Hindman returned to Fort Smith and learned of the inviting disposition of the Army of the Frontier. He decided to try to cross the Boston Mountains undetected and overwhelm Blunt's isolated division before Herron could react. If everything turned out as he hoped, the road to Missouri would be open once again. Back in Little Rock, Holmes continued to be extremely concerned about the danger of a Federal offensive from the east. His anxiety mounted when Confederate authorities in Richmond urged him to send ten thousand men to Vicksburg at once. Then he learned of Hindman's bold plan to march north. It was all too much for Holmes; he refused to allow any of his troops to leave Arkansas. "The invasion of Missouri is interdicted," he told Hindman, "so make your arrangements to give up that darling project." Hindman assured Holmes that the planned attack on Blunt was a limited offensive that did not presage an invasion of Missouri and that regardless of the outcome of the operation he would return to Fort Smith. Considering Hindman's nature, and his disdain for the ineffectual Holmes, Hindman may not have been entirely honest. 

The initial phase of the Confederate offensive did not go as planned. Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke led a cavalry force of about two thousand men across the Boston Mountains to distract Blunt and to screen Hindman's advance. To Marmaduke's surprise, Blunt rushed forward to meet him with a force of five thousand men and thirty cannons. The two unequal columns collided on November 28 at Cane Hill. The Federals used flanking maneuvers and superior artillery to drive the Confederates from one position after another. The nine-hour running fight swept across twelve miles of forested ridges and valleys. As was often the case in the Civil War when mobile mounted forces were engaged, casualties were light: the Federals lost nine killed, thirty-two wounded, and a small number missing; Confederate losses were slightly higher.

Marmaduke was pushed back across the Boston Mountains to Dripping Springs before Hindman could ferry the main body of his army across the Arkansas River from Fort Smith to Van Buren. Hindman was not particularly upset, however, because he realized that the engagement at Cane Hill had drawn the aggressive Blunt thirty-five miles deeper into Arkansas. Blunt's division now was located at the northern edge of the Boston Mountains, nearly one hundred miles from Herron's two divisions near Springfield, but only thirty miles from Hindman's army at Van Buren. Blunt was more vulnerable than ever and Hindman believed it was imperative that the Confederates take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity.

On December 3, Hindman led the eleven thousand men and twenty-two cannons of the First Corps of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi north toward the Boston Mountains. The ragged Rebels who tramped out of Van Buren exemplified Van Dorn's crippling legacy to the Trans-Mississippi: the First Corps was a makeshift army thrown together and rushed into battle without adequate training and equipment. Many men were conscripts of dubious reliability. They were armed with a reasonably effective mix of rifles, smoothbores, and shotguns, but they carried only enough ammunition for a single day of combat. The artillery was unimpressive even by Confederate standards. Draft animals were emaciated due to a lack of forage, and the small number of rickety wagons that composed the train could not support the army in the field for more than a few days. 

Hindman was optimistic despite the obvious weaknesses in his command. His plan was simple: Marmaduke would advance across the Boston Mountains once again and create a diversion by threatening Cane Hill from the south. With Blunt's attention fixed on Marmaduke, Hindman and the main body of the First Corps would swing around Blunt's left flank and strike him from the east. The Federals would be overwhelmed on the spot or be driven into the wilderness of the Indian Territory, where they would be without hope of supply or succor. It was a sound plan on paper, but it demanded a great deal of inexperienced officers and men and relied heavily on an extremely fragile logistical system. Thus began the final Confederate offensive in northwestern Arkansas.

Blunt was headstrong and belligerent, but he was no fool. He realized that his advanced position practically invited an attack, so he kept a close watch on Confederate activity in western Arkansas. On December 2, the day before the First Corps marched out of Van Buren, Blunt concluded that something was afoot. He telegraphed Herron to march immediately to his support. Despite the gravity of the situation, Blunt did not fall back toward Missouri. Instead, he placed his troops in defensive positions around Cane Hill and prepared for a fight. Three days passed as the anxious Federals waited for the slow-moving Confederate column to cross the Boston Mountains.

