December 6, 1862 (Saturday)
James Blunt believed he and his Army of the Frontier were ready for a fight. At Cane Hill, Arkansas, he knew the 11,000 Rebels under Thomas Hindman were approaching, and believed them to be steadily coming up the Van Buren Road. This made the most sense, since they were, in fact, coming from Van Buren.
So sure was Blunt that for the past three days, he and his 5,000 men had fortified positions opposing such an advance, while leaving one route, that of Cove Creek Road, a smaller road to the east, relatively unguarded.
There was good reason for this. While Cove Creek Road would bring the Confederates practically behind the Union lines, it would leave their supply line and line of retreat wide open for Federal cavalry to ravage. Van Buren Road, which ran parallel to the more famous Wire Road, terminated just south of Cane Hill at the Fayetteville Road, and was thus the most likely road for the Rebels to use.
General Hindman, commanding the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi, cleverly intended to do exactly as Blunt suspected he would do. His army was just now clearing the Boston Mountains and was pushing ever-closer to the Federal position. Along the way, the Southern soldiers read a short pamphlet prepared by Hindman before he left Van Buren, several days back.
“Remember that the enemy you engage have no feelings of mercy or kindness towards you. His ranks are composed of Pin Indians, free negroes, Southern Tories, Kansas jayhawkers, and hired Dutch cut-throats. These bloody ruffians have invaded your country, stolen and destroyed your property, murdered your neighbors, outraged your women, driven your children from their homes, and defiled the graves of your kindred. If each man of you will do what I have here urged upon you, we will utterly destroy them. We can do this; we must do it;. our country will be ruined if we fail. A just God will strengthen our arms and give us a glorious victory.”
It was a bit of hyperbole to be sure, but riveting reading for the Rebels as they tramped towards the junction with Cove Creek Road.
Blunt had not left Cove Creek Road unguarded. About 400 troopers from the Kansas Cavalry watched over the junction with Van Buren Road. Their job was to slow down the Rebel advance as it pushed its way towards Cane Hill. But by the night of the 5th, Hindman had fallen behind schedule. He had hoped to be at the junction, but was fifteen miles south.
No matter, mused Hindman, Blunt would still be there and would still be isolated. Except that was only half true. Blunt would indeed still be there, but Hindman never expected Union reinforcements to scream down from Springfield, Missouri, well over 100 miles away. He simply had no idea that instead of 5,000, he would be facing double that if he delayed too long
On the morning of this date, Hindman’s Rebels started off by skirmishing with Blunt’s pickets and scouts, as they slowly fell back towards the junction. By 11am, the Federals decided that the junction couldn’t be held against both Confederate cavalry and infantry and began to withdraw to Reed’s Mountain, along Van Buren Road.
As Blunt predicted, Hindman followed, turning west with Van Buren Road, advancing towards the Union position. Hindman expected Blunt to make a stand at Reed’s Mountain. He did, but only with his advance cavalry. Without artillery support, Blunt was counting on them to hold through the night.
A trickle of reinforcements joined the 400 Federals, but Hindman got it in his head that he needed Reed’s Mountain just a little bit more than Blunt needed it. He called for a charge and ended up flanking the Federals from their position just as the sun was setting.
The Federal cavalry fell back and, as night fell, most of the Confederates did as well, encamping near the junction of Van Buren and Cove Creek Roads, where Hindman established his headquarters.
That night, after the wounded were dragged off Reed’s Mountain, Hindmand and his officers were finalizing plans for the next day’s push up the Van Buren Road for a frontal assault that would turn into a double envelopment of Blunt’s much smaller force. As they were dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, a scout burst into the meeting. And this is when everything changed.
As it turned out, those Federal reinforcements that would take three or four days to arrive were basically here. They were quickly marching down Fayetteville Road to Cane Hill, which they would reach the next day.
If Hindman continued as planned, he would only succeed in pushing Blunt towards his reinforcements. Now, Hindman faced two choices. He could completely withdraw his army or come up with a new plan on the spot. He chose the latter and spent the night working on what he hoped would be his masterpiece and not merely a mad grasping at straws.
As plans went, it fell somewhere in between. Rather than fighting Blunt, he decided to first fight Blunt’s reinforcements, commanded by Francis Herron. Having marched over 100 miles in three days, Hindman figured that they would be worn out. So instead of turning west with Van Buren Road, Hindmand would move north on Cove Creek Road to Prairie Grove, a few miles above Blunt’s position. There, he would destroy Herron’s Federal reinforcements before turning to take Blunt’s defenses at Cane Hill in reverse.
This plan was your typical one-two punch of defeating a divided enemy. The problem was that the enemy wasn’t really all that divided. Hindman and his Confederates would have to move quickly lest Blunt figured it out and either reinforced his reinforcements or fell upon Hindman’s hindquarters. Add to this the fact that the Rebels had only enough ammunition for a day’s worth of fighting.
Just after midnight, the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi left their camps, giving Blunt the slip and pushing towards their new objective. By the first rays of dawn, they were still several miles south of Prairie Grove.
Through the night, as Blunt waited for sunrise, Herron’s reinforcing wing of the Federal Army of the Frontier sped over the Pea Ridge battlefield, down the Wire Road to Fayetteville. Many would march thirty miles in ten to eighteen hours before a rest was called just south of town – several miles north of Prairie Grove.
((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1, p85, 140, 154, 813; Fields of Blood by William L. Shea; General Stand Watie’s Confederate Indians by Frank Cunningham.))