November 23, 1862 (Sunday)
Over a month had passed since the Battle of Old Fort Wayne, just across the Arkansas border, in Indian Territory [modern Oklahoma]. There, Confederates under Douglas Cooper and Stand Watie were thrown back fifty miles to the Arkansas River.
A week or so later, not too far away, another Rebel force, commanded by Thomas Hindman and John Marmaduke, tangled with a different Union force. Seeing they was outnumbered Hindman and Marmaduke cut off the engagement and retreated south to link up with Cooper and Watie at Little Rock.
General Hindman soon after learned that the Federals who had outnumbered him had themselves retreated back to near the Arkansas/Missouri border. His gut instinct was to go after them, to hit them while on the march. But he knew that his force had no business even attempting such a thing, so sorry were their affairs.
Both wings of this ragtag Rebel army wound up in Fort Smith, on the southern banks of the Arkansas River. There, Hindman would do what he could to rebuild his command. Overseeing all of this was Department commander Theophilus Holmes, a man who, by his own admission, wasn’t fit for the post. He was correct. Supplies and rearmament were slow in getting to the troops. Though Hindman asked for a world more than Holmes could deliver (including an entire infantry division), Holmes pretty well blew it.
It was not all his fault, of course. Arkansas wasn’t exactly Northern Virginia. And when 6,000 men in Stonewall Jackson’s command were trodding barefoot through the snow, a handful of blankets for some few troops in Arkansas paled in comparison.
With food and clothing scant to nonexistent, sickness naturally played upon the men. In this, Hindman took a personal interest. Some even called it his hobby. He did everything he could to improve conditions in the hospitals, but there was little that could be done. In one facility, three quarters of the 900 patients were stricken with pneumonia.
In the camps, illness was running wild. Typhoid and acute diarrhea were the most common afflictions. Thousands, in an army that could boast only 15,000, were stricken.
Augmenting the Confederate numbers, though only slightly, was a relative handful of partisan rangers under William Clarke Quantrill, a murderous and violent leader of a murderous and violent command. While more famous Rebels such as John Hunt Morgan had struck fear into the hearts of Unionists in Kentucky, Quantrill made these fears manifest throughout Kansas and Missouri.
The autumn gave Quantrill the idea to join with Hindman’s army. Around 150 of his men linked with General Marmaduke’s Division, acting mostly as scouts, while Quantrill traveled to Richmond in an attempt to go legitimate. He wanted a colonelcy and for his command to be official. He would miss whatever fighting was coming up during the winter months.
And slowly, it was all beginning to come together. While Hindman first asked Holmes to send whatever firearms he could scrape together, by this point in the month, nearly 5,000 brand new British Enfield muskets had arrived at Fort Smith.
As for clothing, most of the men wore whatever they could find. It made for a motley assortment of fashions, colors and patches. It was, by all appearances, a band of armed vagabonds. Along with the Enfields, however, came 7,000 uniforms. And before long, Hindman’s eccentrically clad soldiers bore a strange resemblance to an army.
All that was needed was a name. Holmes badly wanted to call his command the Army of the West. And why not? They were the largest western-most army in the Confederacy. Sure, there was the Army of New Mexico, but they were mostly in Texas and already had a name. However, the “Army of the West” was already taken. General Earl Van Dorn had carried it with him when he left Arkansas.
The War Department in Richmond wanted to cut down on confusion by naming the army after the department in which it operated. This made sense, but the name “Army of the Trans-Mississippi” had no soul behind it and hardly rolled off the tongue. Holmes then suggested using the name Army of Missouri. Department commander, General Holmes, wanting to follow Richmond’s orders, demurred. How could he call it that when Hindman wasn’t even certain that he could lead his men into the state? He promised to re-christen the Army of the Trans-Mississippi as the Army of Missouri whenever Hindman invaded and appeared to be there for good.
Despite the cumbersome name, even morale was improving. With the men well armed and dressed, they seemed ready to earn the moniker Army of Missouri. It was then, however, that President Davis asked Holmes to send 10,000 to Vicksburg. Holmes refused to send a single troop unless specifically ordered to do so. It was Arkansas, and not Mississippi, he argued, that was under threat. Once Arkansas was occupied, Louisiana would soon follow. With Union troops north along the Missouri border and more and more gathering at Helena, along the Mississippi River (all the way across the state), Holmes indeed felt threatened.
Through all of this General Marmaduke took his command from Fort Smith to Cane Hill, some fifty miles north, on a foraging expedition. This little foray, innocent enough, sent ripples through the Union forces along the Missouri border.
The two Federal commands, under Generals James Blunt and John Schofield, had mostly been on picket duty until their department commander, Samuel Curtis heeded Washington’s call for troops along the Mississippi. He decided to send two-thirds of Schofield’s command. They were well en route when Marmaduke took his party to Cane Hill. Fearing the worst, Curtis recalled the troops and soon enough Blunt and Schofield’s Army of the Frontier was again whole (though Schofield had relinquished his command to convalesce in St. Louis).
But Hindman knew only half the story. He learned that the Federals had sent troops east, but didn’t hear that they had moved them back. He also learned that Blunt had not retreated all the way into Missouri. This meant, according to his information, that Blunt was all alone.
He then sent Marmaduke and 2,000 cavalry troopers back to Cane Hill, believing that more forage could be gathered with little threat from Union forces. Along the way, Marmaduke learned that not only was Blunt alone, but that his force was in a deplorable condition and that his camp, twenty miles north of Cane Hill, was mostly undefended. He wrote Hindman, suggesting that the entire Army of the Trans-Mississippi move through the Boston Mountains to fall upon the 8,000 or so weak and weary Yankees under James Blunt.
Unfortunately for Marmaduke and Hindman, who would soon agree with the latter’s plan, Blunt was in a fighting mood. He’d wait a couple of days and then begin to move south with 5,000 men. Marmaduke suspected not a thing.
((Sources: Fields of Blood by William L. Shea; Civil War on the Western Border by Jay Monaghan; Borderland Rebellion by Elmo Ingenthron; The Devil Knows How to Ride by Edward B. Leslie; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 13, p50, 801 (and others here and there).))