On December 6, Marmaduke's cavalry finally emerged from Cove Creek Valley and clashed with Federal cavalry near Reed's Mountain. While this noisy diversion was in progress, Hindman led his infantry and artillery around to the east of Cane Hill. The Confederates inched forward at an agonizingly slow pace, hampered by fatigue, confusion, primitive roads, failing draft animals, and disintegrating wagons and artillery vehicles. Nevertheless, events generally were unfolding according to plan, if not on schedule. Then, during the night of December 6-7, Hindman learned that Herron had left Springfield with his entire force and was hastening to Blunt's relief on Telegraph Road. Hindman realized he could not attack Blunt from the east and expose his rear to Herron. He decided instead to move around Blunt's left as originally planned, but to continue north and intercept Herron before he could reach Cane Hill. He intended to defeat Herron somewhere near Fayetteville, then turn back and deal with Blunt. 

The hastily revised plan required Hindman's Confederates to march farther and faster than originally anticipated. It also ignored the fact that they did not have enough ammunition to fight two battles. Finally, it meant that most of Marmaduke's cavalry would have to accompany the main body, leaving only a small force near Reed's Mountain to keep Blunt occupied. Hindman was not averse to taking risks. Now, as so often before in his civilian and military career, he would attempt to accomplish much with little.

Early the next morning, December 7, the Confederates struck out across the rolling terrain north of the Boston Mountains, giving a wide berth to Blunt's position at Cane Hill. The troops moved so slowly even Hindman reported that it was painful to observe the exhaustion of the men. Straggling became epidemic, and the train fell far behind. Shortly after sunrise Marmaduke's cavalry division, riding several miles ahead of the sluggish infantry, encountered a small Federal cavalry force near the Illinois River (west of present-day Farmington). The Federals were the vanguard of Herron's column. They were easily routed and retreated in disorder to the outskirts of Fayetteville, where they reached the safety of Herron's main body. 

The presence of Herron's two divisions at Fayetteville at that day and hour was nothing short of miraculous. Herron received Blunt's message late on December 3 and placed his troops in motion on Telegraph Road early the next morning. During the next three days, the Federals marched a hundred and ten miles-an average of almost thirty-five miles per day. Some units covered the final sixty-six miles in only thirty hours. The march was one of the extraordinary events of the war and an epic of human endurance. Not every one of Herron's men was able to maintain the furious pace, however. About seven thousand Federal soldiers set out at the beginning of the march but only half that number were on their feet at the end. Hundreds of those feet were bare, for many men either wore out their shoes along the way or found it more comfortable to do without them. Fortunately for both sides, the weather throughout the campaign was unseasonably mild for December. Herron's attenuated column reached Fayetteville during the night of December 6-7, halted for a brief rest, then moved on at sunrise and encountered Marmaduke's cavalry. 

Marmaduke fell back before the inexorable advance of Herron' s weary, footsore infantry. Ten miles west of Fayetteville the Confederate cavalry retired across the Illinois River and ascended a low wooded hill surrounded by rolling grasslands. Atop the hill was a modest structure known as Prairie Grove Presbyterian Church. Marmaduke halted to await the arrival of the rest of the First Corps, which slowly came up from the south and deployed along the hill facing north. By this stage of the campaign, the Confederates had suffered considerable attrition as well, and the First Corps probably consisted of fewer than nine thousand men. Hindman reached Prairie Grove at mid-morning with the intention of attacking Herron's force, but his men trickled in so slowly it would be afternoon before he had sufficient strength to do the job. Then his scouts reported that Blunt was stirring at Cane Hill and preparing to march. The Confederate commander was almost as worn out as his soldiers, and this latest information seemed to deflate him. Afraid that if he went after Herron, Blunt would strike him in the rear, Hindman simply stopped at Prairie Grove, unable to decide upon an appropriate course of action in this crisis.

