November 29, 1862 (Saturday)
News of the previous day’s running battle from Cane Hill traveled quickly. By the morning of this date, John Marmaduke’s after action report was on the desk of General Thomas Hindman, commander of the Confederate forces in Arkansas.
Hindman’s headquarters at Fort Smith were thirty-five miles south of Marmaduke’s new position in the Boston Mountains. The Rebels had been surprised the previous day, but the outcome wasn’t all so bad. Marmaduke believed the Federals, commanded by James Blunt, had been isolated even before they marched thirty miles to attack him at Cane Hill. Now, he thought, they were ripe for the picking.
His 2,000 cavaliers couldn’t make the attack against 5,000 entrenched Yankees, so he pleaded with Hindman to bring up the rest of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi.
In a letter written by candlelight after the battle, Marmaduke urged “celerity and secrecy” to Hindman. Neither friend nor foe must know about this move. And if it all worked out, Hindman could bag Blunt.
It only took a few thoughtful moments for Hindman to jump. Before replying to Marmaduke, he dispatched a regiment of cavalry, along with a wagon of much-needed ammunition. Since Blunt was so isolated, Hindmand stressed secrecy over speed, which he didn’t stress at all, aside from an immediate crossing of the Arkansas River.
“The crossing will be completed to-morrow,” wrote Hindman to Marmaduke, “and the command will move on Monday at daylight. I shall march moderately, not above 12 or 15 miles a day, if it can be helped, so as not to break the men down before the fight commences.” And why not? If Blunt was so alone, what need was there for speed? He asked for a map and description of the best roads to take, and then created a ruse.
“To prevent as far as practicable rumors of the movement getting to the enemy,” he advised, “spread the report that Little Rock is threatened, and I am ordered there. This can be done, I hope, without disheartening your men.” That would, of course, take care of any rumors circulating among Marmaduke’s men, but if word got to Blunt, he would probably doubt that Little Rock was threatened and see through the ploy.
And just how isolated was General Blunt’s command at Cane Hill? The closest unit was fifty-six miles away at the old battlefield of Pea Ridge. It was a lone cavalry regiment made up of Arkansas Unionists. The other wing of the Army of the Frontier was in Springfield, Missouri, about 150 miles away. Blunt’s reckless plunge to Cane Hill had won the day and not much else. There were, however, other days to consider.
While Blunt considered such things (or didn’t), Hindman considered his options. Such a prize could hardly be passed over, but Blunt would not simply surrender. There was going to be a fight, and that was a problem. Ammunition at Fort Smith was in short supply. He had enough for one day of battle and that was it. The battle had to be decisive and quick.
What was neither decisive nor quick was crossing the Arkansas River. He thought that if he started on this date, he could finish it up by the next. But things moved so slowly that it took an extra day. Still, time was on his side, and when the last of his troops made it across, he had already worked out a plan.
The day after the crossing began (that is to say, 150 years ago tomorrow), Hindman met with Marmaduke and his two other division commanders, John Roane and Francis Shoup. The plan divided the already small army into four columns. The main body would attack the Federals from the front, while the second two would envelope the enemy flanks. Lastly, Marmaduke, with his cavalry, would descend upon the Union rear. It simply had to work.
The department commander, headquartered 150 or so miles down the river in Little Rock, wasn’t really convinced any of this was a good idea. General Theophilus Holmes was of two minds. On this date, he was wildly encouraging. “You must save the country if you can,” he penned with more than a dash of hyperbole. On the next day, when the four generals were planning the attack, he had reconsidered.
“You must not think of advancing in your present condition,” warned Holmes. “You would lose your army. The enemy will either advance on you or for want of supplies will be obliged to return to Missouri.”
Though the second letter was little more than panicked ranting, Holmes had a tiny bit of a point. The Army of the Trans-Mississippi wasn’t in the greatest of shape. It was, however, in much better shape than Holmes credited it. True, there was a regiment that was without arms, but that was just something one had to deal with way out in Confederate Arkansas.
While the Army of the Trans-Mississippi gathered across the river at Van Buren, Blunt sent out scouts to see what the Rebels were doing. Soon, he would have his answer.
((Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1, p900; Fields of Blood by William Shea.))