Battle of Prairie Grove

“…The Bayonet or Retreat” by Andy Thomas

Winter in the Ozarks is harsh. The soldiers and citizens in the northwestern Arkansas Ozarks suffered mightily through the early winter of 1862, and their plight was exacerbated in the Battle of Prairie Grove, December 7, 1862.

The Union Army had secured the bulk of the state of Missouri against the Rebels by mid 1862. In St. Louis, General Samuel Curtis had relocated from Helena, Arkansas, to take overall command of the Federal Department of the Missouri. He oversaw General James Blunt’s Department of Kansas and Brigadier General John M. Schofield, who had given up command of the District of Missouri to take charge of Union field operations in the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas. The primary charge to Blunt and Schofield was to eliminate rebel activity from the Ozarks.1

This was a complicated order. Rebel activity came by way of night raids on Union encampments, bushwhacked homesteads, supply depot plundering and telegraph line cutting. Bushwhacking was a veritable hydra of hostility. It was not for lack of vision that the triumvirate of Union military leaders in the Ozarks set out to achieve peace through rebel suppression. The secessionist tactics were simply too clandestine and too persistent for long term, measureable success.

Blunt was the man for the job. His regard for guerrillas and anti-Union activities would become notorious. Believing any campaigns unnecessary through the winter, Schofield returned to St. Louis to recover from illness. Two divisions were ordered to winter camp in Springfield, Missouri, leaving Blunt and his one division in northwestern Arkansas.2

The Confederates, for their part, were scrambling to send troops across the Mississippi to secure Vicksburg in that ongoing siege. Major General Thomas C. Hindman, commanding the Army of the West, was convinced that his men could take out Blunt before moving troops east. His plan centered on attacking Blunt, encamped near Cane Hill, before Federal reinforcements could arrive from Springfield.

Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke commanded a federal force of nearly 2,500 men, and his initial orders from Hindman were to gather subsistence for the larger army, by way of procured flour and meal from regional mills, and fruits and vegetables from area farms. The presence of his adept cavalry, too, was believed to divert Blunt until Hindman could bring his full force in.3

Blunt and his 5000 men attacked Marmaduke on November 28. Retreat and counterattack followed, with a truce finally being called by Marmaduke to collect their dead and wounded. The Confederates returned to Hindman’s camp at Dripping Springs, near Van Buren. Blunt remained at Cane Hill, and only briefly savored his victory.

On December 3, he received word that Hindman, with over 11,000 men and 22 cannons, was en route to attack him again. Now outnumbered by more than two to one, Blunt sent word to Curtis for reinforcements. Curtis then telegraphed Major General Francis J. Herron in Springfield to hurry his two divisions toward Blunt. Herron’s 6000 men covered over 100 miles in three days, arriving in Fayetteville, on December 6. Hindman was now nearly matched, if not outnumbered, and he was forced to form a new plan.

Instead of a frontal attack on Blunt, Hindman decided to take out the Union reinforcements. He would defeat Herron’s men before they could reach Blunt, and then turn his massive force on Blunt’s rear. He told his men to keep their campfires burning, and left an Arkansas cavalry regiment in the hills opposite Blunt’s front line, to keep the Yankees in place with diversionary skirmishing.4 Herron learned of the Confederate assault in the early hours of December 7. His men moved to repel the Rebel surge on a horseshoe shaped wooded hill on the Illinois River, known as Prairie Grove.

By mid morning, the full brunt of fighting had commenced. Blunt finally received word of the battle and arrived to support Herron at nearly 2 p.m. Hindman’s extended line, weary and stretched thin, barely held out against the converging Union fronts. Back and forth, each side surged and fell back, and the fighting continued without any measureable gain for either side, unless casualties were considered.5 After twelve hours of unproductive fighting, Hindman finally retired.

Yet again, he deceived Blunt. Leaving campfires lit and Marmaduke’s cavalry in position, as if to resume fighting at daybreak, Hindman sent his army south during the night, wrapping the wheels of the artillery pieces in blankets to muffle the sound.6 Though Blunt was decidedly irritated, he met with Hindman the next morning to arrange for the care of the Confederate wounded that the Rebel Army could not transport.

Blunt’s men remained to bury the Confederate dead, and the Union Army provided rations for the Confederate wounded that were transported by Union ambulance to their field hospitals. Hindman’s army nearly disintegrated on their march south, arriving at their camps near Van Buren and Fort Smith with fewer than 5000 men. Casualties, sickness and desertion claimed the bulk of the Rebel Army after Prairie Grove; the men that remained to face Blunt later that month at Dripping Springs were ill, half-starved, shoeless and without warm clothing or blankets for the Ozark winter.7

The losses at Prairie Grove were about even for both armies, with roughly 1300 casualties each. The nature of war is such that orders and plans, on paper or in theory, don’t develop in predictable ways. Leaving the wounded on the battlefield, even in hotly contested ground, is a sacrosanct practice. At Prairie Grove, with both sides gaining and losing ground, the dead and wounded were a present, tangible reminder of the perils of war.

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  1. Alvin M. Josephy, The Civil War in the American West. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), page 362.
  2. Josephy, The Civil War in the American West, 363.
  3. Josephy, The Civil War in the American West, 363.
  4. Josephy, The Civil War in the American West, 364-5.
  5. In one instance, some two hundred wounded Union soldiers huddled in straw piled beneath an orchard at Prairie Grove, seeking warmth while awaiting medical attention. Federal shells, falling short, set the straw on fire. Huge clouds of smoke and fire engulfed the struggling men. Not only did the Union Army agonize over the knowledge that misfired artillery brought their men an agonizing death, but the continued fighting kept either side from diverting a drove of hogs that bore down upon the soldier’s remains. Josephy, The Civil War in the American West, 366.
  6. Josephy, The Civil War in the American West, 366.
  7. Josephy, The Civil War in the American West, 366.