Hindman first attempted to attack Blunt at Cane Hill before Herron arrived in support, then he attempted to attack Herron at Fayetteville before Blunt realized what was happening. Both efforts failed because of Herron's alacrity and Hindman's unrealistic expectations of what his army could accomplish. Now the tired, hungry, and poorly equipped Confederates were between two converging Federal forces whose combined strength was roughly equal to their own. And those Federal forces were led by two of the most combative officers in the Department of the Missouri. The coming battle would determine whether the First Corps of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi would survive to return to Van Buren.

During the morning of December 7, Herron and his two shrunken divisions forded the Illinois River and deployed on Crawford's Prairie opposite the Confederate right. Herron was outnumbered better than two to one and his line was less than half as long as the Confederate line. Moreover, his men-the thirty-five hundred or so who were still with him-were hardly in the best condition for a grueling fight. Undaunted, Herron ordered his twenty-four rifled cannons into action against the lighter Confederate artillery planted on the forward slope of the hill. Around ten o'clock the Federal artillery roared to life and began "Spitting Fire and Smoke Shell and Shot in to the Secesh Ranks." The bombardment lasted two hours. By noon all of the Confederate guns on Hindman's right had been disabled or abandoned, and most of the Confederate infantry and dismounted cavalry had taken cover on the reverse slope of the hill. The devastating bombardment was another stunning demonstration of the superiority of Federal artillery in the Trans-Mississippi.

When the Confederate batteries fell silent and the infantry disappeared from sight, Herron mistakenly assumed that the Confederates had retreated. He ordered four small regiments forward. The Federals advanced across Crawford's Prairie and up the wooded slope, easily overrunning an abandoned Rebel battery. They continued on past Archibald Borden's house and reached an orchard on the crest of the hill. There they were met by a furious counterattack and "a perfect hail storm of bullets" from two divisions of Confederate troops commanded by Marmaduke and Brig. Gen. Francis A. Shoup. Half of the Federals were killed or wounded within minutes. The Rebels then advanced from three sides and drove the surviving Federals back down the hill in disarray. "As we came off the field the bullets were flying seemingly as thick as hail and nearly every one was struck either in his person or clothing," wrote an Indiana soldier. "I was one of three in my company who did not receive a mark of a bullet." Wildly yelling Confederates, barely under the control of their officers, swept down the slope and across the prairie after the fleeing Federals, only to be cut down in heaps by Herron's artillery. 

Despite the bloody repulse of the spontaneous Confederate counterattack on Crawford's Prairie, Hindman saw his chance. With the Federal infantry decimated by the slaughter around the Borden house on the Confederate right, he had only to wheel forward his center and left and overwhelm Herron's command. A quick decisive victory might be possible after all. It was mid-afternoon, however, before the Confederates advanced down the slope toward the prairie. As they commenced the maneuvers required to swing around to approach Herron's position, they were struck by artillery fire from the northwest. Blunt's division was on the field. 

Blunt passed most of the morning at Cane Hill wondering why Hindman did not attack. When he heard the roar of artillery in the direction of Fayetteville, he belatedly realized that Hindman had gotten around his flank and intercepted Herron. Furious at having been fooled, Blunt immediately marched toward the sound of the guns. It was fortunate for the Union cause in the Trans-Mississippi that he did so, for he arrived on the battlefield in the nick of time. Blunt's division deployed opposite Brig. Gen. Daniel M. Frost's division on the Confederate left, which was just beginning to move toward Herron. Blunt unleashed his artillery against the surprised Confederates and drove them back to the hill. He then sent his fresh infantry forward. Severe fighting raged around the William Morton house at the base of the hill, but the Federals were unable to dislodge the numerically superior Confederates and eventually fell back. Frost's men sensed victory and pursued the Federals onto the prairie, but were "mowed down like grass with canister and grape" from Blunt's massed artillery. The bloody repulse of the Confederate counterattack was a reprise of what had occurred a few hours earlier on Herron's part of the battlefield. Confederate survivors retreated back up the wooded slope and remained there for the duration of the battle. Late in the afternoon, Blunt and Herron made contact and thereafter presented a continuous front to the enemy. Neither army was able to dislodge the other and there were no more major assaults, though artillery fire and volleys of musketry raged along the line until dark . 

