December 1, 1862 (Monday)
Theophilus Holmes had become somewhat hysterical. From his perch in Little Rock, Arkansas, he did his best to command the Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi. In Van Buren, 150 or so miles down the Arkansas River, General Thomas Hindman was preparing the Army of the Trans-Mississippi to storm northward and envelope the isolated wing of the Union Army of the Frontier, under James Blunt.
Though the Confederates outnumbered the Federals, Theophilus Holmes believed the army under his care to be in very poor shape indeed. The day before, he had sent Hindman a telegram admonishing the General that he “must not think of advancing in your present condition.” According to Holmes, if Hindman did, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi would be lost. Either Blunt’s Union troops would advance upon them, which seemed to indicate to Holmes an automatic defeat, or Blunt would escape back into Missouri, which somehow meant that his Rebel army would perish.
Hindman knew that his command wasn’t in the greatest of shape, but it was nowhere near as bad off at Holmes’ lamentations portrayed. And so, on this date, he decided to have a little heart-to-heart with Theophilus Holmes. He entered the telegraph office towards evening and had a full on electric conversation with his superior.
In the exchange, Hindman was every bit as optimistic as Holmes was pessimistic. “With the infantry and artillery alone I can defeat the Union force at Cane Hill,” he boasted. With the plan that he and his division commanders had concocted, in which cavalry would circle around Blunt’s flanks, he “hoped to destroy them.”
Perhaps feeling emboldened, he continued, admonishing his superior in return: “I urge upon you to leave me to my discretion in the matter. I will not trifle with the great interests entrusted to me.”
This wasn’t helping Holmes at all with his panic. “If your army is destroyed or demoralized,” bemoaned Holmes in reply, “ruin to us will follow.”
When Holmes argued that the army should either advance through Indian Territory or not at all, Hindman flatly refused, telling him that the only plan was to “push right up at once and try to regain what has been lost.”
Hindman was being brash, but he was well thought out. He figured that Blunt had to do one of three things. First, Blunt could stay at Cane Hill. If he did that, according to plan, the Rebels would whip him. Second, Blunt could fall back. But if he did, Hindman and his army would be there to keep pushing him farther. Third, the Federals night completely skedaddle. And if they did so, Hindman and his Army of the Trans-Mississippi would simply move north to the Arkansas/Missouri border. Knowing Blunt, Hindman didn’t really consider this a possibility,
No matter what Blunt decided to do, Hindman was absolutely certain that it would be disastrous for the Federals.
Theophilus Holmes was in way over his head. He didn’t agree with anything Hindman was saying, and so suggested that the Army instead move to help defend Vicksburg. Richmond had been trying to drag every available Western unit in the field to save the Mississippi River port from falling to Grant’s coming approach. So far, few were available.
Hindman exploded. “If this is done, Arkansas is lost. Holding Vicksburg won’t save a foot of it.” Clearly, Hindman wasn’t a “big picture” sort of fellow. “Whenever the enemy gets south of the Boston Mountains, and establishes himself,” argued Hindman, “he can press you down to Louisiana or into Texas without difficulty.”
Finally, Theophilus Holmes had enough and relented, sending one final message about this whole mess: “Use your discretion and good luck to you.”
It was as close to permission as Hindman was bound to get. But almost immediately, ominous clouds began to appear. Reports came in that Federal cavalry had gotten south of the Boston Mountains. They captured seventeen Rebels and overran two outposts near Evansville. This fairly bold move forced Hindman to send his cavalry, commanded by John Marmaduke, back into the mountains to stop any further Union forays into the Arkansas River Valley. Secrecy was still important if he was to have a victory.
From Indian Territory to the west came more dark forebodings. The band of troops, including several regiments of Natives, that had been whipped at Old Fort Wayne by Blunt in October were still milling about across the border. Hindman wanted them to move back north and be a presence on the Union right flank. When they heard the sounds of battle on December 6th (the scheduled day of battle), they were to join in.
Douglas Cooper, their commander, replied the next day with the bad news. His force, he said, was weak and probably couldn’t accomplish much. “The Indians are not inclined to venture much alone, they need white support.” Hindman understood, but asked Cooper to send whatever he could. Cooper decided to send Stand Watie and a force of 400 or so to link up with Hindman’s pickets in the Boston Mountains.
By nightfall of this date, the entire Army of the Trans-Mississippi, 12,000-strong, was on the north side of the Arkansas River and ready to move out. So far, Hindman’s secret had been kept. Union General Blunt had no idea that the Rebels seventy-five miles south were preparing to attack. This veil of mystery, which needed to last five more days, would last exactly one.
((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1, p900-902; Fields of Blood by William L. Shea; General Stand Watie’s Confederate Indians by Frank Cunningham.))