During the night of December 7-8, Blunt ordered up three thousand cavalrymen whom he had held in reserve at Rhea's Mill to guard his train. Hundreds of footsore but determined Federal stragglers, barefoot or otherwise, limped in from Missouri and rejoined Herron. Hindman had no reserves to call upon, and his stragglers either deserted or drifted back to Van Buren. Moreover, his artillery had been devastated, his train was miles to the rear, and his men were low on ammunition and out of food. There was nothing to do but withdraw under cover of darkness. The weary soldiers of the battered First Corps quietly slipped away from the battlefield, leaving behind their dead and most of their wounded. They trudged back across the Boston Mountains and reached Van Buren on December 10, a pathetic remnant of a ragtag army. 

If Pea Ridge was an extended boxing match in which the combatants weaved and jabbed, Prairie Grove was a short, brutal, slugging match in which the two sides traded direct frontal assaults until both were exhausted. "For the forces engaged, there was no more stubborn fight and no greater casualties in any battle of the war than at Prairie Grove, Arkansas," declared a Federal officer. He was correct. The toll for both sides was severe. The Federals went into battle with fewer than 8,000 men and suffered 1,261 casualties: 175 killed, 813 wounded, and 263 missing. Most of the losses occurred in the terrible fighting around the Borden house. Confederate numbers are problematic, as always. The Confederates had no more than 9,000 men on the battlefield and suffered at least 1,317 casualties: 164 killed, 817 wounded, and 336 missing. Actual Rebel losses almost certainly were higher. A reasonable conclusion is that each army lost over 15 percent of the troops engaged. In addition to men struck down in the battle, the Confederates experienced serious desertion of conscripts during the campaign. Several hundred of these deserters, mostly northern Arkansans who opposed secession, changed sides after the battle and enrolled in Arkansas Union regiments. 

In late December Blunt learned that Schofield had recovered his health and was on his way to resume command of the Army of the Frontier. For several weeks Blunt had toyed with the idea of a raid to the Arkansas River. He believed that such an operation would disrupt the Confederate logistical base at Fort Smith and Van Buren and make it impossible for Hindman to launch another campaign into northwestern Arkansas or southwestern Missouri in the foreseeable future. Blunt feared that the ambitious but inept Schofield would shoulder him aside and fritter away this opportunity. After conferring with Herron, who enthusiastically supported the plan, Blunt decided to act while he still commanded the Army of the Frontier.

On December 27 Blunt and Herron led eight thousand men and thirty cannons on a rapid march across the Boston Mountains. The Federals made surprisingly good time on the primitive roads that had caused the Confederates so much grief. They stormed into Van Buren the next day, capturing over one hundred surprised Rebels and scattering hundreds more in all directions. The Federals looted the town, destroyed three steamboats and a ferry, and burned a large amount of food and military stores. Hindman had only about five thousand troops in the vicinity, most of them just across the river in Fort Smith. He now regarded Blunt and Herron as formidable opponents and had no desire to tangle with them again so soon after Prairie Grove. He burned two Steamboats at Fort Smith and hastened down the south bank of the Arkansas River toward Clarksville with what remained of the First Corps. The Confederate exodus was so abrupt that between three and four thousand Rebels were left behind in Fort Smith hospitals. As it turned out, Blunt made no attempt to cross the river and reach Fort Smith. He withdrew from Van Buren on December 29, his objective achieved. The Army of the Frontier recrossed the Boston Mountains and returned to its camps in northwestern Arkansas two days later. The Prairie Grove campaign was over. 

The course of events in northwestern Arkansas during the fall of 1862 was another unmitigated disaster for the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy. Hindman's First Corps fought Blunt's Army of the Frontier to a costly tactical draw at Prairie Grove, but the purpose of Hindman's offensive was to destroy Blunt's isolated division and recover northwestern Arkansas and southwestern Missouri. None of these strategic objectives was achieved. The First Corps, assembled at such enormous cost in time, energy, and resources, was devastated and its men dispirited. Prairie Grove also cost the Federals dearly, but they succeeded in turning back the Confederates and defending the strategic gains made earlier in the year. 

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